Cities Travel

Football, food and Fiat: A post-industrial pilgrimage to Turin

There are plenty of reasons to visit Turin: fine food and drink, fabulous Alpine vistas and a post-industrial vibe. But there's also the monument to Grande Torino, a unique piece of football heritage.

TURIN, squeezed between the Alps and the young Po River in the northwest corner of Italy, feels as if it occupies a liminal space between Western and Central Europe. With its tree-lined boulevards, Haussmann-esque public buildings and French-style kiosks it often looks almost Parisian, but it also has a distinctly Alpine feel, with a looming backdrop of tall, snow-capped mountains and coffee houses that wouldn’t look out of place in Vienna. But the superlative food and coffee, the ancient Roman remnants, the Renaissance churches – one of which hides the fraudulent Turin Shroud – and that idiosyncratic, almost casual stylishness expose a distinctively Italian city.

And it gets plenty of things right. Turin is immensely walkable (even during mid-winter, wrapped up in several layers and with my Finnish wooden hat clamped tight over my head), aesthetically striking with neon signs and faux-medieval banners hanging across broad, attractive streets, and blessed with a functional public transport system – trams are a welcome sight in any city.

Despite this, a city like Turin, which attracts far fewer tourists than the likes of Rome, Florence and Milan, is best explored on foot. You can get under the city’s skin, exploring nooks and crannies filled with small boutiques and bookshops – there are a lot of those – and traditional, wood-pannelled trattoria. Exploring a grid of narrow streets west of the Piazza Castello we discovered a tiny local restaurant, where we sat for a plate of agnolotti pasta – a Piemontese speciality – and a glass of surprisingly good Torinese beer.

But the best way to get a proper look out over the city of Turin is to take a sort of funicular railway from Sassi in the northeast corner of the city. As the carriage climbs, white Alpine slopes emerge in the distance like a painted backdrop in an old movie, and below that the city of Turin itself and the needle spire of the Molé Antonelliana, its symbol.

At the top of the hill is another Torinese icon, the Basilica di Superga. We came to this high vantage point on this chilly January day on a kind of pilgrimage. Not to the church – the Basilica di Superga is a fairly unremarkable late baroque building, and is bafflingly closed on winter afternoons anyway – but to a little hidden space behind the basilica’s grounds. Here, you’ll notice the walls are damaged and broken, and beneath them at the foot of the embankment, shaded by ivy and evergreens a small memorial, a cross, pennants, banners and scarves either side of 31 names.

Here is a spot steeped in history and etched into the Torinese psyche. The colours reveal everything: they are the rich maroon of Torino Football Club, and the most striking detail, an image of eleven players cast in muted colours speaks to the only sport that could inspire such devotion, and turn such an inauspicious monument into a potent site of pilgrimage.

Any follower of Italian football can tell you about Grande Torino. It was here that eighteen of its players – alongside club officials and journalists – were killed on 4 May 1949 when a chartered airline crashed into the side of the Superga hill. The disaster extinguished one of the most talented clubs every to play the game: five-time Italian champions, the backbone of a formidable national team, and awash with Herculean players like Valentino Mazzola, for many the finest individual to take to the pitch for the Azzurri. 

It’s impossible not to feel emotional. Here, these eighteen players, unparalleled in their time, have been allowed to ascend to godhood, like classical Greek heroes or ancient Egyptian pharoahs. But these are modern gods, for a city in which football transcends the travails of ordinary life. The Superga disaster therefore remains something that can unite fans of Torino and Juventus alike; on the date of the funeral, over a million Torinese took to the streets to pay tribute to these players. In some way, that the church itself remains in ruin gives the site an almost religious significance, and acknowledges that life, and the very fabric of the city of Turin, was changed irrevocably.

Torino FC are the locals’ club, and on our tour of the city almost everyone we came across made it clear that Granata were theirs.

As in all former industrial cities, football has long been part of the fabric of everyday life. Torino FC are the locals’ club, and on our tour of the city almost everyone we came across – from a bookshop owner to taxi drivers and waiters – made it clear that Granata were theirs.

For the international visitor, however, Juventus reign supreme. Their stranglehold over Italian football is in evidence all around you: eye-catching posters adorn every kiosk, and the club’s dreadful, corporate new logo seems almost to usurp the Italian flag as a local symbol. The Old Lady are Italy’s most succesful and most well-supported club, and in many ways they transcend the city, the country, and Serie A itself. It is no surprise that Andrea Agnelli, the club’s chairman, has been one of the most vocal supporters of a pan-European super league.

Another tram journey, this time winding through the city along flat ground from Porta Nouva station, took us to our match. Here, the brand-new Juventus Stadium, clad in the club’s Zebra stripes and glowing with bright white light looked almost ethereal in the cold, dark January evening. Fans were already flocking to the ground, but they were noticeable few in number, and the 41,000-seater stadium – ultra-modern, compact, accessible, and aesthetically arresting – looked half-empty. Indeed, Juventus, hit by a raft of fresh scandals, had the typically packed Curva Sud closed as punishment, shutting out 10,000 spectators.

It was an unremarkable match. Only a single Douglas Costa goal separated Juventus from their opponents Genoa, and the next 75 minutes passed by slowly. But, performance aside, Juventus truly felt like an important club.

The transformation of this institution into something modern and vibrant seems to reflect something of Turin itself, which ought to be in many ways a model for other post-industrial, Western European cities. Turin – and indeed Juventus – owes its status to the hundreds of thousands of Italians who flocked here to work for Fiat, the motor company with which the city was once synonymous.

The energy and creativity that industry brought to Turin can be felt all around the city, and this has been leveraged over the years into a rich artistic environment. In this respect, Turin has long been a leader, from the Torre Littoria, an early example of rationalist architecture, to the resplendent Art Nouveau buildings and the modern art scene that blossomed in the 1920s. Consequently its museum of modern art – a stark concrete building – is blessed with an impressive collection of local and national art. Better still is the enormously fun, interactive National Museum of Cinema kept within the Molé, a showcase of film history and an enormous exhibition of Italian film posters, as well as the venue for the Torino Film Festival, which captures something of the city’s artistic heritage for the modern age.

To me, Turin is the perfect urban space. Quiet, understated, but blessed with fine architecture, food, and a rich artistic culture, with a dash of transcendent football and a proper, functional tram network. It’s neither a sprawling, eclectic metropolis or a medieval Renaissance cathedral city, but somehow Turin seems to combine the best bits of both. But fundamentally, Turin is a modern city: its myths are modern, its art and design is modern, its football is modern and its atmosphere is modern.

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