By ROGER ALLNUTT
I had always avoided Turin and Milan in northern Italy as I only know of them as big industrial cities in the more prosperous north of the country. I had assumed they would lack in charm and attractions worth seeing compared to the more ‘touristy’ cities of Rome, Florence and Venice.
How wrong could I be.
Turin is the major city of the Piedmont region, which translates from medieval Latin to ‘at the foot of the mountains,’ although it does stretch well into the plain bisected by the River Po. The north-western corner is taken up with the pristine Parc de Gran Paradiso, a major holiday area for Italians both in winter and summer. To the north again the highway through Val d’Aosta leads to the tunnel under Mont Blanc to Chamonix in France or the Grand St Bernard Pass to Switzerland.
Turin is home to Fiat cars and the famous Juventus soccer team. The historic Old Town in central Turin is magnificent with wide tree-lined boulevards forming a grid with the River Po skirting the centre.
I arrived at the main railway station Turino Porta Nuova and was surprised to find when walking down Via Roma on a Friday morning a lack of traffic until I discovered it was a local public holiday celebrating the patron saint of the city, Saint Maximus. At the Duomo of San Giovanni Batista a solemn mass was being conducted complete with a procession of important church figures followed by a colourful ‘event’ with people dressed in historic garb accompanied by a police brass band.
Perhaps better known is the nearby Church of San Lorenzo which holds the famous ‘Shroud of Turin’ although visitors cannot see this except when on display every ten years and have to make do with a replica and video. The church is on one side of the huge Piazza Reale (Royal) which also is bordered by the Palazzo Reale and the Royal Armoury both of which can be visited.
Via Roma from the train station to Piazza Reale is lined with imposing buildings with covered arcades and the shops reflect the superb quality and style of the best of Italian creativity whether it is clothes, furnishings or other miscellaneous consumer items. Other shopping streets are the pedestrian Via Garibaldi and Via Po, the latter leading down to the river through vast Piazza Vittorio Veneto, which is amusingly claimed to be the largest square in Europe without a statue. The centre of Turin like many other European cities is best explored by foot as it gives you a chance to stop and admire the splendid architecture, visit any museums that appeal (and there are many) or stop for a coffee at one of the many sidewalk cafes or indulge in a couple of scoops of the superb gelato.
Although not in Piedmont but just over the ‘border’ in neighbouring Lombardy, Milan is one of the major Italian cities famous for its Duomo, La Scala Opera House and as the fashion and financial centre of Italy.
Again, best explored on foot, it is only a short walk from the station (a superb architectural structure) to the heart of the city which is dominated by the gothic Duomo. This was the largest cathedral in Europe in medieval times until St Peter’s was built in Rome. Set in a large square the ornate exterior is complemented by the magnificent interior. Despite construction beginning in 1386 it was only listed as complete in 1965.
For opera lovers La Scala is a mecca although tickets are very hard to come by. You can do a tour which consists mainly of items in their historical museum and only a disappointingly short time to view the wonderful interior from one of the many boxes that line the upper levels.
Another highlight of Milan is the large Castello which contains a number of different museums and other exhibition spaces – note that many museums close on Monday.
The many trendy boutiques in the narrow streets of the city centre round Via San Andrea reflect the city being a centre of fashion. All the big names are there plus many other lesser-known houses. The window displays are superb and everyone strolling along in this precinct seemed to have at least one shopping bag showing their purchases. The shoppers were equally well dressed – I have always wanted to be able to drape a jacket nonchalantly on my shoulders but can’t carry it off like the fashionable Milanese men can.
Both Turin and Milan are easily reached by train for other parts of Italy. If you’re travelling by car both are well positioned for a visit to the lovely Italian Lake District including Lake Maggiore and Lake Como.
For my week near Turin and Milan I was based at the regional town of Biella a couple of hours by train from each city. It is a compact city of about 50,000 people with a large country town feel.
Biella, backed by mountains, has a panoramic drive along the crest of the hills providing views over the countryside. Even better is the drive up to the Sanctuary of Oropa about 12km from town, it offers an old and a new basilica in a mountain setting. A cable car whisks you up to a station at 1700m from which it is a short walk to Lac Mucrone, a beautiful alpine lake which in early summer still contained ice floating on the surface. For the adventurous a further ride in a rather scary looking open ‘cage’ takes you up to the highest point at 2400m.
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