Ye olde travel guide: Turin, 1887

In the latest instalment of our historical holidays series, in which experts imagine they're writing a travel guide in the past, Diana Bretherick invites visitors to enjoy a beacon of culture, but one with a dark reputation as a centre of black magic

(Illustration: Jonty Clark for BBC History Magazine)

This article was first published in the January 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine

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If the legends are true, the devil lurks around every corner in this, the birthplace of Italian unification. But travellers fear not, for alongside its cultural delights, the city boasts a Christian relic that continues to amaze and perplex: the Shroud of Turin, which many believe wrapped the body of Christ

When to go

Being so far north, Turin does not have a Mediterranean climate. Instead it has hot summers and during autumn and winter it is rather damp and notable for its fog.

Turin’s famous criminologist Professor Cesare Lombroso is of the view that hot weather tends to encourage violent crime. With this in mind it might be best to avoid the summer months altogether. September would probably be a safer bet.

What to take with you

A stout cane and a good pair of comfortable walking shoes are essential in this city. Because of the damp climate there are countless covered walkways lined with shops and cafes, a feature that makes walking through the city a pleasure.

It might also be advisable to take with you a talisman warding off evil spirits and demons, as the city is alleged to be a centre for Satanism and black magic.

Costs and money

It would be better to deal in cash only. There has just been an economic collapse after a construction boom. Property prices are beginning to plummet and, as a result, banking is considered by most Torinese to be rather precarious. Prices in Turin are high so make sure that you have with you plenty of lire, the local currency.

Sights and activities

There is plenty to see and do in Turin, particularly if you are interested in art and history. The Galleria Sabauda houses an impressive art collection. In the same building you can find the Museo Egizio – the largest and most prized collection of Egyptian artefacts to be found outside of Egypt itself.

A visit to Cesare Lombroso’s Museum of Criminal Anthropology is a must. You will need permission from the man himself as it is not open to the public. But as Lombroso is an inveterate show-off, access will no doubt be granted, most probably with a guided tour thrown in to boot. Here you will find all manner of criminal curiosities – from skulls and death masks taken from convicted offenders, to works of art made by prisoners from Italian jails.

For music lovers the Teatro Carignano is a Torinese favourite, and has seen performances by luminaries such as Paganini and Toscanini, among others.

The city’s 15th-century cathedral holds a shroud many believe once wrapped the body of Christ. You’ll be lucky to catch a glimpse of it, though: the last time the shroud was on public display was the marriage of King Humbert I in 1868.

Dangers and annoyances

Pickpockets and muggers are a problem in Turin, as in any city. But, thanks to Lombroso’s work, we can now identify criminals from their physical characteristics and therefore avoid them altogether. If you encounter a man with jug ears, thick hair, a thin beard and a protruding chin, you may wish to cross to the other side of the street.

Do be mindful of the city’s devilish reputation. Decline any invitations to small, late evening gatherings in the vicinity of the Piazza Statuto. This is supposedly the location of the gates of Hell.

Sleeping and accommodation

The city still has some fine hotels, but some have closed since the honour of being the new Italy’s capital was lost to Florence in 1864 (an honour that went on to Rome in 1871). The subsequent departure of the political elite, a fall in the population and an unstable economy have not helped make Turin a tourist destination, even though it has so much to offer.

Eating and drinking

In many of the hotel restaurants the French influence is still apparent. However if you take time to seek out some of the local trattorias you will find some excellent cuisine at a reasonable price. Try grissini – crisp breadsticks – that were invented here, or hearty dishes such as risotto from locally grown rice, or finanziera – a fragrant stew made of chicken offal. Establishments such as Caffé Norman or Caffé San Carlo cater for those with a lighter appetite and an eye for extravagant decor. Small tasty snacks known as stuzzichini are served, as a matter of course, with any drinks ordered. Also recommended is Al Bicerin, a small establishment in the Piazza della Consolata which serves a local speciality of the same name, an unmissable mix of coffee, chocolate and cream.

Emergencies

Turin has two law enforcement agencies, the Carabinieri and the Public Security Police. It is not unusual for both to turn up at the scene of a crime and squabble over who is in charge. It might be easier to solve the crime yourself.

Diana Bretherick is author of City of Devils, a crime novel set in 19th-century Turin (Orion, 2013)


Turin today

Damp, dark and dangerous: Diana Bretherick’s Turin is, in many ways, a world away from the elegant and cosmopolitan modern city of today.

While the Mole Antonelliana, a towering aluminium spike that graces the Italian two-cent coin, appeals most to landmark-hunting locals, the Museo Egizio is still the finest Egyptian museum outside Cairo.

Turin’s biggest draw remains hidden from view: the Shroud of Turin. The real thing is displayed on rare occasions, but the Museo della Sindone tells the story of its ongoing mystery. Turin is almost as well known as the home of resurgent Fiat cars, and the equally bouncing-back Juventus football team.

With such gripping present-day attractions it’s easy to overlook the fascinating history of the city itself and its role, particularly, in the unification of Italy, so a stop at the Museo Nazionale del Risorgimento Italiano is rightly considered essential for all visitors.

If you like your Italian cities packed with monuments then aim for Milan, a hop along the railway line from Turin. For another great ‘city plus mountains’ combination try Santiago, Chile.

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Tom Hall, travel editor, lonelyplanet.com. You can read more of his articles at the website