Overworked and underappreciated, Turin is one of Italy's best-kept secrets

"Turin is terrible," said my friend Remo Guidieri, a writer and an anthropologist, of his native town. "Don't go there." He himself moved to Paris—the city on which Turin was, after all, modeled. But Remo might not have his delicious contempt for cutus—bigots and bureaucrats—if he hadn't been raised in a quiet, fog-ridden, somewhat provincial place. And where else could his father, Censin, have gathered all his anarchic furor?

A border city, a magnet for intellectuals, and the car capital of Italy, Turin has always been a place of political ferment. But people planning a coup, making money, or writing a treatise cannot do without their caffeine. That's why Turin has so many cafés, a few hundred of them: in a diligent city an innocent pastime is gratefully accepted. It was in one of those very cafés, the Fiorio on Via Po, that the unification of Italy was plotted by Count Cavour. One of his lovers—he never married—rescued him from a deep depression and had she not done so Italy might have remained divided into a sprinkling of dukedoms and kingdoms.

At Bicerin, my first and favorite café in Turin, a red runner lay on a parquet floor between round marble tables. Those who came in could be admired as though they were on a catwalk. Two women resembling the British actresses Sybil Thorndike and Margaret Rutherford—stocky, strong-jowled and somewhat masculine, wearing no makeup and with their hair chopped just before it could twist or curl—modeled ancient gray Persian lamb coats and wool berets with large bobbing pompons. The glass-and-iron door had an idiosyncratic latch that sprang open as soon as your back was turned. A provocative sign, written in blue Bic on graph paper, urged in Italian, PLEASE SHUT THE DOOR. But only the manager seemed to know how to click it into submission.

I went to Bicerin with Marila Gennaro, a biologist from Sicily who now lives in New York. There is an honorable history of Sicilians in Turin—among them, the architect Filippo Juvarra, who designed some of the city's most elegant Baroque churches and palaces, and many of the laborers at Fiat's automotive plants. As we sipped our cappuccinos, we took turns getting up to shut the door, continuing our conversation all the while. We must have looked like distracted footmen.

No one else had ordered a cappuccino: most people had before them an espresso or something that resembled Irish coffee. I studied the menu and came across an item called bicerin, like the café. We decided to try one. It consisted of coffee, bittersweet chocolate, and, allegedly, a touch of arsenic, all topped with heavy cream. The waitress explained proudly that the chocolate was simmered for four hours in the kitchen at the back of the café: from our table we saw part of an immense fireplace tiled in blue and white majolica. She added that Bicerin had existed since the 1600's on Piazza della Consolata and that noblewomen attending mass at the church across the square once came here with their maids to break their fast after taking communion. We extolled the virtues of fasting, even if it was a distant memory for all of us.

Following the Italian tradition of talking about food as often as possible—and especially while eating—Marila described a dinner, some nights before, that began with poached eggs and truffles; continued with snails in parsley, oil, and garlic; then went on to raw vegetables dipped in hot oil and anchovies (a famous local dish called bagna cauda), followed by oxtail stewed in Barolo wine and served with a touch of polenta. She had refused the zabaglione, demonstrating how she had learned to shake her head resolutely, saying no firmly to ward off another course.

Any visitor to Turin must be equipped with this mechanism. Then again, indigestion is one explanation for the numerous UFO sightings in the area. In occult circles, Turin is considered one of a triangle of esoteric cities, with Lyons and Prague. In modern terms, Turin qualifies as Italy's New Age capital. Classifieds in the weekly supplement to La Stampa, the leading daily, offer courses in Biodance, Positive Thinking, Bioenergetics, and Numerology. Psychics abound, too—some say it's because of emanations from mummies at the Egyptian Museum, a collection of pharaohs ranking only behind those in Cairo and London. A history of bizarre facts on Turin states that in November 1963, a local woman anticipated John F. Kennedy's assassination and wrote a letter to the White House. She was, needless to say, ignored.

The city's mystical prize is the Shroud, believed to be the piece of cloth that enveloped the body of Christ for three days after he was taken down from the cross. This frail remnant of fabric is what attracts most of Turin's visitors, though carbon dating indicates it may be only 700 years old. Part of the chapel where it was kept has recently burned down; that it survived the fire as well as the centuries has only added to the Shroud's allure.

