Turin is Italy’s Cinderella city. While everybody knows her showy older sisters Rome and Florence, she has the reputation of being chained to the chimney of industry; she was home to the Fiat automobile factory. Yet Turin's allure, like Cinderella's, lies precisely in her mystery. She escapes the majority of guests. Cupped in a steep Alpine valley, her architecture is at times reminiscent of Paris, with its wide, tree-lined boulevards; but the cafes and pastries, the vanilla stucco of the palaces, also recall Vienna. This is Italy, but with a glass slipper of cool mountain air: deep crimson, luxuriant cherries in spring; cream from cows grazed on Alpine pastures; and red wine with a subtle aroma of roses and violets.
I am writing this in Caffè Mulassano, a cabinet of Belle Époque glamour. It is tucked away in a corner of Piazza Castello, Turin's main square. There are only eight small circular marble tables, but at this early hour, I am alone with my cioccolato, dark and rich as sin and faintly spiked with cinnamon. Gilded vines clamber up the walls and around the ceiling. Huge mirrors reflect dark wood, embossed leather panels, and an art nouveau lamp, in which 16 crocus-shaped shades twine around a coil of gilded stems.
Nearby is Baratti e Milano, a similarly elegant sanctuary for old-world assignations. Order a glass of Prosecco and it will arrive with flirtatious canapés like the hats of miniature grandes dames.
Later, I will be meeting Luigi, a Torinese friend from university days who is small, shrewd, elegantly dressed, and has a deep vein of black humor, particularly on the topic of corruption in the Italian state. "My friend, this is the true Italian," he once told me. "She will slit your throat and then, yes, she will complain about the bloodstain on her shoe." He has promised to convince me of the superiority of Piedmontese cuisine. It is, he tells me, a culture of understatement. "You're British," he says airily, "you know how it is. If you're feeling poorly, you say 'I'm fine.' If you say 'I'm poorly,' it means you will die tomorrow."
A twitch of mischief hovers around his lips. Restraint, he explains, translates into culinary subtlety. Silken panna cotta so delicately tinged with vanilla that it has slipped over your palate before you recognize the flavor. Veal from ancient cattle: Turin's Slow Food movement was one of the first to prize heritage breeds. Luigi's passion for his native cuisine is inspiring. Where he puts the calories is a mystery. I sometimes suspect that, like Dorian Gray, he has a picture in the attic, but it weighs 300 pounds and will someday fall through the ceiling.
Like Luigi, Friedrich Nietzsche spun a nice line in nihilism while thoroughly enjoying his residence in Turin. He was bewitched by the sight of the Alps from the city center. In the winter, the bleached, pink-tinged light makes the city dreamlike and insubstantial, like an out-of-body experience. The older streets are characterized by covered arcades that shelter the pedestrian from rain and confer on the shops a private charm. Many retain their original black and gold frontages. A salumeria becomes a theater with black puddings and salamis dangling from its flies and a stage-set of porcini and prosciutto arrayed behind the counter.
This is a city for flâneurs. The act of entering a tobacconist or an antique dealer in one of these arcades dedicated to foot-passengers and screened from passing traffic is much more intimate than shopping in a modern main street. One can rediscover the pleasure of ducking into a confectioner, like Stratta, where the window is full of jewel-like fruit jellies, candied almonds in glass apothecaries' jars, and miniature meringues, or an antiquarian bookshop in the light-filled Galleria Subalpina, a conservatory in which hothouse plants and dealers in "liberty" (art nouveau) lamps and silverware rub shoulders with a tiny 1930s cinema showing films by Gianni Zanasi and Woody Allen.
Turin was the center of early filmmaking in Italy, an Alpine Hollywood that oversaw the creation of silent epics like Giovanni Pastrone's Cabiria (1914), which re-created Hannibal's trek across the Alps and Archimedes' defeat of the Roman fleet at Syracuse. This film paved the way for Cecil B. DeMille and D. W. Griffith to supersize American history onscreen. Visitors to Turin can see clips from Cabiria at the Mole, one of the city's most distinctive buildings, since 2000 a museum of cinema. Exhibits show the development of projected images from magic lanterns through stereoscopes and peepshows to 3D films. The Mole was begun in the 1860s as a synagogue, at a time when Turin was briefly capital of the fledgling Italian state, but it was never used for its intended religious purpose. Its tower stretches up to Heaven like an elegant four-faced rocket. You can ride a great glass elevator into the spire to see the sun set over Mont Blanc—a coup de théâtre worthy of Pastrone himself.
Cinema inspired modern artists in Turin at the turn of the century. Giacomo Balla, a leading futurist, in 1912 painted Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash, a picture that shows a dachshund and the feet of his female owner strolling along the sidewalk. Influenced by the serial images of cinephotography, Balla's image captures movement as if multiple frames are viewed at once: The dog's feet are a blur; the tail appears eight times in different positions. Balla was fascinated by speed and change. You can see some of his work at the Galleria Civica d'Arte Moderna, where abstract tesselations explore the subtle shading of one color into another.
Giorgio de Chirico was stimulated by Turin's wide-open piazzas and mysterious archways to create some of his best metaphysical works: Turin Melancholy and Turin Spring. These dreamlike canvases, in which cloisters and sculptures have sharp shadows and occupy dramatically empty space, look different—more rooted in reality—after a visit to the city. Turin's sense of space and geometry, its absorption in the infinite, may account for the magnetism it has exerted on mathematicians and philosophers, from Nietzsche to Umberto Eco.
You could while away a happy couple of days here just exploring the rich mix of museums and contemporary galleries. The Egyptian museum is a trove of cases packed for the afterlife. Makeup and eyebrow tweezers, wigs, board games for the journey, beds and neck-rests, gifts to bribe the guards, and plenty to eat, from shins of antelope to ducks and bread.
