Turin's Olympic Moment
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Turin's Olympic Moment

As host of the Olympic Games next month, Italy's reserved northern metropolis is finally opening up. John Seabrook explores a newly vibrant city ready to show off its discreet charms

The 2006 Winter Olympics offers Turin, perhaps the least known of Italy's larger cities, a chance to sell itself to the world. While most places would leap at this opportunity, for Turin it presents a dilemma. The city has long prided itself on understatement. It's associated with Fiat in particular and with industry in general: Italy's Pittsburgh. While other Italian cities freely boast about their art, architecture, and food, the Turinese, if pressed, will admit with quiet pride that they work hard and go to bed early. Closer in miles to Geneva than Venice, Turin seems nearer in spirit to Calvin than Casanova. It is characteristic of the city that its most famous object, the Holy Shroud, won't be on view again until 2025.

In fact, there is a great deal more to Turin than the staid, gray image it presents. It is the center of Italian contemporary art; it has some of the best, and certainly the most innovative, cooking in Italy; the beauty of its surrounding hills and valleys rivals Tuscany's; it is richly multicultural, with one of the largest Muslim populations of any Italian city; and it has a long tradition of attracting religious freethinkers, political radicals, artists, and writers. But none of that is immediately apparent, because in Turin there is a profound tension between creativity and the unusual on the one hand, and bourgeois normalcy on the other. That duality is a part of the city's most famous architectural feature, its arcades—those elegant covered passageways that line Via Roma, the main shopping street, and link the central square, Piazza Castello, to the Po River. These arcades are, of course, public spaces; they coax you outdoors even in bad weather, and their Baroque architecture imparts a sense of pomp to the most casual passeggiata. But being covered, they also conceal when you don't want to be seen, and make you feel vaguely furtive. They lend a graceful perspective to almost every view, but they also impart melancholy and foreboding, a mood beautifully captured in Giorgio De Chirico's Turin paintings.

So how will this famously reserved city play to the thousands who are expected to attend the Olympics—and the millions more who will watch on television?The city's taxi drivers have been offered free courses in English and hospitality, and shopkeepers have the glazed look of people who have been reprogrammed to be friendly but haven't quite got the hang of it yet. Some of the city's more prominent boosters are worried that Turin will shun its moment in prime time. One is Giorgetto Giugiaro, whose classic industrial designs range from Canon cameras to the VW Golf. "Turin is a modest city intent on doing things," he told me when I went to see him at his studios in the suburb of Moncalieri. "If the villas we have in La Collina"—the leafy hills where the city's wealthiest families live—"were in Milan, people would call them the Beverly Hills of Europe. But our problem is that we are not able to talk about what we have." Giugiaro told me about a friend who owns two Rolls-Royces but won't take them out, for fear of showing off. "So he drives around town in an ordinary car and leaves his Rolls in the garage." The city's Versace store had to close because locals wouldn't be caught dead in such ostentatious clothes, and Hermès has to stock plain white paper shopping bags so patrons can carry its understated luxury home without risking any fashion statements along the way.

Seen by plane from several thousand feet, the snowy Alps around Turin look beautiful, and the mountains at Sestriere and San Sicario, where many of the Olympic Alpine events will take place, are easy to spot. You can also trace the flow of the fertile grape-growing valleys of the Piedmont—Val di Susa, Val Pellice, and Val Chisone—and try to imagine Hannibal and his 37 elephants making their way out of the mountains, in 218 b.c., and appearing at Taurasia, which is the name the Celts gave to the first settlement on the site of Turin. (Hannibal razed it.) But down on the ground, the fog closes in, and the mountains are invisible in the mist.

"What pavements!" I thought, strolling along Via Po one afternoon. This was the exclamation that Friedrich Nietzsche put in a letter to a friend, shortly after arriving in Turin, in 1888. He loved Turin for the rational, orderly plan of its streets, and there he produced two of his best books, Ecce Homo and Twilight of the Idols. But by the end of a year there, Nietzsche was barking mad; he spent the last years of his life saying little except the word elegant over and over again.

Turin's center is a grid of straight lines, and much of its architecture, although created over a period of about 200 years, appears to be the work of a single sensibility. An outstanding example of this uniformity of taste is the western façade of the Piazza Castello, the city's main square, where every evening during the Olympics the day's medals will be awarded. Guarino Guarini's church of San Lorenzo, begun in 1668, and Filippo Juvarra's 1718 Palazzo Madama harmonize with each other so beautifully that the eye reads the whole honey-colored face as a single unit. The effect is completely unlike that of the streets in Rome, say, where clashing architectural styles and languages representing different periods and sensibilities and intents jumble together chaotically.

