Turin prepares for its close-up

Marking the anniversary of the country's union, John Brunton samples art, fashion and truffles in the former capital.

In the past 100 years or so, Turin has become Italy's forgotten city. For tourists, it comes a long way down the list behind the magnetic destinations of Venice, Florence, Rome and Naples. For Italians, Turin is perceived as a "grim up north" metropolis of heavy industry, with its emblematic Fiat factories.

But that is set to change, with the city taking centre stage from this month as the venue for Esperienza Italia, a nine-month celebration of the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Italian state (italia150.it). The Italy we know today was officially united from disparate city states and dukedoms and declared a nation in 1861. And the city that became its capital (for just four years) and site of the first parliament was Turin.

What visitors will discover this year is that the exhibitions and festivities are only the tip of the iceberg of Turin's attractions. Surrounded by rolling green hills with snowy alpine peaks, the historical centre is filled with sumptuous baroque palaces and art nouveau mansions and a labyrinth of shady arcades lined with fashion boutiques, funky aperitivo bars and romantic restaurants serving Piedmontese cuisine.

The man behind the unification, or Il Risorgimento as it is known, was Count Camillo di Cavour, who just happened to come from Turin. This was already an imposing regal city; the dukes of Savoy had built their opulent palazzi here and they became the official royal family when parliament declared Victor Emmanuel II the first king of a united Italy on March 17, 1861.

Turin will host a non-stop calendar of art, design and fashion exhibitions, opera and concert performances, food and wine tastings, plus festivals of theatre, cinema, street art and music, during Esperienza Italia. There will be two main venues: the Officine Grandi Riparazioni, or OGR, an immense railway workshop in the heart of the city; and the Venaria Reale, a 17th-century hunting lodge and the residence of the Savoy royalty on the edge of the modern city, today a beautifully preserved World Heritage site.

The blockbuster art exhibitions will be at the Venaria, beginning with La Bella Italia, a selection of more than 300 masterpieces by Giotto, Botticelli, Raphael, Michelangelo, Titian, Veronese and Caravaggio (www.lavenaria.it). Then, in October, the more quirky Leonardo: The Genius the Myth opens, examining how artists have depicted the face of il maestro compared with his iconic self-portrait in red chalk.

Fashionistas will focus on Fashion in Italy: 150 Years of Elegance, looking at the roots of Italy's glamorous fashion industry. And all year, the idyllic gardens of the Venaria are open for visits and tours, organised by the Slow Food movement (slowfood.com).

A very different Italy is on display at the OGR, where a series of interactive exhibitions will try to explain how "people became Italians" and how Italy will supposedly evolve (officinegrandiriparazioni.it).

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Although the extravaganza of the Esperienza Italia will get Turin talked about, the city itself is the star of the show. For a slice of la vita Torinese, head down in the morning to Porta Palatina, the ancient city gate, where a frenetic, teeming market is held daily. Foodies will be dazzled by the displays of cheese, salami and prosciutto, wild porcini mushrooms and pungent white truffles from the town of Alba, to the south.

But walk for a few minutes through the narrow streets of the nearby Quadrilatero Romano, the ancient Roman centre, and the market crowds rapidly disappear and eventually you emerge in the Piazza San Carlo, a jewel of baroque architecture. Here, elegantly dressed locals window-shop at haute couture boutiques, then sip an espresso at the historic Caffe Torino, or Caffe San Carlo (see caffesancarlo.it). These two look more like palaces than bars, with their crystal chandeliers.

For lunch, choose between an old-fashioned osteria such as Cantine Barbaroux, serving Piedmontese specialities such as a steaming plate of tajarin pasta with a rabbit-and-rosemary sauce (cantinebarbaroux.it); or opt for a healthy salad in the stylish Neo-Head Bar (Via Bonelli 16c), a minuscule chapel decorated by owner-photographer Enrico Frignani.

The afternoon can be spent doing more cultural sightseeing. There is an amazing Egyptian Museum whose collection of mummies and sarcophagi rivals that of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo (www.museoegizio.org).

But this is an airy, green city and it's a joy to stroll through the quiet gardens of the Parco del Valentino, then along the Murazzi, the promenade along the river Po. As soon as the fine weather arrives in spring, the Murazzi is transformed after sunset into the nightlife heart of the city, with scores of bars and dance clubs packed until dawn.

In the early evening, everyone heads off to their preferred bar to indulge in the local habit of l'aperitivo - with free tapas-style snacks when you order drinks - which runs from 6-10pm. With Martini and Cinzano vermouths hailing from this city, the Torinesi have turned the aperitif into an art form: for the price of an Americano or Negroni cocktail, about €8-€10 ($11-$14), you can feast from a lavish buffet.

The decision is whether to choose a classy cafe or a funky bar. Traditionalists will tell you not to miss the celebrated belle epoque Caffe Platti (platti.it) but more fun is likely at the lively student haunt Pasticceria Abrate (Via Po 10) or the terminally hip La Drogheria (see la-drogheria.it), whose DJ has everyone dancing before the official aperitivo hour has passed. If you find the buffet is not enough to fill you up, head for fashionable trattoria Pastis (Piazza Emanuele Filiberto 9b) or, for a traditional Piedmontese meal, try the Tre Galline (Via Bellezia 37).

Alitalia has a fare to Turin for about $2080, flying to Kuala Lumpur (8hr) and then Rome (about 12hr) on Malaysia Airlines, then to Turin (80min). Fare is low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney including tax.

- Guardian News & Media

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