This month I am pleased to welcome Lara Statham, the author of the This is Turin blog, as our Guest Author. Lara is a freelance writer and journalist in Turin where she has lived and worked for the past 15 years.
As she says, “Everyone knows Florence, Rome and Venice but not many people know about the real Turin…”
This is Lara’s ‘This Changing City’:
Turin once risked being written out but doesn’t want to risk being written off!
Nobody knows better than the native and non-native residents of Turin, how much this vastly underrated city has changed over the past decade to make itself heard nationally and internationally as a viable tourist destination to rival its more famous Italian tourist destinations such as nearby Milan . These phenomenal changes that altered the beat to which Turin now dances can be traced back to the preparations for one single event that got Turin on the map – the Winter Olympic Games 2006. So, how did this happen and why? Why was Turin largely unheard of abroad prior to the Games and why did Italians from other regions fail to appreciate this jewel? To understand this we need to look back to before the lead up to the Games.
Firstly, prior to when I first arrived here in 1997 information about Turin just simply wasn’t getting out. And if it was, there was very little written in English or to be found in bookshops or newsagents. I had heard somehow that it was strongly associated with the colossal industrial growth courtesy of Fiat and the international achievements of the great Juventus football team. There was also a mention in my 1996 edition of Lonely Planet: Italy, albeit with just seven pages dedicated to Turin’s history and attractions compared to Milan’s meatier 18 page section.
Apart from those seven pages, there was little else to tempt the tourist palate despite the persuasive writing style of the Lonely Planet team. Admittedly it must be taken into consideration that the technological revolution was still in its fledgling stages in 1997. But nevertheless, cultural and general tourist information that seemed to jump out at you from every newspaper and magazine stand in Britain about Milan, Rome, Venice, Florence, Naples and the Lakes Garda and Como, meant that Turin, once the first capital after Italian Unification in 1861 had somehow been reduced to a minor and often overlooked player on the tourist map.
Now in 2012 information about Turin is, of course, much more accessible via the internet with websites and apps such as www.comune.torino.it, and Trip Advisor offering cultural information on art, cinema, books, music, festivals, markets, shopping, theatre…Wikipedia is also useful to get a general overview of some historical and cultural references. It might not be of academic authority but at least it can help to give people some general idea of where they are going and what they might be looking at. Lonely Planet, Time Out and Rough Guides all had city guides on Turin published in the run up to the 2006 Winter Olympics and even though only a small edition of Lonely Planet remains in print there are many more local Turin guides on offer that can be found in local bookshops and at news kiosks dotted around the city centre.
So, where did the Winter Olympics come into all this and what profound effect did it have? Basically, Turin was forced to change and not only reach out internationally but crucially to press the reset button on its provincial, unfriendly and stuffy image within its own borders. So, first the stuffy, austere image had to go… There was going to be no more room for that introspective gloom the Torinesi were so famous for within Italy. The preparations for the Winter Olympics gave Turin the excuse and the cash injection to put those aims into practice and sponsor the publication of those guidebooks. Outward appearance would be tackled first and the rest would fall into place. The proud but slightly grimy baroque buildings of the centre were washed, cleaned, sand blasted and polished to within an inch of their lives to create a gleaming, centrepiece of architectural splendour that makes everyone (including the Milanesi) say ‘wow’, makes tourists want to come back and makes local residents highly proud to live in this city. So, far so good and the news started to flow online and via word-of-mouth.