Behind Piazza Castello there is a Roman gate, one of the few remains of the town that Augustus established here in 28 b.c. This settlement, a square castrum, or camp, was surrounded by 20-foot-high walls and withstood all invaders until the end of the empire, when first the Lombards and then the Franks sacked the city and pulled down most of what Rome had built. Around the ancient gate is Porta Palazzo's market, said to be the largest open-air market in Europe.

Turin remained essentially a provincial city until it was retaken from the French by the house of Savoy in the 16th century. In 1559 Duke Emanuele Filiberto made Turin the capital of his state, which stretched north over the Alps to Geneva. Successive rulers added buildings; many were designed by Guarini, Juvarra, and the third great architect of Baroque Turin, Bernardo Vittone. The whole palace complex is one of the great examples of the humanist belief that man's irrational nature can be tamed by design. Indeed, the city's personality does seem to be hardwired into its urban plan, just as its imperial creators intended it to be.

And yet you only have to look up in the Piazza Castello to see one of the oddest, most impractical pieces of architecture in the world. This is the Mole Antonelliana (mole means "heap"), an Art Nouveau folly that rises from Turin's grand humanist plan like a wild asparagus stalk in a formal flower garden. The Mole consists of a square base, on top of which sits a Greek temple, itself topped with a giant spire. Completed in 1889, it was at the time the tallest brick structure in Europe. Originally commissioned as a synagogue to celebrate the emancipation of non-Catholic religions under Victor Emmanuel II, the Mole eventually grew too expensive for its patrons and was purchased by the state. In 2000 it became the National Museum of Cinema, in honor of Turin's role in the founding of the Italian film industry.

The museum is wonderful. There is a fine collection of 19th-century moving-image technology: shadow puppets, zoetropes, and other kinds of ocular trickery. In the vast main room you can watch a changing roster of films from red velvet sofas. Exhibits are organized by genre: horror, absurdism, love, animation. In the absurdist room the seats are toilets, in homage to the Buñuel film The Phantom of Liberty. You can't ascend all the way up the Mole (the spire's top blew off in a tornado in 1953), but you can take a glass elevator through its center to a round balcony just below the spire, and from there get one of the best views of the city.

Alice Mattirola, a clever and pretty Turinese hostess, invited me to meet her at the Hafa Café, in the Quadrilatero Romano, or Roman Quarter, the center of the city's nightlife. Here, where the streets are older and narrower, Turin feels more like other Italian cities. Standing in the Piazza Castello, it is hard to fathom that Turin has a dark side. But walk the old Roman streets at night, when the mist rises and the city falls silent, or go out to the Docks Dora area, where blocks of industrial development have been pulled down and nightclubs flourish in ruined factories, and you may feel a shiver. According to occultists, Turin is one of three cities that make up the "triangle" of black magic (London and San Francisco are the others), as well as that of white magic (along with Lyons and Prague). I took the Magic Turin Tour, a nighttime excursion around white- and black-magic sites, and I must confess that by the end I didn't understand the triangle concept any better, although I now know it has something to do with the 45th parallel, lines of energy, and the fact that the city's two rivers, the Po and the Dora, are masculine and feminine, respectively.

The Hafa Café is a hip, snug place for aperitifs, an elaborate ritual in Turin: canapés are set out in immense quantities, and for the price of a cocktail you can eat as much as you like. Mattirola had spent the afternoon looking at modern and contemporary art, in which Turin is rich. There is the museum in Castello di Rivoli, about 45 minutes outside the city, where modern pieces such as Charles Ray's Revolution Counter-Revolution are on view in a medieval setting. There's the new contemporary art ­museum, Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, a former industrial space that is evolving into Turin's version of the Tate Modern. And there are many galleries: that day, I had visited Giorgio Persano and found the contemporary dealer's place had been given over to a show by Nicola de Maria, who has an apartment next door and so had been able to paint not just canvases but also the walls and ceilings of the gallery itself. During the winter months, there are more than a dozen outdoor light sculptures and installations around the city, created by the artists Jenny Holzer and Joseph Kosuth, among others.

Over sweet vermouth (vermouth is believed to have been invented in Turin, by Antonio Benedetto Carpano for his café on Via Roma, in 1786), Mattirola and I talked about why this city, with its famous reserve, manages to surpass all other Italian cities in contemporary art. One reason, she thought,is that Turin doesn't invest as much energy in glorifying the art of the past.

"You see, there are really two kinds of people here," she said. "There are the stuffy, older Turinese, who don't want anything about their beloved city to change, and there are the younger, progressive Turinese, who want to live in the city of the future. When I have dinner parties," she went on, "I try to invite people from both worlds and begin the evening by giving everyone a very strong caipirinha. Then I watch the sparks fly."