Conservative is too conservative a word to describe how conservative Turin can be, but in no other Italian city will you see such well-preserved storefronts of the 1700's and 1800's. The many porticoed streets were devised so that Vittorio Emanuele II, the first king of unified Italy, would never have to get wet when walking to see one of his many mistresses. The greatest set of porticoes, along the Via Po, are tall, white, and austere. (The Italian surrealist Giorgio De Chirico had them in mind when he painted vast deserted squares surrounded by white arches.) You walk beneath vaulted passages with glimpses of the street on one side and, on the other, shops and the ever-beckoning cafés, into which you can withdraw from your life and from the weather. How pretty red velvet looks to one coming in from the gray of a wintry day.

Much of the city is under restoration; now that Turin's industrial status is fading, as much of Fiat's production shifts to Latin America, Turin may finally be appreciated as the most European of European cities and the least known. I visited the hunting lodge of Stupinigi, designed by Juvarra, and his Venaria Reale, with its unforgettable Diana's Gallery, a long hall where light floods in through tall arched windows, blurring the distinction between air and masonry. I was guided through it by a volunteer who was proud of the conservation work being done and turned the lights on in each successive hall as we entered it, and off when we left it. The floor is a polished black-and-white marble chessboard. As for the vaulted brick halls that once housed the stables, they are so grandly austere it's easy to see why Milan and its fashion creatures, only an hour and a half away, are discovering Turin as a new place in which to hold their receptions and fashion shows.

After hours of walking on chilly marble floors, with my head tilted up to admire the charming convolutions of the Baroque, I repaired to Mulassano, an Art Nouveau café lined with mirrors and cherry paneling. It's a square room with high ceilings, and it feels like a salon. The hot chocolate is particularly thick but easy to drink. Because it's just barely sweetened, hot chocolate in Turin is not cloying. I thought about a story Gianni Riotta, Marila's husband, had told me. A few years ago, Gianni Agnelli, the president of Fiat, apparently took Mikhail Gorbachev to lunch at the Circolo del Whist, a club in Piazza Castello, and one of the members was heard to sputter angrily, "That I should have lived to see a Communist at the Whist Club!"

The Agnellis themselves were initially blackballed by that venerable institution, but Gianni Agnelli is the most popular of Turin's exports; Italy's tabloids can't get enough of him. One famous grainy paparazzo shot of him—jumping naked off his yacht—reappears every summer. It is as though, having ousted the Savoys, the Italians have put Agnelli in their place. They love him, love the way he wears his watch over his shirt cuff, love his soccer teams and his swan-necked wife, Marella, but mostly they love his blue eyes and handsome, always tanned, now very lined, face. It doesn't hurt that Agnelli owns the paper you read and the mineral water you drink, and that he's in the air you breathe (thanks to all that Fiat exhaust).

If it's true that a society is saved by the saint that contradicts it most, as G. K. Chesterton once said, Turin has a number of "saints" who redeem the city from its reputation as a place that is merely profitable. One is Alessandro Antonelli, an architect dismissed as a madman in his own lifetime. If you look at Turin's well-ordered streets and porticoes, all is harmony and rationality, but then you'll be knocked off-balance by the Mole Antonelliana, a vast structure commissioned as a synagogue by the Jewish community in 1863. The Mole is a Neoclassical temple with an immense cupola and a tall, thin spire. Antonelli supervised its construction for more than two decades; toward the end of his life, in his eighties, he had to be hoisted up to the cupola by crane as he sat in a small armchair that swung with the wind. He died without seeing the temple completed. After years of extravagant expenditure and no end in sight, his clients gave up and handed the white elephant over to the city. It is now being turned into a museum of cinema.

Another eccentric architect, a Modernist named Carlo Mollino who came along in the fifties, designed the city's main theater, the Teatro Regio. Mollino is better known, however, for his furniture, such as the chair whose seat is split into two halves reminiscent of a pair of buttocks. Bodies were a keen interest of Mollino's. In his spare time, he invited prostitutes to pose partly naked. Some 30 years later, Mollino's sexy Polaroids are cropping up at flea markets the world over.

Turin doesn't have the grandeur of Rome, the exoticism of Venice, or even the exuberance of Florence. But it is a city whose climate encourages one to develop one's own resources, be they artistic or political. Its architecture is never so opulent as to demand attention, its surroundings never so idyllic — or even visible, given the fog — as to be distracting. It is easy to see why, of all Italian cities, Turin has produced the most writers and artists in our time. I don't think it was ever meant as a place for amusement or delectation, or even for outsiders to admire, but as one in which to work, invent, study, design, write, paint, ponder . . . then have a cup of coffee and begin again.

