Friday, 25 September 2015

Beautiful Turin

When the nice people at Channel 4 sorted out our flights to Turin, they couldn't get us back today so asked if we'd mind staying two nights in the city. We thought long and hard... For two seconds... Before saying yes as cooly as we could!

So here we are in Turin for a second day, and I can tell you, in complete contrast to my appraisal of the place yesterday, it's a very beautiful city.

We had breakfast in the hotel and were out and about by about ten. Turin is an easy city to navigate because it's built entirely on a strict grid pattern. This came as something of a surprise. Ancient cities are not often built on straight lines.

Just as in Manhattan, where there's always a sense of the world outside the city, the grid pattern here means that from every street you can see out into the countryside, which, more often than not, means that you turn a corner and end up staring at the craggy, snow-covered Alps. From our hotel window this morning we could see a steep hillside, far beyond the city, with a Sound of Music-style church clinging to it. Wisps of smoke-like mist were rising from the trees. It was a breathtaking scene.

Although it's been beautifully warm today, Turin plainly doesn't get as baked by the sun as other places in Italy that I've visited. It is very green. I guess it has a climate similar to Switzerland, so I'm not sure why I should be that surprised.

We made our way slowly towards the city centre, stopping briefly at the square in front of the Verdi Conservatorio. From a spot by a fountain we could hear the musicians furiously practising scales.

The city is full of little oval signposts which tell you a little bit of history about the place where you're standing, so we've both become rather knowledgeable about the place.

Our first destination was Le Temple du Cinema at Mole Antonelliana, which is Turin's most iconic building. When it was built in the late 19th Century (as a synagogue, although it was never used as one) it was the tallest brick structure in the world. It soars into the sky like a cross between a wedding cake and a gaudy radio mast.

You can take a panoramic lift up to a viewing platform about half way up the building. It's a vertigo-inducing experience because the lift is entirely glass and doesn't appear to be fixed within any discernible shaft. It merely drags you up to the top of an enormous domed-roofed room and then up through the ceiling into the open air. The views, as you might expect, are awesome. You can see the whole of the city, across a giant river and out to the mountains. Dare to peer straight down and you're rewarded by the sight of parked cars lined up below like little matchboxes and restaurant tables on the streets seemingly no larger than drawing pins.

We came down again in a crowded lift, which meant we were forced to stand with our faces squashed against the glass of the door. My eyes were closed throughout!

From Mole Antonelliana, we went to the Palazzo Madama, where the building's Roman foundations were on display underneath a glass floor. In a city like this, digging downwards is tantamount to peeling back the layers of an ancient onion. Cutting into the Roman brickwork was a Medieval underground spiral staircase. Fascinating.

As we exited the building, churches across the city were chiming one o'clock in seemingly ever-more elaborate ways. I have fundamental issues with Catholicism, if for no other reason than its grip on this country is the reason why my own marriage is not valid in any way here, but the chiming of Catholic bells in these parts is a wonderful and deeply evocative sound.

We stumbled off the tourist path and into a huge fruit market, which was filled with hundreds of shambolic stalls laden with the most delicious-looking colourful local produce. The smells of lemons, olives and mint were overwhelming.

We had a Caprese salad for lunch, "the best Caprese," declared Nathan, in the style of Pepys, that "he'd ever had." The tomatoes were exquisite. Every time I eat a tomato in Italy, Greece or Spain, I'm reminded how terrible the tomatoes we eat in Britain are. I felt as though I were eating the summer. We sat eating in a piazza and were accompanied at one stage by an old gent with a portable karaoke machine who murdered Delilah and Wonderful Life by Black. Strange choice, I thought...

We walked around for another few hours, sipping granitas from plastic cups, allowing ourselves to drift wherever our legs took us, towards any building, monument, grand courtyard or plaza which took our fancy.

We had to work for a few hours in the afternoon. We didn't have to, we made ourselves to keep on top of things. Although, truth be told, sitting in a cafe, underneath a portico sipping tea in the early Autumn sunshine whilst writing music is almost more fun than listlessly strolling around a beautiful Italian city.

We came out again this evening and walked the streets once more, crossing over one of the rivers and finding ourselves in a little residential area of Turin, where we shared a delicious pizza and an arancino in a tiny place called Cinepizza. It was a punt which paid off. The food was delicious and when the bill arrived, we were staggered that we only had to pay twelve euros.

The white elephant in Turin's enormously beautiful room is the fact that all the drivers here are terrible. They swerve, beep their horns, drive at erratic speeds and generally make everyone (well me at least) feel incredibly uncomfortable!

Still, the pace of life here otherwise is a wonderful one. At 10pm, the streets were full of people happily milling about with their children. It's a proper promenading culture and it all feels so safe. No one was drunk. No one was yelling and screaming. Everyone was merely drifting, happily window shopping, going to theatres, watching street musicians or simply being. Old, young... The other curious aspect is that there's no loud music. People sit outside the bars and cafes and talk. The Via Po buzzes with cafes and bars. In one of the little courtyards behind the porticos, a modern science fair was going on. Little kids were sitting in circles being read to, and several stalls had been set up to demonstrate all sorts of curious tricks with magnets and computers.

In another courtyard, a series of mini Eden-project-shaped pods had been set up; each one was a mini-lecture theatre and all the chairs and tables within were made of cardboard.

We had delicious, smooth ice cream from a gelateria whilst marvelling at the astonishing architecture in the town. Outside the Egyptian Museum, two enormous fibre glass statues of the goddess Sekhmet stand proud. In London they would have been pissed on, broken up, graffitied or stolen. Here, people respect them.

Nathan summed up both of our thoughts when he said, "I could never leave London for a place like this. But I wish London were more like this."

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