Originating on the Italian-French border, exactly where the narrow steep-sided vales that crisscross the mighty northwest Alps merge, the River Po is Italy’s longest and most exploited waterway. Near the medieval town of Saluzzo in the Po valley, the river changes course; it then flows northwards for thirty-five miles towards Torino. North of here, the river veers east and resumes its eastbound course for more than three-hundred-fifty miles towards the Adriatic Sea. En route, it flows through the outskirts of Piacenza, Cremona, Mantua and Ferrara, draining the surplus rainwater of these cities and channelling it into the sea. The Po does not flow through Milano but a series of man-made canals direct the excess rainwater from Milano to the river, thus augmenting excessively the volume of water the river is required to take in. In the neighbourhood of Venezia, the river branches out into several canals that unfold into the Po Delta, an extensive area of marshland, flooded lakes and fabulous landscape.
The five-mile section of the Po that traverses Torino is for the most part wide, deep and clean enough to render the water clear. However, samples of water tested for invisible contamination indicate that the river is polluted with industrial chemicals and oil spills and so is unsuitable for swimming. For this reason, all forms of water sports are in utter short supply or non-existent and with the exception of boating, no other activities are evident on the river. Taking the regular ferry from the quay under Ponte Umberto for a one-hour trip along the river is definitely not influenced by pollution and so highly recommended, particularly for those whose time in the city is limited to one or two days. The excursion with a recorded commentary in Italian (in English by appointment and at specified times only) takes in the sightseeing attractions on both banks and covers the stretch between Ponte Vittorio Emanuele and Ponte Balbis, the total distance of the one-way journey being two-and-a-half miles.
Facing the ‘centro storico’, the left bank of the river from Ponte Vittorio Emanuele to Ponte Umberto is a breathing space ideal for whiling the time in leisurely pursuits. Slipping away from the lively activities on Piazza Vittorio Veneto nearby is no mean feat but for a change of scene, it is wise to traverse the road and take the steps down from the edge of Ponte Vittorio Emanuele to the river promenade. Well below street level, the promenade, unlike the square is serene and placid, its atmosphere of tranquillity enhanced by the undisturbed water of the river and the sober grace of scenic greenery on the right bank. Strolling along the promenade between the bridges in moonlight is the pursuit of romantics. It is here along this sequestered walkway that amorous Torinesi couples hang around in quiet away from the noisy activity of city life. Showing up here on a Sunday afternoon, one finds however an entirely contrasting scene. Still quiet by the standards of an exuberant city life, the area is dominated by picnicking families, children playing, adults reading and lots of skateboarders.
A walk along the proper left-bank promenade starts right in front of Piazza Vittorio Veneto under the Vittorio Emanuele Bridge and ends under the picturesque Umberto Bridge, a mighty structure embellished with a pair of allegorical bronze casts on each side. Climbing the steps or the slipway incline from the river promenade brings one right in front of a monumental arch dedicated to artillery. Known as the ‘Arco Monumentale all’Arma di Artiglieria’, it is a mild attempt at constructing a miniature Marble Arch at the junction of two big thoroughfares: Corso Vittorio Emanuele and Corso Cairoli. Graceful and overspread with bas-reliefs of war memorabilia but far from grand, the Artillery Memorial is however an important signpost as it marks the northern edge of what is Torino’s largest and most frequented parkland. Nearby is the gigantic statue of Garibaldi (the grand reformist and cofounder of the mid-nineteenth-century Risorgimento movement) watching over as if to guarantee that Italy will remain politically ‘young’ forever.
Torino’s sole parkland is composed of an elongated zone of greenery bounded from the east by the subsequent extension of the left bank of the Po and from the west by busy Corso Massimo d’Azeglio, a major road that connects the southern suburbs with the centre. The park, referred to as Parco del Valentino is nowhere wider than half-a-mile but lengthwise, it stretches out from Ponte Umberto to Ponte Principessa Isabella, a distance of almost two miles. Being so extensive, one needs a lot of time, stamina and dedication to go around the entire park and sightsee all its major attractions. For this reason, it is advisable for short-stay visitors to take the park’s sightseeing train that strays along the main routes and takes in most of the points of interest.
Parco del Valentino is an evening mecca for Torinesi who flock here to picnic on the grass or embark on an open-air activity of their choice. Be it jogging, cycling or rollerblading, be it zumba or capoeira, each sporting activity is encouraged through the use of facilities appropriately set up in the park for practice. Every Sunday afternoon, the park is literally invaded by thousands of local teenagers who come here to meet friends and spend hours of entertainment together. Organized leisure activities like live band music, pop concerts and disco dancing are not uncommon, adding to the atmosphere of amusement and delight. Parco del Valentino does not sleep either. Right on the water’s edge, the former rowing and regatta clubs have all been transformed into moneymaking nightclubs, reputedly the most noisy, smoky and ‘underground’ in the entire Torino area. How can life in the park ever sleep if the air remains thick with rowdiness until the wee hours of the morning?
To enjoy the true natural beauty the park is supposedly intended for, consider coming here on a weekday in the morning when the number of visitors wandering around is limited to tourists and school children. Starting from the entranceway near Ponte Umberto, make your way along one of the tree-sheltered winding pathways to the extensive Botanical Gardens. Comprising a rock garden with exotic cacti, a colourful rose garden with lots of quirky specimens, a play area for children and several canals and ponds overflowing with splashing water, it is unquestionably a spot where to wind down after the bustle of the city centre. Bordering the Botanical Gardens is Castello Valentino, a grand French-style horseshoe-shaped palace that is as grandiose as it looks. Its flamboyant façade lined with rows of ornate windows and dotted with monoliths of Savoy dukes matches for style its elegant interior, crammed as it is with frescoes and lots of intricate stucco work. Currently housing the university’s faculty of architecture, the interior can be visited by appointment only in the absence of lectures.
A good walk south along Viale Virgilio leads to the Borgo Mediovale, a medieval Piemontese village that comes complete with a chapel, a number of artisans workshops, a quarter for aristocrats and a Gothic castle crammed with period furniture. Everything looks and feels authentic enough as to render unbelievable the fact that the village is a fake late-nineteenth-century construction. In spite of its deceptive appearance, it is nonetheless an outstanding example of its kind and should on no account be missed.
Off the Borgo Mediovale, a short stroll south is the ‘Fontana dei dodici mesi’, a stepped marble fountain of gigantic proportions girdled with twelve allegorical statues, one for each month of the year. Nearby is the graceful Ponte Principessa Isabella that marks off the termination of the park.
The right bank of the Po, reachable via one of the bridges is bordered by a narrow belt of greenery that stretches from Ponte Vittorio Emanuele to Ponte Principessa Isabella. But the most inspiring section lies exactly south of Ponte Vittorio Emanuele. As one crosses this chaotic overpass to the right bank, one comes face to face with what is perhaps Torino’s most unusual place of worship. Called the Church of the Mother of God, it is a circular sanctuary that gets its light from a skylight placed conveniently at the apex of the dome. No artificial lighting is therefore necessary to view its interior. More interesting than the church is the panoramic view one can enjoy from the church parvis.
Only steps away is Via Gaetano Giardino, a steep tree-shaded incline that brings one on a hilly outcrop called Monte dei Capuccini. Arduous and exhausting, the walk pays off with a gem of a church crowning the top of the hill. Glimmering with gilded ornamentation, the church, though small contains enough paintings and works of art to keep one occupied for at least an hour. From the terrace outside the church, the splendid view over the city and the banks of the Po is unequivocally the best in Torino.