LET THE GAMES BEGIN!
Published: November 2005
Two months from now no one will need to be told where Piemonte is; nothing to do with local corporate giants Olivetti and Fiat, or even the region's upmarket version of the nut cluster, Ferrero Rocher. Between February 10 and 26, Turin, capital of northwestern Italy's landlocked pile of Alpine valleys and crumpled hills, will host the Winter Olympics. Turin is Italy's second largest industrial city and the one that gave the country its shortlived royal family, the now defunct Savoys. But such things are being swept under the proverbial. Turin hopes she'll win fresh laurels and - fingers crossed! - cast a shroud over her industrial past and emerge as the gateway to a winter wonderland that also happens to be one of Italy's lesser-known but no less beautiful rural landscapes.
It's a tall order. Currently Turin is somewhere many have barely heard of; a C list city with A list aspirations. Not that there's anything wrong with that. There's many a diamond in a dark mine. Whether or not Turin's going to Cinderella-itself into a must-see destination however is a different kettle of truffles.
Which brings me to the two bucolic days I spent in Turin's hinterland. It was October. Autumn had bronzed the southern hills, the grapes had been picked and winter was holding its breath in the mountain passes above the Valle Po. I was in the hills of Le Langhe where the King of Italian Reds, Barolo, is squeezed rusted and bloody from the vine and fragrant white truffles fret beneath the soil. They're filthily expensive. To the south is Liguria, selfishly barring Piemonte's access to the Med. To the north is Asti, one of the many small towns that crest the hills and home to that sickly sweet spumante. This is in fact Tuscany in miniature and there's no better way of appreciating it than in a helicopter.
Below, the landscape is a patchwork bedspread of vineyards and red roofed houses. A feudal stampbook of fractured Duchies, Baronies, and Marquisates - Neive, Barbaresco, Serralunga d'Alba, Costgliole d'Asti - and over it all you float like a giant bumblebee. Just one tip; don't get stuck behind the pilot otherwise all you get is tantalising glimpses of towns and castles that quickly disappear beneath you. The twenty minute round trip from Asti costs 500€ for up to five people with Heliwest.
Choosing which town to explore can be tough but Saluzzo just west of Le Langhe is one of the most rewarding. It was once the capital of its own Marquisate and survives as a small steep Renaissance affair that granny'd love if only every other street had a Stanna. Houses of sepia stone clamber up cobbles to a castle that's now a prison. The best of the bunch is Casa Cavassa that doubles up as the Civic Museum. A 15th century nobleman's palace, there are smatterings of period furniture and trompe l'oeil walls in what is quite a denuded exhibit. If like me your bella lingua doesn't extend beyond menu-speak, the all-Italian information will leave you stymied. Admission to the museum and tower is €10.
Saluzzo's Rhondda-steep geography will hone your appetite to meet the artery-assaulting demands of the local cuisine. It's not something you dip into lightly and I use "Dip" in its precise sense. Piemonte is the home of bagna caoda, Italy's take on fondue. The richness of the cooking is reflected in the fact that cream and butter surprisingly beat olive oil into third place as chef's fats of choice. And vegetarians pack a lunchbox. The Piemontese love of meat is such that a few days in and you'll be eyeing up your own rump.
L'Ostu dij Baloss in Saluzzo smacks of a typical Italian back home, all tiles and rustic furniture but the likes of goose breast salad, lamb cutlets, gnocchi, and veal with spinach replaces spag bol and minestrone. A three course lunch starts from €26. Piemonte is the home of one of the most interesting culinary movements I've ever come across. Slow Food has nothing to do with crap service. Instead, the movement is a deliberate challenge to the Fast Food culture, stressing the importance of traditional cooking and farming methods, and the cultural and material benefits of a proper and varied diet. Such has been the movements' success that last year saw the opening of the world's first University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo. 60 students launched themselves into the first gastro degree; thematic field seminars in coffee and cured meats in Year 1 before moving on to beer in Year 3. Now that's what I call progress. Equally untypical is the fact that the Uni has its own 4* hotel and a stunning modern restaurant that's been open since June 2003. Guido is a showcase of classy cooking. You immediately know that students in these parts have evolved beyond pork scratchings and a bag of chips. The restaurant is situated in a high ceilinged contemporary space of sleek woods and raw brick. Starters from €16 and mains from €18 are guaranteed to further your oral education.
