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Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Torino (Turin) – City of the Bulls


Today’s entry lifts a few cheat notes from our trip to Torino; one of my favourite places we visited because of the prices, culture and our fantastic Air B’n’B apartment. I had an Italian guy later describe Torino to me as “properly old school Italian”, and it is cultured, into car design, a great food destination, and the first capital of Italy (before Rome).

But first, some notes about driving across Italy… (“holy mother of God!!!”)


The drive was basically across the top of Italy, along the cuff of the boot. At the beginning, the landscape wound through little towns along the valley from Cortina, very picturesque, and then through a few tunnels through the mountains, before the Alps gave way and we entered the Autostrada; a toll multilane highway. The surrounds became more industrial and flat, the housing styles we could see becoming more Italianette and less Tirolean. We stopped at one of the many Autogrills (Italy’s answer to the Little Chefs of England), and I took over driving for a while to give Maryanne a break.

Not for very long though. Everything you’ve heard about Italian drivers is true. When I took the wheel on the Autostrade outside Milan; “Santa Madre de Dio!!!”

They have minimum speed limits in the lanes; 70 for the slow lane, 90 for the middle lane and 110 for the fast lane. The notional speed limit is 130. I tried to maintain 130, faster than I’ve ever driven, and had cars shooting past me on both sides at speeds in excess of 160; veering in and out of lanes of traffic, zigging and zagging as though they weren’t at risk of rolling. Meanwhile, you’d have the odd bomby truck, VW beetle or teenage lovers in shorts on a motor scooter going eighty, so there were these treacherous slow cars mixed in with people texting on their phones and drifting across lanes at 140. My top speed got up around 140-145. I pulled over to another rest stop and had to jump out of the car and shake my legs and arms going “holy s**t!!”.

Thank heavens that we made it there alive. I can’t help thinking that half my problem was my overly active imagination; I kept having visions of high speed crashes and us dying in a ball of flame, my passengers sprawled on the highway charred, bleeding and dying. It’s like Ian Fleming writing (in Goldfinger) about professional golfers “feeling the breath of the poor house on their necks as they walk to the eighteenth hole all even”, and that “the person with less imagination usually wins”.


Torino, or “Turin” to the English speaking world, is a city with a lot of class. It has palaces in the centre of town, piazzas, parks, and a hundred one way streets where pedestrians saunter in front of cars because they have right of way since flesh is more important than steel.

Cultured, see?

You can understand the thinking of the people who made the Italian Job; “Stealing a million dollars… through a traffic jam!” The streets are close and tiny, with several one way systems. The street we should have taken was missed because it looked like someone’s driveway. We found ourselves squeezing the station wagon through narrow defiles of parked cars and steel rubbish bins, temporary fencing, and bollards. The first parking lot we found required us to drive down into its basement three floors, nearly hitting walls and bumping the tyres off the gutters, the walls scraped by hundreds of hits from other drivers, and found a park.


Our “palazzo” style apartment in the heart of Turin was on the second floor of an old building, and one I can recommend if you plan a stay in this magnificent city.

You walk through a massive wooden stable/battlement door from the street, through a large corridor that could accommodate a horse and carriage that lets onto a central courtyard shared by other apartments, let yourself in through a glass door reminiscent of Day of the Jackal, then up a bluestone stair well, up two storeys, then a small red carpet in front of a big wooden front door, and into a marble floored entrance hallway.

Our stone balustraded balcony looked out onto the Piazza Carlo Emanuele II.

There were oil paintings on the walls; opposite my bed a dark rural landscape of cattle on a hill near a small thatched cottage, overlooking a lake and mountains. Much of the decoration there elicits tones of the caribineri; a painting of two uniformed red and blue police in capes arresting Pinocchio, a library of books with the history of the caribineri, a small old hat in our room on a stand that looks like a marching hat – and it is in a building close to the local Caribineri headquarters.

But the fit out is modern, with all new bathrooms and kitchen, etc.

Still, for all that, there is the flaw of all apartments, where you are aware of your neighbours. We slept with the tall glass French doors open because of the heat, shuttered doors shut, into the communal courtyard, and were woken by the slide of a bolt and a deep man’s voice, malevolent, like Dracula; a voice that sounded like they were practically in the room with you.

I’ve heard Turin has a lot of witches…

We also blew all the kitchen fuses by using the toaster, so unsurprisingly, the place has Italian electrics.

Still, five stars.


We were comparatively spoilt for choice of restaurants while in Torino. There are stacks of bars, gelaterias (we had plenty considering the weather was over thirty degrees every day), and restaurants. Of course, we were only there for a short time, but where we were staying demanded that we eat locally. Directly downstairs from our apartment on the Piazza were:

La Monchella – a woodfired Italian pizza joint… in Italy. Cheap and popular, we went there twice. Very good.

La Badessa – a higher end (and hence more expensive) Italian restaurant we went to, but still cheaper than anything in Melbourne. I had the veal cheek on mash (they brought out an amuse bouche of a small chicken salad to start) with a couple of bottles of wine. Excellent.

Suma Si Per Lon – a cocktail bar, which may also be called the Wizard of Oz. Meh.

