17 July 2005
written by: Don
A short-break in Torino over a weekend was spiced with many little anecdotes and let Italy appear in a warm, authentic and less touristy light.
For someone like me, who likes to claim that he is an European, never having visited Italy is like never having arrived in Europe. In that sense, I do believe that I am still missing out something fairly crucial of European History. It is quite understandable that when there arose the idea of having a short-break in Turin (though I find the Italian name "Torino" more beautiful) in the wake of a business trip of Birgit, I immediately agreed. I bought the Ryan Air ticket and even booked a car with Hertz, all of that at relatively economical costs. The next thing I bought the TimeOut:Turin guidebook and started to plan our weekend in detailed. Everything seems to be well-prepared, and on the eve of the journey, I could not wait until I can finally get onto the plane to meet Birgit, who is already in Torino having her meeting.
Of course, things turned out entirely differently than expected. It started with me missing my outbound flight. Sadly, there is only one flight to Torino per day, always in the evening. Missing a flight Friday evening means that I could only be in there earliest Saturday evening - only to return on Sunday again. This would obviously make the trip pretty senseless. My only option was to take the flight to Genua Saturday morning and travel by train to Torino. This would give me the chance to be there at Saturday noon, so we can eventually still enjoy our short-break a bit. So I drove back home, ate, slept and drove all the way to Stansted Airport again. Well, that is just another way of spending your time and wasting your money. Did I mention that I lost the car rental reservation? Well, at least I had a chance of getting there. Better late than never.
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Crash-Course in Italian
After landing in Genua, my spirit rose with the fair weather, and I worked my way to the bus-stop, just to find that I have missed the bus for the central station for five minutes. In order to make it for the next train to Torino instead of the one two hours later, I had no choice but to take the taxi. The extra costs of the trip rose with every minute...
A faint foreboding of what awaited me in terms of the language barrier was at hand within the first two lines of the conversation with the taxi driver. When I asked whether I was likely to make it for the 11:45 train, his answer was: "Central Station!" - and then he drove on. Anyway, in the station, I got my ticket with no complication, the gentleman at the counter gave me the platform number and the departure time, I hurried there to find the train just arriving exactly on time, I even cross-checked with the display panel that it was indeed the Regional Express (RE) to Torino, boarded the train (which was the very old style of the German Regional Express) and nestled in an empty 6-people cabin. My first course in Italian commenced when two Italian ladies in their forties (housewives, I reckon) took seats in 'my' cabin and started to chat intensively all the way (Later, I realised that they actually did not know each other at all). As a measure of retreat, I hid myself behind my TimeOut:Turin - and my fate was sealed. From the moment they caught sight of my guidebook (thus realised that I am a tourist), they started talk at me - in Italian of course - asking me where I am from and what I am doing. Next they started to make suggestion which places I should visit, putting down notes and marks in my TimeOut:Turin and basically planned my entire weekend - or the remainder of the weekend. Don't get me wrong: I was not annoyed at all! They were so enthusiastic and friendly, I was most positively surprised and overwhelmed. I - for the first time in my life - made use of the 'Useful Phrases' section in the appendix of my guidebook and tried my best to answer - in Italian. Unfortunately, phrases like 'vorrei provare i sandali blu' ('I'd like to try the blue sandals') did not substantially enrich our intercultural exchange.
As a language class goes, the level of difficulty rises with time. In my case, this time passed relatively quickly: the conductor, upon seeing my ticket - explained to me - in Italian - that I had to pay an extension, since the train I got onto was not the Regional Express, but the InterCity. Strange enough, I thought, I have double and triple-checked that this is the right platform, the right train, the right time! The train has somehow transformed itself enroute, like the train in Harry Potter, probably. InterCity was nonetheless fine with me, since it arrived earlier and offered air conditioning. The only problem was that the extra charge was about 150% of the original fare - quite a high price for a mistake I have not made, or at least I believed so. There was no salvage, for once I started to enquire about how this confusion could happen, all of them, both ladies and the conductor, started to talk at me - in Italian. I paid the extra charge for peace in exchange.
The Time-Machine and the Visitor Centre
Arriving in Torino at long last, Birgit and I enjoyed the day in downtown Torino, spending most of the day with shopping and rewarded ourselves with an excellent ice-coffee and awesome pastries at Caffè Mulassano, a café at the Piazza Castello dated back to the second half of the 19th century, with the beautiful original interior of wood panels, marble, and mirrors. As the cherry of the cake, two musicians equipped with a saxophone and an accordion were playing swing from the early 20th century right in front of the café. The atmosphere transposed us back to the past, and the tiny size of the café does have something of a backward time-machine.
After having a fantastic Italian dinner at I Birilli and a nice long sleep,... hold on, there comes the next anecdote: we did not want to have the nice long sleep at all! Instead, we set the alarm clock so we can have a nice long day (not sleep) to explore the city. And no, we did not overhear the alarm as you might now guess, but in fact we got up right the way, took a shower, packed our stuff, went down to the breakfast room - and found it entirely deserted. When we got hold of a waitress laying the tables, we ask for breakfast, in essence a table with dishes and cutlery. She looked sort of confused, then annoyed, but finally offered us some food - just milk and cereals actually. We started munching, and by 'accident' I looked down to my watch - and found that it was almost noon! Only then did we realised that the alarm clock (my mobile phone eventually) was false - it was still showing the British time, an hour behind the central European time.
Well, it was not that bad. We still enjoyed the beautiful weather, visited the amazing San Lorenzo church and the Palazzo Reale, where the next odd encounter awaited. Entering the almost empty courtyard of the palace, we saw an open door on the left which led to an office where a lady was sitting at a desk. So we approached and asked whether there would be a guided tour for viewing the palace. She instructed us to go around the corner to the visitor centre where the tours usually begins, and expressed that she is "not sure, but the next tour should not have started yet", so we "probably still can join in". Obedient as we are, we went around the corner, entered the visitor office - just to find ourselves at the other end of the very same room plus seeing the very same lady approaching us with a smile and asking: "How can I helped?" We got even more perplexed when we learned that she was the tour guide anyway - and that the tour would be in Italian. (Well, no one ever said to me that my language class was over.) Another interesting thing: as a tourist, I am used to visit a palace where everything is open and set up for display. In this case, however, she led us to the front entrance, unlocked the door, walked in, switched on the lights, then switched on the music, and guided us to the upper floor. It really rather felt like as if I was visiting someone at his home! The entire visit to the Palazzo Reale was somehow a little surreal.
Mole Antonelliana, a pointy tower originally built as a synagogue but turned into a museum of cinema afterwards, promised fabulous view over the entire Piedmont region. We walked all the way there - in vane, since it was closed for visitors due to maintenance work. For the rest of the day, we played save, treated ourselves with excellent homemade Italian ice-cream at Fiorio and then spent our time in the beautiful Parco del Valentino to enjoy the sunshine and a nice cocktail by the River Po.
Despite all the oddities, the short stay in Torino was more than pleasant. Food and especially the Piedmont wine are excellent. All in all, the city is far less touristy than major Italian cities like Roma and Milano, and because of this quality, it might just as well be the case that Torino conveys a more authentic taste of Italian lifestyle. The old architecture and the friendly, Italian-speaking people surely have their share in this quality. With the up-coming Olympic Winter Games in Torino early 2006 and herewith the prospect of first-class winter sport facilities, the next visit might be even sooner than one would think - only at a different time of the year.
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