After our conversation, I began to see that division everywhere. It was there in the city's two soccer teams: the old guard supports Torino, which used to be great; the new one supports Juventus FC. White magic and black magic, Baroque and Art Nouveau. The dualism is even present in the city's two best known younger faces: the Elkann boys, grandchildren of Gianni Agnelli, upon whose shoulders rests the future of Fiat. John, the older brother, is the quiet and serious manager; Lapo is the chatty and camera-friendly marketer.

Turin has reinvented itself several times over the past 500 years. After three centuries as the ruling seat of the house of Savoy, in 1861 it was made the capital of the new Italian Republic. After the capital was moved, in 1870, Turin became an industrial center. Fiat is only the most famous of the many manufacturing firms that grew up in and around the city. The country's radio, television, and film industries also began here.

Now, with the coming of the Olympics, Turin's urbanisti are talking about transforming the city again. The mayor, Sergio Chiamparino, told me, "We are becoming a capital of health services, like Lyons, in France, and also of communications technology, and we are trying to increase the tourist sector." Vast changes in the city's infrastructure are under way, including underground parking beneath Piazza San Carlo, a metro, and high-speed rail links to Milan and Lyons, the latter route going under the Alps through the longest rail tunnel ever built.

Even the old Turinese acknowledge that the city must change. The decline of Fiat is not only an economic crisis but also a crisis of style for all of Italy. The memory of that prince of Italian style, Gianni Agnelli, haunts the city (he died in 2003), and Fiat, despite its current troubles, still evokes Italy's postwar industrial glamour. Lapo Elkann is now trying to capitalize on that image with Fiat-branded clothes and sneakers and the splashy reintroduction of an updated Punto, a Fiat classic. (The public's confidence in Lapo was shaken this past fall, when he was taken ill in the apartment of a transsexual named Patrizia, and rushed to the hospital in respiratory distress brought on by a cocktail of cocaine and other drugs.) But like many Italian companies, Fiat seems to be on the wrong side of globalization, stuck with a large, expensive workforce in Turin while its competitors make cars cheaply in Shanghai.

The template for Turin's transformation should be the former Fiat factory, an 800,000-square-foot masterpiece of Modernism built in the 1920's by Giacomo Trucco that has been repurposed by Renzo Piano. It is located in the Lingotto section of the city, where the media village will be during the Olympics. The structure now holds two Le Meridien hotels, the Pina­coteca Giovannie Marella Agnelli (displaying masterpieces from the Agnelli collection, including works by Matisse, Modigliani, and Manet), an upscale mall, offices, a vast convention center (where the Slow Food Festival takes place every other year), and, on the ground floor, a botanical garden. Piano left the exterior of the factory intact: its industrial grid of giant windows, themselves gridded into smaller panes, seems a modern extension of the Savoy rulers' plan for the city center. The old test track is still on the roof: Michael Caine drove a Mini Cooper around it in the original version of The Italian Job. (Le Meridien guests can now jog on it.)

Of course, Athens famously built a new subway system and stadium for the 2004 Summer Olympics, spending $10 billion on the Games, and in the end many Greeks came to believe the cost wasn't worth it. But the Winter Olympics are much less expensive, and for the most part take place within smaller spaces, many of which the city did not have to specially build. The figure-skating venue will be the 1961 Eero Saarinen–esque exhibition center. The Palasport Olimpico, an ice-hockey arena, will be housed in a multiuse structure. Turin's old Municipal Stadium, erected in 1933 under Mussolini, will be the site of the opening and closing ceremonies. True to the city's work ethic, everything is ahead of schedule.

The deputy president of Turin's Olympic organizing committee, Evelina Christillin, says that the only serious obstacle in planning these Olympics was a lack of sponsorship money from Italian companies. The reason, Christillin says, is that "there is too much soccer in Italy. It is impossible to get people interested in supporting other sports." The country's economic problems are another reason; Italian companies don't have much money to throw around. In November, only 500,000 tickets to Olympic events had been sold, and the organizing committee was still looking for 100 million euros to close its budget gaps.