Del Cambio is in Turin itself. It's been going since 1757 and the chandeliers, velvet swags, deep pile, and gilterama do give it the whiff of a stately home. You feel as if areas should be cordoned off. This is basically a businessmen's chow house. The menu is rich and seems slightly dated. Probably something to do with the fact that most dishes are Piemontese stalwarts like finanzeria, a melee of chicken livers, gizzards, mushrooms and Marsala wine, and agnolotti del plin, stuffed pasta with truffle shavings. Starters are from €14 and mains from €26. Take a rich uncle with you.
So Turin. Back in the Sixties it was nicknamed Fiatville. Hardly inspiring and there's no denying that away from its centre the place is one big dreary suburban sprawl of housing estates but at its historic heart on the west bank of the River Po, Turin is an elegant, avenued Baroque city that plays the part of royal seat quite well. There's the Duomo or Cathedral of course, which periodically displays the city's eponymous Shroud. Once thought to be a snapshot of Christ mid cross and cave, it's now known to be a medieval fake. It was last exhibited in 2000. Afficionados may be interested to know that it next goes on show in 2025.
For a town that's little talked about these days, Turin's attracted a surprising number of names in its time. Puccini, Dumas, and Nietsche all 'woz 'ere. Erasmus studied at the university. For centuries, the local dukes were the Savoys. They got their hands on a royal title in 1713, then the Italian throne in 1860, and when Rome came up for grabs in 1870, they quickly scarpered and never looked back. Not that the Savoys left nothing of value behind. Besides the Palazzo Reale, the royal residence now museum, there's the stunning Museo Egizio on Via Accademia delle Scienze. That's Egyptian Museum to you and me. The collection's fairly extensive, the star of the show being the Turin Canon, one of the most important kinglists enabling us to patch together ancient Egyptian chronology. The Canon exhibition is impressive and in Italian and English. Unfortunately, this nod to bilingualism isn't apparent throughout. Entry is €6.50.
Another star attraction is the Museo del Cinema or Cinema Museum. This scores on two counts. Firstly, the Mole Antonelliana in which it's housed is a visual stunner. Started in 1863, it was going to be a huge synagogue but money ran short and the local Jewish community handed it over to the city in 1877. It's a huge white elephantine structure surmounted by a 127-metre vault and spire. Inside, the exhibitions are fantastic, from early photography through to the present day. The Temple Hall beneath the vault where you can recline and lose yourself in a light show of starry skies, floating clouds, and cinema images, is one of the most magical spaces I've ever seen. Kicks the UK's Museum of Moving Image off the Oscar shelf. A guidebook is a must and admission to the museum and tower costs €6.80.
Having been so impressed, for once I have to say that the gay offerings are slightly disappointing. There's little on offer in Turin but whereas in other destinations, the little there is is compact and friendly, here it's spread out and slightly so superior. Ok, this is Italy. One thing to be wary of is the restaurant Il Pensiero on Via Bagnasco. This is advertised as a gay eatery on a number of websites. One, it's a cab ride from the city centre; two, it's very family oriented (lots of kids); three, it's a basic local formica and lino combo serving pizzas and pasta in high rise land; four, TVs dotted around the wall play non-stop sport,; and five, it's 100% non-smoking. I don't think I really need to give you my opinion, do I?
Having schlepped back into town, bars and clubs are basically one of each. Il Male on Via Lombardore is more pub than bar. What a lot of men I thought, particularly around the pool table. No, those'll be lesbians with a few scared queens scattered inbetween. The atmosphere however was relaxed and fun. Notorious on Via Stradella is the club; a big, bouncy venue, all bopping and shopping with a very young crowd. Didn't mind it, though I did feel slightly awkward trying to get a drink with my pension book at the bar. €5 is the going rate for a spirit and mixer at both venues. Notorious charges €15 on the door but you get a free drink.
In all honesty I've never been one for the whole rural thing. In fact, I find landscape seriously underwhelming. Something to do with 18 years growing up in the middle of nowhere in Wales - yes, I've paid my debt to society. So Piemonte, the country bit, was never going to be my tasse du thé. But Turin also left me slightly disappointed. Not the city itself which I enjoyed very much but certainly the gay scene. Turin is a relative unknown and it's only hoped this winter's games will shed a little light on this Italian bushel.
Gareth has been with TRAVEL CHANNEL since its launch in 1994. He has produced and presented on TRAVEL LIVE and THE TRAVEL BUG, produced ESSENTIAL... and reports on TRAVEL TODAY. He is a regular contributor to the website. In 2010 he produced the hit series THE HOLIDAY SHOW which he also co-presented with Ginny Buckley. Gareth’s passions are history, culture, food & drink.