In my many conversations with the local Italians here in beautiful Turin, I occasionally learn things that I certainly hadn’t read in a guidebook anywhere.
And I should know. I’m one of those travelers that voraciously reads every book I can get my hands on before I travel to a new place. One of the reasons I chose Turin to stay for several months was the fact that there is so little written about it. It is most often a footnote listed after Milan in books about the Piemonte and Northern Italy. However, the city is quite the treasure trove of interesting history. So here are nine completely random facts you probably won’t find in any guidebook on Turin….
1. Black Magic and Piazza Statuto
Those who are superstitious or wary of so-called “black magic” or satanism would do well to avoid Piazza Statuto, near the train station Porta Susa. Built on top of an ancient Roman necropolis (”a city of the dead”), the square was once a place where prisoners were tried and executed. The piazza is said to be one point of a black magic triangle that includes London and San Francisco (really? I know San Fran is a den of sin and all but…). In case you were wondering, the white triangle consists of Lyon, France, and Prague. Also, it is said that satanic rituals still take place here, near a small obelisk, now conveniently scrawled with “666″s and upside down crosses. Of course, this is ignoring the fact that the obelisk is a relatively recent geographic marker, and marks a line of 45 degree latitude. Even better…look to your right and there are the gates of hell!!! Or, just a manhole cover…you decide.
2. Punto Positivo
This point, in the middle of the gates to Palazzo Reale in the Piazza Castello, is where the “white energy” from Gran Madre meets the “black energy” from Piazza Statuto. The Holy Shroud, once stored in the nearby church (and now hidden in a secret place while the the church’s dome is rebuilt) was on public display on this spot at one point in its history. Supposedly, this is is where thousands of pilgrims came to pray on their way to Rome, and you rub it for good luck. I’m not sure if it has brought me good luck yet, but perhaps it lost some of its power due to the years and years that the piazza was a parking lot for everyone’s FIATs.
3. Gran Madre
Yet another source of “white energy,” this time streaming from the fact that supposedly the Holy Grail has been buried beneath the church for 300 years. The evidence for this is based in the fact that one of the statues straddling the entrance steps is holding a chalice up to the sky, but whose eyes are strangely looking down towards the ground. The inside of the church is remarkably spare and white compared to other churches in Italy, which lends a bit of credibility to its storied hiding place.
4. The Roman Quarter / Quadrilateral Romano / “Party Central”
Ah yes…the “Soho” of Turin if you will… This area of town used to be one of the more dangerous and avoided areas of Turin until the city decided to take a few years to fix it up. Now, it’s chock full of hipster Italians and festive (and expensive) wine bars every 20 feet. It’s within the old Roman boundaries of the city, so has the “dark winding narrow cobblestone streets” that tourists crave in Italy as well. It also lays claim to being yet another source of “black energy” in the city. The evidence for this? One of the crossroads within the Quarter contains four buildings all with crazy, angry animal faces glaring from above each doorway, apparently in effort to keep the evil spirits at bay.
5. The Lovers of Ponte Vittorio Emanuale I
Turin has its own version of the famed Ponte Milvio in Rome. Thanks to a best-selling book by Federico Moccia and a subsequent movie, (and now, by a moderately cheesy website: lucchettipontemilvio.com) the bridge in Rome is covered by padlocks on chains, put there by lovers who then throw the key into the river below, proclaiming the permanence of their love. I’ll be honest, when I saw the padlocks on the bridge over the Po River near Gran Madre, I thought they were a desperate attempt to stop people from stealing the flower boxes that line the railings. Now that I learned the real reason, even if it’s a newly made up tradition, it’s still a little bit of romance on my daily stroll.
6. The Legend of the Mole Antonelliana
Legend has it that it is very bad luck for university students to set foot near this fabulous structure until after they graduate! This seems hard to do considering it offers such great views of Turin, and it’s smack dab in the middle of the school’s campus.
Part of the way to avoid getting killed while walking around in Turin is to keep a concrete barricade between yourself and the cars as often as possible. Case in point, the Taxi that this very morning was driving down the sidewalk straight at me, just so it could get around a bus… The most common barricade is lovingly called a Panettone, since its dome shape is very similar to the famed Milanese cake usually eaten during Christmas.
8. Luci d’Artista
Perhaps kept away during winter by Turin’s reputation as “the Detroit of Italy,” or its horrific weather (think grey and wet like Seattle, but much colder), most tourists never see the Luci d’Artista. Turin, as always straddling both the old and the new, puts on amazing light show starting around the middle of November. Contemporary artists from around the world install amazing light displays, from angelic blue halos surrounding Monte dei Cappuccini, to representations of the constellations stretching down a main thoroughfare. It’s a sight to behold.
9. Torinese Yellow (Giallo)
Get to know a true resident of Turin well enough, and invariably the 2006 Winter Olympics will come up. First, the Olympics had a massive effect on not only the city, but also the psyche of its residents. It’s also one of the reasons there are so few tourists here in this hidden gem, even though it is the fourth largest city in Italy. As recent as 10 years ago, Turin was a “closed” city. Everything took place behind closed doors in the courtyards behind the porticoed facades of the buildings. Wealth and fashion was understated, and the rich chocolate history of the city was virtually a secret society. In preparation for the Olympics, the city made a conscious decision to update the city’s master plan (a plan in which even Napoleon had a part!). Parking was created underground creating beautiful piazzas for socializing (including the largest in all of Europe, Piazza Vittorio), cars were limited within the city center creating pedestrian thoroughfares, buildings were cleaned of decades of industrial soot and repainted, and the people of Turin woke up! Nowadays, you cannot find a seat outside during lunch, the piazzas are full of people walking arm in arm, and many new delicious restaurants, hotels, chocolate shops, and discos were born. Part of this reinvention was the abandonment of “Torinese Yellow.” It is an unfortunate maize color (made worse by cloudy skies) that was in fashion for centuries. Even Palazzo Reale was a dingy yellow before being painted it’s current French-influenced white and blue-gray. Now it’s in fashion to use a lighter palate of white, pink, and gray….brightening up the streets and the hearts of those who visit.
Top 5 Hotels in Turin
- Hotel NH Santo Stefano, a superb hotel close to the trendy Roman Quarter
- Hotel Le Meridien Lingotto, a beautiful hotel housed in the former Fiat car factory
- Boston Art Hotel, a sexy design hotel in Turin city center
- Best Western Hotel Genova, an elegant hotel near Turin central station
- Hotel Golden Palace, a luxury hotel in the heart of Turin
Photo of Luci d’Artista light show in Piazza Palazzo di Città, Turin, Italy, by Pietroizzo