At the time I discovered Turin, I had been living in Rome for a year and was getting tired of the Romans' fondness for eating the same eight or so dishes over and over again. In Turin, the approach to eating is exactly the opposite. Every meal is different, even at the same restaurant. Among the great local dishes are bagna cauda, raw vegetables served with a hot dipping sauce of olive oil, garlic, and anchovies; the local favorite, bollito misto, mixed boiled meats; fantastically tender gnocchi with duck ragout; and risotto al Barolo, made with the great local wine. Whoever said that Italian cooking was really just warming up good ingredients wasn't thinking of Turin. The best meal I had was at Barrique, a formal restaurant with striped wall coverings of taupe and cream. There I ate a terrine made of almost raw veal and chopped vegetables with an egg sauce, followed by sautéed shrimp served with a small round croquette of whitefish stuffed with broccoli, and then an unbelievably tasty rabbit—plump and with perfectly crisp skin.

Yet the food I retain the most vivid impression of came not from one of the city's gastronomic temples, but rather from a white plastic bucket. The bucket was stashed inside Roberto Pierro's kitchen at Tre Galli, a casual, sunlit place where the waitresses are beautiful and you often see politicians and journalists eating lunch. Inside the bucket, wrapped in damp bits of paper towel, was Pierro's supply of white truffles, a bounty of the Piedmont region. Roberto brought the bucket to the table, picked out a fat truffle, weighed it on his pocket scale, shaved slices onto undressed pasta with his truffle shaver, and then weighed the truffle again to determine how much to charge. These truffles are the rarest, most wonderful delicacy, and once you've got the scent in your nose it stays with you all the time you're in Turin.

On my last afternoon, I went to Al Bicerin, the café where Count Cavour and Giu- seppe Mazzini whispered their schemes to unite Italy. The café's eponymous drink has three layers: coffee on the bottom, dark chocolate above it, and sweet, frothy milk on top. You don't stir it, because the taste is in the layers. I would say the same thing about Turin. It's a city of separate parts, but it has more flavor that way. You move from the superficial pleasures of its surface to the darker, more complex layer below, until finally you strike the fuel that sends you back through the misty streets, to work.

When this issue went to press, the International Olympic Committee expected event tickets for the games (February 10–26) to be available in January (www.torino2006.org).

Where to Stay

Golden Palace
Central Turin's first true five-star hotel is scheduled to open this month.
Doubles from $252
18 Via dell'Arcivescovado; 39-011/551-2111

Grand Hotel Sitea
For years the city's top traditional grand hotel.
Doubles from $186
35 Via Carlo Alberto; 39-011/517-0171

Le Meridien Art + Tech
The newer of Le Meridien's two hotels at the Fiat complex is striking, if not central.
Doubles from $180
230 Via Nizza; 39-011/664-2000

Victoria Hotel
A pleasant (and very popular) small property.
Doubles from $195
4 Via Nino Costa; 39-011/561-1909

Where to Eat

Local dishes in a cozy setting.
Dinner for two $96
38D Via Accademia Albertina; 39-011/837-064

Dinner for two $120
53a Corso Dante; 39-011/657-900

Del Cambio
Mirrors, frescoes, gilding, and elaborate food.
Dinner for two $132
2 Piazza Carignano; 39-011/546-690

Osteria Antiche Sere
Longtime workmen's hangout serving rustic, delicious meals.
Dinner for two $54
9 Via Cenischia; 39-011/385-4347

Tre Galli
Dinner for two $96
25 Via Sant'Agostino; 39-011/521-6027

Tre Galline
Excellent tasting menu in a casual setting.
Dinner for two $84
37 Via Bellezia; 39-011/436-6553

Where to Drink

Turin has many famous old cafés where you can have a coffee or aperitif in style. Among the best are Al Bicerin (5 Piazza della Consolata), Café Flora (24 Piazza Vittorio Veneto), Caffè San Carlo (156 Piazza San Carlo), and Caffè Torino (204 Piazza San Carlo).

Hafa Café
Cooler in spirit than the city's traditional cafés.
23C Via Sant'Agostino; 39-011/436-7091

What to Do

Basilica di Superga
For a great view of the city, take the old funicular railway to this church.
73 Strada della Basilica di Superga; 39-011/899-7456

Castello di Rivoli
Piazza Mafalda di Savoia; 39-011/956-5222

Duomo di San Giovanni Battista
Home of the Shroud of Turin.
Piazza San Giovanni; 39-011/436-1540

Egyptian Museum
The best antiquities collection outside Cairo.
Via Accademia delle Scienze; 39-011/561-7776

Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo
16 Via Modane, San Paolo Quarter; 39-011/379-7600

Galleria Sabauda Houses most of the Savoys' collection of paintings.
6 Via Accademia delle Scienze; 39-011/547-440

Giorgio Persano
9 Piazza Vittorio Veneto; 39-011/835-527

National Museum of Cinema
20 Via Montebello; 39-011/812-5658

Porta Palazzo Market
Open weekday mornings and all day Saturday.
Piazza della Repubblica

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