Sunday, June 19, 2016

Next Stop, Turin

We left Milan, the capital of Lombardy, one of the richest areas in Italy and in Europe, quite excited to reach our next destination. One sixth of Italy’s population calls Lombardy home where 10 million people produce one fifth of Italy’s GDP. We were headed west to Turin, the capital of Piedmont. On this beautiful sunny day, during the three-hour drive on the autostrada, we passed by snow-capped mountains in the distance and luscious green vineyards reaching almost to the road.  Dave flew on the Autostrada in excess of 100 mph, testing his fun BMW rental. We stopped for pictures at the foot of the snow-capped Alps by a fenceless vineyard.

Italians do not build fences to surround their larger agricultural fields. olive orchards, and vineyards but they love tall fences to shelter their country homes and heavy gates with passo carrabile signs and outside speakerphones to protect their apartments and condos in the city. It is always a good idea to look before you walk on any sidewalk as cars are likely to dash out of these inner courtyards when a gate could open electronically at any moment.  Italians know two speeds, fast and faster, pedestrians are expendable. I learned this the hard way in Milan, on our last evening there. A Mac truck decided to turn using our sidewalk since roads are narrower in the city. The driver did not see me nor did I see him, but my eagle-eyed, ever-vigilant husband saw his intentions and shoved me out of the way, into the street.

Furry inhabitants of an old castle
Photo: Ileana 2016
We drove straight to our three-star hotel we had booked on the outskirts of Turin. We were shocked to find a fleabag multi-storied hotel with beds as hard as the rock of Gibraltar and legs of iron. I could smell the mice and the cockroaches. We lost our prepaid $176 and drove to another hotel, a four-star one. When we asked to see the room, we were shocked at the dirty grey walls and stained elevators, but the worst was the bed, a cross between a battle field cot and a summer camp bed. We could not exit fast enough.  The proprietor followed us outside and we thanked him but no, we have back problems, ciao.

The third try should have been a charm but the GPS led us to a village outside of Turin, to the parking lot of a liquor store. I asked the owner if there was a Blue Hotel nearby and he said, he had lived there his entire life and had never heard of such place. On this disappointing note, we lost our way back to the city by Via Tunisia where a scantily-clad beautiful African woman was seated in a beach chair literally at the crossroads in the middle of a grass field, waiting for customers. Further down this road, for about a mile, three gypsy shanty towns were hidden in the woods below.

Once in Turin, we decided to stop at the first American hotel chain we could find; it turned out to be an elegant Holiday Inn for 169 euros per night. It was steep but we wanted a good bed and a large room with a view of the Alps to rest our weary bodies. We got a great bed, a spectacular view, robes, and a roomy bathroom with a large shower and slippers. In the same fashion, instead of shower curtains, we got a moveable glass enclosure straddling the tub that sometimes would leak copiously onto the marble floors.

Superga Hill

Turin, the first capital of the Kingdom of Italy (1861), is located in the shadow of the Alps, on the left bank of the River Po in front of the Susa Valley, and surrounded by the western Alpine arch and the Superga Hill. The Basilica di Superga, a mausoleum perched on the top of the hill, painted yellow and white, built to commemorate the liberation from the French, contains the tombs of more than 50 members of the Savoy family. The cable ride to the top of the hill reveals a large plaque that memorializes the tragic loss of the Grande Torino football team whose plane crashed into the hill in 1949.

Italians are really eco-conscious, much more than Americans are, collecting every last scrap of materials that can be possibly recycled.  Yet their local roads still look grimy no matter how much rain they get. Italians don’t worry much about mowing grass or killing weeds. They grow quite tall on all sides of the road everywhere, including underneath the occasional patches where solar panels were installed.

Italian recycling philosophy reminded me of my behavior when I first arrived in the States in the late seventies when, as a teenager, I would want to wash the Styrofoam containers from McDonalds and the plastic utensils. Why waste a perfectly good container and so much plastic?


After we unloaded our luggage, we drove downtown to see the Centro. We learned how to find closer parking places to our intended destination and, whenever possible, free parking. Parco del Valentino by the River Po had an empty spot. We walked down Corso Vittorio Emanuele II and Piazza Castello in our quest to find a pizzeria. Who would have thought that it would be so hard to find pizza in Turin, Italy? But there were few tourists and most places only offered pasta.

Photo: Ileana 2016
Turin is famous for its elegant colonnaded walkways that stretch for miles and for its cinema museum.  This is where the Italian film industry was born, shining as the film production capital of the world for ten years. The symbol of the city is a 550 ft. spire on top of Mole Antonelliana.

The Chapel of the Holy Shroud (Capella della Sacra Sindone), located outside the Turin Cathedral and connected to the Royal Palace of Turin, houses a replica of the Shroud of Turin (Sindone di Torino), the white cloth that ostensibly wrapped the body of Christ. The linen fibers show the image of a crucified man who is believed to be Jesus of Nazareth. To this day, people still wonder if it is real or it’s just a clever forgery, part of a Medieval hoax. The chapel was built at the end of the 17th century (1668-1694) specifically to hold this religious relic.

In a linen shop along Via Roma I bought a bib for my grandson with his name embroidered in Venetian blue, wrapped in a white sack also with his monogram. It was so beautiful, reminiscent of my high school days when we had to sew and embroider pillow cases in order to pass home economics.  I was so excited about my find and so overwhelmed by memories.

Under the elegant green and white colonnaded walkway by via Roma, local women were having a flea market with various hand-made table cloths, wooden boxes, carved alabaster statues, chess boards, handkerchiefs, and other local souvenirs.

Photo: Ileana Johnson Turin Café 2016

We finally found an establishment by the college of San Giuseppe where they were having he famous Italian happy hour appetizer bar with drinks for 10 euros. We were really hungry and we gave up finding pizza anywhere. A miniature Heineken and a Cola Light later, made the bite size delicious appetizers taste even better. We sat outdoors, in the famous colonnaded walkways.  The sour waitress did not spoil our excitement. She was unhappy about having to exchange our large euro denomination but did not take credit cards. The tiny 6 oz. beers and drinks were 5 euros for happy hour. I cannot imagine what they must have cost at other times.

River Po, Turin Photo: Ileana 2016

People-watching is a wonderful pastime for Italians. We were hard-pressed to watch many people in Turin other than the locals because tourism was down significantly and especially American tourism. It was getting dark and we had to contend with a 12-block return to our metered parking which we overstayed for sure. Luckily, the ticket police was even lazier than we were or perhaps they stopped giving tickets after five.

I don’t know why, the entire time we were in Turin, the name of the movie and the car model, Gran Torino, stuck in my head.

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