Turin is probably best seen through the fog and damp of winter (indeed, the 2006 Winter Olympics will be held there); it is a city of interiors, from the intimate cafés to the palatial Baroque residences. You can fly to Turin from any European city or take a train from Milan.

The family-owned Hotel Victoria (4 Via Nino Costa; 39-011/561-1909, fax 39-011/561-1806; doubles from $135) is quiet and comfortable, but serves only breakfast. For more meal options, stay at the Turin Palace Hotel (8 Via Sacchi; 39-011/562-5511, fax 39-011/561-2187; doubles from $241) or the Jolly Hotel Principi di Piemonte (15 Via Piero Gobetti; 800/221-2626 or 39-011/562-9693; fax 39-011/562-0270; doubles from $240).

Most serve sandwiches and salads (a real alternative to a full Piedmontese meal). The habitués at Al Bicerin (5 Piazza della Consolata; 39-011/436-9325) are charming, and the bicerin--chocolate and coffee topped with cream--is delicious. For red-brocaded splendor, go to Fiorio (8 Via Po; 39-011/817-3225), where the Italian republic was dreamed up, or Caffé Torino (204 Piazza San Carlo; 39-011/545-118), which overlooks what is considered Turin's most royal square. Baratti & Milano (27 Piazza Castello; 39-011/561-3060) is equally dramatic, with a setting of mirrors, chandeliers, and carved wood. Others to consider: Caffé San Carlo(156 Piazza San Carlo; 39-011/537-452) and Mulassano (15 Piazza Castello; 39-011/547-990).

Stratta (191 Piazza San Carlo; 39-011/547-920) is one of the city's oldest confectionery stores. Try the marrons glacés. Also worth a visit, for its decadent chocolates: A. Giordano (69 Piazza Carlo Felice; 39-011/547-121).

Turin's classics are unbeatable for old-fashioned, velveted, stuccoed grandeur. Fast before you go to Ristorante del Cambio (2 Piazza Carignano; 39-011/546-690; lunch for two $55), Count Cavour's favorite. At Balbo (11 Via Andrea Doria; 39-011/839-5775; dinner for two $112; closed Mondays), try the truffle agnolotti (the Piedmontese version of ravioli), or the artichoke salad with steamed shrimp. Le Tre Galline (37 Via Bellezia; 39-011/436-6553; dinner for two $65) serves specialties such as bagna cauda (anchovy-garlic dip with vegetables) and tomino elettrico (cheese marinated in oil and spicy chili peppers).

Twenty years ago there was one Chinese restaurant; now there are more than 100, and perhaps as many Moroccan and Lebanese ones. The diversity is a reflection of recent waves of immigrants, and brings a welcome respite from Piedmont's French taste for cream. Hafa (23C Via Sant'Agostino; 39-011/436-0617; lunch for two $17) is one of the newest, a Moroccan café and boutique in an artists' neighborhood near Porto Palazzo.

The mammoth Mole Antonelliana (Via Montebello; 39-011/8170-4325) dominates Turin's skyline with its eccentric bulk. Designed originally as a synagogue, it's being converted into a national museum of cinema.

The vintage cars at the Museo dell'Automobile (40 Corso UnitÀ d'Italia; 39-011/677-6666) include Gloria Swanson's Isotta Fraschini from Sunset Boulevard.At the Balon flea market, held Saturday mornings on Piazza della Repubblica, you'll find furniture and clothes, from trash to treasure.

On the way to the royal hunting lodge of Stupinigi (7 Piazza Principe Amedeo; 39-011/358-1220), eight miles southwest of the city, are Fiat's interminable plants, a remarkable contrast to Juvarra's lavish Baroque architecture. Another royal residence, the Reggia di Venaria Reale (4 Piazza della Repubblica, Venaria Reale; 39-011/562-3530), eight miles northwest of Turin, is open during its restoration. Don't miss the breathtaking Diana's Gallery. A 17th-century residence of the Savoys, Castello di Rivoli (Piazza Masalda di Savoia, Rivoli; 39-011/956-5222), 10 miles to the north, now houses site-specific contemporary art.