Dividing Torino’s ‘centro storico’ neatly into two unequal zones and taking in midway Piazza San Carlo, Via Roma runs straight from Piazza Carlo Felice to Piazza Castello. While Piazza Carlo Felice is merely a shortcut for pedestrians who trek from the transport hub of Porta Nuova to the centre, the same cannot be said of the other two squares which are unquestionably more typical of grand Italian piazzas. Piazza Castello is the exposed heart of the city, exquisite, stately and beautiful. Its grandeur enhanced by the sober grace of the Palazzo Reale and the monumental poise of Palazzo Madama demands time to digest; much more time if one wishes to become familiar with what’s under wraps inside. Piazza San Carlo with its score of historical cafes has few sightseeing attractions but Torinesi use this vast space as a public courtyard for day-to-day discussion. Every evening, the outdoor seating under the porticoes turns into one big conversation ground for the well-heeled; the open-air public benches are no less subordinate grounds for discussion but here the space is generally grabbed by groups of pensioners and seniors. Joining in the discussion, even if you’re a foreigner is accepted with pleasure but… most discussions often go overboard and then the speaking language changes from Italian to an adulterated Piemontese dialect which only the locals can understand.
West of Via Roma is the network of narrow intersecting streets that form the backbone of medieval Torino. Via Giuseppe Garibaldi, broader than the lot and entirely pedestrianized is a lovely half-mile-long shopping promenade where the young generation of Torinesi parade around to get the hang of what’s happening in the world of fashion. Parallel to Via Garibaldi is Via Barbaroux, a long alleyway full of character where the main features of attraction are the tempting displays of antiques: manuscripts, fine ceramics, original prints and paintings, religious items, furniture and all kinds of old knickknacks. Crossing Via Barbaroux at right angles are the pedestrianized aisles of Via San Tommaso and Via dei Mercanti, two intriguing passageways that embrace more antiquarians and lots of small squeezed-in shops that specialize in local products. Be it a box of chocolate pralines or a miscellany of tiny pastries, be it a savoury pie or a cream tart, each incorporates to an extent a touch and a taste of Torino. To manifest the made-in-Torino label, specialized shops dub their items with pseudonyms of Torino attractions. Torta Sabauda, Citronelli di Venaria Reale, Gianduiotti San Carlo and Gelato Carignano were but a few from the list of gastronomic delights I encountered (and savoured with passion) while I toured the area.
Taking into account the dozen or so churches I counted on the west side of the ‘centro storico’, I got the impression of being in a religious zone of Catholic fanaticism and devotional belief. But once I set foot inside and found the buildings bereft of believers, I soon became aware that devotion has for the most part gone the way of the dodo and the majority of Torino churches have subsequently mutated into unofficial museums of fine arts and antiques. Only few (and these happen to be those that embrace the finest attractions) are still working churches and these can obviously be visited only in the absence of service.
One such place of worship that doubles as a working church and a museum is the fifteenth-century Renaissance Duomo. Raised from the level of Piazza San Giovanni by a flight of steps, it is a failed attempt at grandeur, much below expectations and unworthy of a city that embraces such a wide diversity of fine buildings. Visitors who come here are often doubly disappointed. The Cathedral is plain outside and devoid of decoration inside. The highly flaunted Holy Shroud, supposedly on show in the Holy Shroud Chapel at the back of the left-hand aisle was somewhere under lock and key hidden to visitors. All I could see was a photographic representation behind a sheet of glass and a video that touched on the historical aspect of the shroud and made an attempt to flag up its controversial authenticity.
What the Duomo lacks in decoration comes to light in profusion in what is perhaps the city’s epitome of baroque. Located on the western edge of Piazza Castello, exactly near the entrance to the courtyard that fronts the Palazzo Reale, the Church of St Laurence has no façade, the latter having been swallowed up by a wing of the palace. For this reason, the church is alas… often missed out. Its interior, covered from floor to ceiling with multi-streaked marble of the finest quality is a showcase of intricate ornamentation, fine paintings, vivid ceiling frescoes and lots of gilt. Make your way into the sacristy where a life-size reproduction of the Holy Shroud, better than the one behind glass in the Duomo is on display for veneration and inspection.
Behind the Church of St Laurence on Via Palazzo di Citta stands the single-nave Church of Corpus Domini. Its polluted exterior is far from spectacular but the interior décor, satisfactorily conserved comprises lots of historical artefacts steeped in legend. A glimmering gold monstrance and a plaque still stand in commemoration of a miracle that has reputedly occurred on the feast day of Corpus Domini.
On the western side of Via Roma, one more church amidst the lot that stands out for its unusual design, architectural elegance and gilded interior is the Basilica of the Consolata. A ten-minute walk west off the Duomo along Via Santa Chiara, it is located a stone’s throw from Piazza Emanuele Filiberto, the central square that hosts most of the city’s nightlife. The church is composed of an elliptical main section that unfolds into four round chapels. The highlight is the baroque high altar, an exclusive marble composition enhanced by a fabulous altarpiece that depicts the image of the Consolata in weeping mode but heavily bedecked with gold. The gilded frame of the painting is in actual fact more outstanding than the picture itself. Go around inspecting the details of what hangs to the walls of the church and the corridor that leads to the sacristy. All these are votive offerings presented by the faithful to demonstrate their love and devotion for the heartbroken Madonna.
East of Piazza Emanuele Filiberto is the vast space of Piazza della Repubblica, known by common Torinesi as Piazza Porta Palazzo. Cut across into two equal zones by traffic-jammed Corso Regina Margherita, it is the venue of a daily open-air savoury food market. The area south of the thoroughfare is dedicated to fruits, vegetables and spices while on the north side, one finds stalls that specialize in exotic cheeses, strange peppery concoctions and lots of pickled vegetables. The shadowy Liber Pavilion nearby is a butchers’ domination downstairs and a delicatessens’ paradise upstairs. Off the Liber Pavilion is a covered fish market surrounded with hundreds of stalls that deal in cheap clothing. If you happen to be here on a Saturday, walk a few steps to Via Borgo Dora where a traditional flea market known as Balon is held. The range of bric-a-bracs on display is so wide that the market often swallows up as well most of Piazza della Repubblica.
East of Via Roma, the streets are wider, undemanding to navigate and straight as a ruler. The number of churches in this part of the ‘centro storico’ is far less than in the western zone and the only two of significance are the Church of St Philip Neri and the parish Church of the Annunziata. St Philip Neri, located right in front of the entranceway to the Museo Egizio deserves a visit if only to see the superb historical altarpiece above its monumental high altar. In the first chapel on the left as you enter is a nonstop-running English documentary that touches on the history of the place and exposes in detail all the decorative aspects of the church. The Annunziata Church on Via Po under the porticoes is composed of a single nave lined with five side chapels on each side. Each chapel embraces distinctive features (paintings, stucco work, statues in bronze, marble or wood) worthy of note but it is the curving high altar that attracts the attention of visitors. Don’t miss the tabernacle door overlaid with an oval hand-sculpted medallion in fine white Carrara marble.
Via Po cuts straight through the eastern part of the ‘centro storico’ from Piazza Castello to Piazza Vittorio Veneto. Lined with elegant porticoes and crammed with restaurants and take-away joints, it is the place that Torinesi frequent for their evening ‘passeggiata’. A side street (Via Montebello) midway on Via Po leads to the National Cinema Museum housed inside the Mole Antonelliana, unequivocally the loftiest building in the city. Even if retracing the history of cinema through hands-on exhibits is not your cup of tea, come here if only to take the elevator to the panoramic terrace from where the view over the entire city is excellent.