At the same time huge infrastructural works were put into operation. A new high speed line to Milan, a new road to link the airport to the opposite side of the city running through the city itself, Line 1 of the metro, a new Porta Susa, the requalification of Porta Nuova, Porta Palazzo, and Borgo Dora, Corso Novara, Parco Regio, the Politecnico di Torino, OGR, Spina 3, Dora station, Parco Dora, Lingotto, Largo Orbassano, a face lift at Fiat SpA, modern art installations dotted around the city, Stadio Olimpico, Palazzo Isozaki, Juventus Stadium, and the list goes on and on…
Infrastructural works were taken care of (although some are still works in progress) and the rest fell miraculously into place. The most curious effect though was how all these events combined to induce a complete change of heart by Turin’s residents. It seemed that overnight just after the opening ceremony Turin’s residents underwent a kind of epiphany and forgot that they had been grumbling about their city just a few hours before. I cannot remember a time since when I heard a person complain about living here. Everyone I have spoken to is proud to live here and loves the fact that there is so much to see and do. A light comes into their eyes showing this pride is real and genuine and it has lasted for more than seven years since that day. Long may it last!
Post Olympics Regione di Piemonte and successive mayors of Turin have done wonders to promote this city and encourage that passion to continue, sponsoring event after event over the last seven years. Hardly a weekend passes by without something going on, the first Jazz Festival of Turin being one of the most recent, but also a film festival, local produce markets, concerts, family activities, antique markets, the chocolate festival, the Moscato wine festival, the famous Alpini party, marathon, Giro d’italia etc, etc, etc…
So, for those who still suppose that Turin probably doesn’t have much to offer, you will be pleasantly surprised. Not only has this city undergone a huge infrastructural and psychological overhaul but also the history, the museums and the local attractions themselves cannot be forgotten in the part they play to make this an attractive destination. I will name just a few…The Mole Antonelliana hosts the Museo Nazionale del Cinema and is well worth a visit even just for its vertigo inducing lift up through the dome to a viewing platform above. The trendy gift shop and achingly cool bar for an aperitivo are also a must. Explore the dark side of Turin’s links with black and white magic with the ‘Tour of magic Turin’ run by www.somewhere.it. Founded in 1997 this company organises a variety of interesting and unusual tours for tourists and those in the corporate world looking for team-building activities with a difference. Brush up on your local history with a trip to Gran Madre di Dio and Monte dei Cappuccini. Did you know that the latter was of strategic significance during the first Siege of Turin in 1640? Or that the Museo Nazionale della Montagna Duca degli Abruzzi next door houses an impressive collection of maps and photos collected by Luigi di Savoia, whose penchant for Alpine pursuits led him to take part in the first Italian expedition to K2? The ‘City Sightseeing Torino’ www.city-sightseeing.it allows you to rest tired feet and offers two tours around the city to take in all of the above mentioned plus Parco Valentino, Duomo, Museo dell’Automobile, Lingotto, Officine Grandi Riparazioni, Galleria d’ Arte Moderna and Piazza Solferino where you can stop off for refreshments at Eatly’s new burger bar.
Turin is also very well served with markets selling both local food products, homewares, clothes, accessories and much more. Porta Palazzo is meant to be the biggest in Europe and is the place to go for all well-informed Torinesi and curious tourists. This lively, colourful market place also hosts a second hand market every Sunday and has also been home to a host of other local initiatives including concerts and language courses in Arabic, Chinese, Romanian and Italian. The surrounding area of Quadrilatero is well worth exploring to stumble on bars such as Pastis, Hafa Café and Bicyclette in via Sant’Agostino or the Museo D’Arte Orientale and Museo della Sindone both in via San Domenico. Turin’s most highly revered church La Consolata is breathtaking inside and shouldn’t be missed. An intriguing collection of ex-voto paintings and objects are a touching testimony to the Virgin Mary’s powers of comfort, celebrated every 20 June in a procession.
Of course, Turin has made great strides and change has finally come as a direct result of those efforts but still more work needs to be done. Museo D’Arte Orientale often risks closure despite its wonderful collection and beautiful setting. It doesn’t seem to attract many visitors which is surprising until you realise that being slightly off the beaten track your average tourist wouldn’t have a hope of finding it easily. Better signposting would be good and more leaflets in different languages to tempt visitors. The hard infrastructural and psychological work has been done and information is gradually getting out there but now simple solutions would suffice to help local businesses and public buildings continue to reap the benefits and make sure their pride to be resident in Turin remains intact now and into the future.