Societe Lutece – a French restaurant in Italy, which was OK (it was comme si et se comme ca; not a patch on actual France, which was our next stop).

100 Montaditos – cheap and cheerful this Spanish chain, with mini-sandwiches, beer and wine is popular with the local “youth”… (read, people under thirty).

All of the restaurants and bars bustle seats out into the piazzas and parks (this happens across Turin generally), which is nice and breezy if you can put up with the flower sellers and career beggars at table (“Sorry, no” / “Oh! You are having a nice dinner there I think…”, some old fat guy with a dirty baseball cap, who would not go away but learnt to avoid us in future).


The Po River has beautiful jade green waters, and is lined with rambling gardens, which host the Palazzo Valentino, are the setting for their annual car show  , and a medieval walled village on the waterside called the Borgo.

Torino prides itself on having a lot of open garden space for its inhabitants, and this has even found expression in their architecture, including a development called Verde not far from the Borgo, which was a multi-storey apartment building that used elements of the medieval village design along with plants growing all over it, with stencils in steel of tree trunks. Really great, urban design with a green feeling, and points to the future.

Not that it’s all perfect. Some parts are a bit slummy, away from the river.


Torino is famous for it’s bulls head drinking fountains. Known as i toretti (little bulls) they were installed in the 1930’s and supply drinking water, though they feel older than that, like something from the Roman Empire days. They’re invaluable in the heat, and I made regular use of them on walking tours. The symbol is apparently from some old myth about the city, where a bull lay down and died at the foot of the mountain after saving the city from a dragon.

Interestingly enough, for me anyway, the drinking fountains highlighted the refugee problem in Torino. Homeless African people lie around with their belongings next to them in parks, using the bull fountains for water. Along the road on the top of one park I came across about twenty or thirty African refugee types lying on benches, sitting on pieces of cardboard and generally looking disenfranchised. I suspect they’ve arrived from Africa, and wound up at the top of Italy and the end of the road – not being able to get into France/Germany/Austria as they get stopped at the borders… a big issue in the EU at the moment – with no jobs for them in Italy either.



Chiese della Gran Madre di Dio – famously shot in the Italian Job where the super 8 film is taken in the planning stage of the Italian Job, and then back towards the chapel, with minis driving down the steps on either side of a married couple walking out being pelted with rice. This was built in the style of Rome’s Pantheon.


After the Chiesa, we pressed on to the Villa della Regina; the Savoy palace built in the 1700’s and decorated inside with “Chinese” style decorations, which were all the rage (see the Chinese Tower in the English Garden in Munich). This place is definitely making it into my novel. The palace was bombed in the second world war, and after restoration fell into disuse in the mid-seventies when it was plundered of remaining artworks around 1975. It was used as the location for the gang headquarters in the Italian Job.


Located in the Cathedral of St John the Baptist, the shroud of Turin’s home is very theatrical, and connected to the back of another royal palace (the Palazzo Reale di Torino). Whatever you might think of false idols, fakery and relics, this relic is the top of the pops globally and no doubt bought bragging rights for the House of Savoy.

Boy this city has had some money in the past, it’s big and beautiful, if a bit rococo at times, with tonnes of piazzas and palaces and cathedrals, etc.


Torino is the centre of automobile production in Italy, being home at the very least to FIAT (which I’m lead to believe stands for “Fix It Again, Tony”); the old factory with the rooftop testing track is now an exhibition centre (in Lingotto). They’ve built a massive automobile museum nearby close to the river, though it’s a more slummy part of town.

The museum is very impressive; large, modern and “industrial” (read plenty of steel) inside, maybe a bit dark in the corridors, but made for projections. You go to the top floor and then work your way back down through the exhibition. It starts with the history of the automobile, with small models/drawings with motorized spinning wheels (not all of which worked), cars through the years (starting in the late eighteen hundreds); with steam powered, moving onto two piston models, the jalopies, and then through the ages. They had great sections, which included some history and the role of cars (for example the Wars – with the VW and FIAT, as well as the jeep, the fall of the Wall in Germany, and then people coming across in East German cars), the car in culture (e.g. youth culture and cars, movies, record covers), people dressing cars up/novelty cars/home decoration, breaking the law, the parts of cars and their development, crash tests, grand prix cars through the ages (with a fantastic wall projection and red and white stripes flashing past giving the impression of movement), and the entire ground floor dedicated to car designers, with time lines, sections on each designer and spinning cars…

Look, it was full on, and by the end completely overboard. You could have stayed for ages and not gotten to see all the films or exhibits. They had one great bit with a sphere coming out of a wall which they projected the world onto, and then you could see facts and figures projected onto the globe. An advertising section, where you pulled a screen down over your head with touch screens.

One thing I learnt about exhibition design from this place was that “if it moves, it breaks”. They had one bit that was supposed to be a ride that took you along an assembly line, but it was out of service, lightblubs flashing on cameras with globes gone, etc etc. But overall, it was just fantastic. The attention to design, in colours and shapes, illustration, or to 3-d-ise flat things by printing out multiple layers and pasting them on each other, was fantastic, as was their use of colour, movement and music.

Ten out of ten.

So there you have it; my whirlwind stay in Torino in a nutshell. Next stop? Grenoble, and France (here we come!!)