In each tomb was a model representing the deceased (a dummy mummy) so that the real you would be free to leave. Thus these funerary riches constantly present two sides to Egyptian life: a magnificent culture on display, of the hard substances—gold, lapis, and obsidian—that desert sand cannot erase; but also of the vulnerable organic domestic life that these monuments are ironically designed to protect and project into eternity. The staring faces of the idealized death masks are blinds. They are there, like Instagram aliases, to let the real self escape.
On the fringes of Turin, royal palaces that for years were crumbling into plaster dust have been restored to their former baroque splendor. The Venaria is a 17th-century hunting lodge of proportions so grandiloquent that you could comfortably hunt mammoths and be sure of a larder-room and dining table large enough to accommodate the ensuing roast.
The Venaria is worth going to see for two things in particular. One is the Galleria di Diana, a breathtaking corridor of light, its floor a chessboard of black and white marble, its curved, carved ceiling like a fantasy in Wedgwood porcelain. It is one of the grandest rooms in Europe. The second is the gardens, where the Alps rear up to meet you with Wagnerian majesty, drawing your eye into folds and ripples of blue so ethereal that it seems the very soul of landscape.
At night it is thrilling to see the skyline from the Monte dei Cappuccini on the east side of the River Po. Each winter the city participates in a festival of light, with installations by various contemporary artists. Rebecca Horn's Piccoli Spiriti Blu outside the Church of Santa Maria on the hill resembles floating electric-blue halos, which circle the night sky searching for missing saints.
Controversy surrounds a couple of modern skyscrapers that breach the unspoken rule that nothing should be taller than the Mole. I confess that, looking at Renzo Piano's 166-meter Intesa Sanpaolo Bank building, where a white light blinks every 30 seconds, I did feel that it spoiled the panorama like a flashing pop-up window on a computer screen that won't shut down.
However, as Luigi points out, Turin needs to keep moving forward. After Fiat pulled out of active production here, manufacturing slumped. It took the 2006 Winter Olympics to reinvigorate the sporting facilities, the exhibition spaces, and tourist infrastructure, giving the city a renewed sense of international importance. Now heavily in debt, Turin is nonetheless thriving. Could Detroit in the coming decades undergo a similar renaissance?
Even Turin's former factories can be fascinating. Lingotto was the place where every Fiat once rolled out into the streets from the production line, down an interior spiral that is every home-tobogganer's dream. (Indeed, it produced an uncharacteristic wheeee! even in your sedate correspondent.) This factory is a survivor; its futuristic design of 1923 endured almost 60 years of production. It is the industrial cousin of New York's snail-shell Guggenheim Museum. Visitors will remember the famous scene in the Michael Caine movie The Italian Job (1969) where minis are chased around the rooftop racetrack after performing a daring heist.
Sadly, however, Lingotto's present is much shabbier than its past. The upper stories have been blocked off, the lower couple converted into a shopping mall where Ferrari tricycles are on sale to the parents of spoiled toddlers.
Across from Lingotto is Eataly, a many-aisled archipelago of gastronomic delights where I catch up with Luigi. The place is crowded with Torinese couples and families tucking in to hearty repasts before lading themselves with seasonal treats. There are piles of panettone (brioche, studded with candied fruit), parceled and tied with red and green ribbon. There are white truffles for €350 an ounce; butchers selling cuts of wild boar and rabbit; fish stalls where miniature squid compete for attention with shoals of red mullet, flounder, and a massive, predatory dentex.
In the fruit section I spot seven different varieties of Italian pear, ranging from the roseate angelica to the mango-shaped madernassa and the tall abate, which resembles a tribal object of phallic worship. In the pasta section, I marvel at huge paccheri, like the links in old-fashioned paper chains. These, Luigi explains, are usually stuffed with white fish and tomato or aubergine and ricotta. His eyes take on a faraway look of epicurean lust.
He whisks me off to La Gallina Scannata in Largo Saluzzo, currently Turin's best seafood restaurant. Three young chefs stand behind a counter and toss up dishes the way that cocktail barmen mix punch. It's unpretentious, but there's no mistaking the level of ambition and passion in the cooking. A little plate of tuna ceviche with lime arrives on a slick of freshly made hummus, with confit tomatoes and pink onion.
It is so meltingly fresh and delicious that my taste buds sigh at the memory. The little plates keep coming: a blackfish burger, the bread dense with squid ink; sushi-grade salmon with wasabi mayonnaise and caviar. Dinner for two with wine comes to $52: a steal for food of this quality.
Next day at lunch, Luigi directs me to Pastificio de Filippis in Via Lagrange. "Try the agnolotti," he commands. I do. They are delicate postage stamps of pasta with crimped edges filled with sweet veal, in a velvety broth. Beside me, businessmen are wolfing down gnocchi with a sausage and rosemary ragù. Veal appears three times on the menu; there is also tripe and salt cod with artichokes.
The crowded interior of the café breathes warm contentment: a childhood memory of being held on somebody's knee. There are several people lunching alone, as I am, looking out through the window; the outside terrace buzzes with people enjoying a glass of wine in the pale sunlight. The slatted shadows of window shutters are like old-fashioned film scrolling vertically down the balconied building before us.
I have often considered that sunlight and happiness may be, like water and steam, simply different forms of the same element. The two fuse here, in a city that, so easily disregarded, has the fairy-tale quality of being freshly discovered.
Sara Lodge, a senior lecturer in English at the University of St Andrews, is the author of Thomas Hood and Nineteenth-Century Poetry: Work, Play, and Politics.