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A view of Turin, Italy, with the main city landmark, the Mole Antonelliana, at right, and the Alps in background. One million people is expected to visit Turin during the 2006 Winter Games. Many other tourists are expected to visit the city, completely remodeled on the occasion, and enjoy its world-class food and wines, after the Feb. 10-26 Olympics.
A view of Turin, Italy, with the main city landmark, the Mole Antonelliana, at right, and the Alps in background. One million people is expected to visit Turin during the 2006 Winter Games. Many other tourists are expected to visit the city, completely remodeled on the occasion, and enjoy its world-class food and wines, after the Feb. 10-26 Olympics. (AP Photo/Massimo Pinca)
 If you go: Turin

Revved up

Their kingdom besieged by Olympians, the Torinesi show their mettle in the race for Italy's tourists

Email|Print| Text size + By John Powers
Globe Staff / February 5, 2006

Hannibal came and went. The Italian Parliament left town nearly a century and a half ago. Fiat has been gradually going elsewhere for years now. What endures in this old industrial city at the foot of the Alps is the chocolate. It's piled in mini-mountains in the shop windows along the Via Roma, tucked into elegant boxes at the Pasticceria Gertosio, served up double-strength in gelato, mixed with hazelnuts to make Nutella, blended with coffee and milk to create bicerin, which the Torinesi have been sipping for centuries.

The capital of the old Kingdom of Savoy may be undergoing the most massive facelift in its history to prepare for Friday's opening of the XXth Winter Olympics, with cranes and drills and steam shovels everywhere. But for more than three centuries, one constant here has been the cocoa bean and the imaginative ways in which residents put it to use.

Thus the ChocoPass, which may attract as many visitors during the next few weeks as figure skating, alpine skiing, and skeleton sledding, and at considerably lower prices. For 10 euros (about $12), chocoholics can stuff themselves full of candy, cakes, and cocoa over 24 hours at cafes and shops all over town. Twenty euros (about $24) buys five days' worth of sugar shock.

The ChocoPass is a shameless but seductive ploy by the city's merchants to lure the curious to this obscure northwest corner of the country, which traditionally has been known for little more than automobiles, the Shroud of Turin, and Juventus, the soccer team with its storied striped shirts. Those weren't enough to woo tourists away from Rome, Florence, and Venice, the country's touristic holy trinity. Where's Turin, people used to ask former mayor Valentino Castellani when he traveled around the continent. ''West of Milano," he would reply.

That began changing seven years ago when the International Olympic Committee chose Turin over the Swiss hamlet of Sion, a fellow finalist to host its quadrennial global sleigh ride, which hasn't been held in Italy in half a century, or since Cortina d'Ampezzo in 1956. When Asian newspapers ran a locator graphic the next day with Turin in upper-case letters, Castellani, who now heads the organizing committee, knew that his city finally was on the international map.

The Games, which will run from Feb. 10-26, are the engine driving what residents, with both pride and annoyance, call the ''cambiamento," the $6 billion changeover that is transforming what used to be a ''Detroit with castles" into a 21st-century destination city, or as Turin likes to say, ''the location for encounters and innovations."

By the time the work is done, Turin will have an expanded airport, a new train station with underground rails, a renovated open-air market at Porto Palazzo, a new residential neighborhood on the banks of the Dora River, and a broad ''Backbone Avenue" running through its center.

Yet the Torinesi have taken care to preserve the city's 17th-century grandeur, its expansive piazzas, its numerous gardens, its Baroque and Belle Epoque architecture, its 11 miles of arcaded sidewalks, and the Mole Antonelliana, the towering spire that is the city's most prominent landmark.

Still, Turin's most enticing and overlooked attraction may be its food and wine, which many gourmands consider the country's best. When the IOC forbade its members from visiting potential host cities in the wake of the Salt Lake City bidding scandal, the Torinesi were distraught. If the lords of the rings couldn't sample the vitello tonnato or the risotto with truffles, sip a vintage Barbaresco or munch on gianduiotti, what chance would Turin have against the fondue-dipping Swiss?

Now that the world is dropping by for lunch for a few weeks, the locals finally have their chance to show off Piedmontese cuisine, which is unmatched for rib-sticking savor. For those who have had a bellyful of Tuscan knockoffs, the menu is a revelation -- from ''grissini," the freshly-baked breadsticks, to ''agnolotti," the half-moon raviolis stuffed with meat or vegetables or cheese, to ''brasato al Barolo," the wine-braised beef, to cheeses like Gorgonzola and fontina to desserts like ''bonet," a chocolate flan or mousse. The red wines, made from the Nebbiolo grape, are among the best in Italy.

Fortunately, Turin is made for walking off calories, with ample opportunities to window shop during a post-dinner stroll. One of the best routes is along the Via Roma, which runs from the Porta Nuova station (where most trains arrive) to the Piazza Castello, which will be the celebratory centerpiece of the Games. Its covered walkways pass through the Piazza Carlo Felice (a perpetual construction site, it seems), the Piazza CLN (with its twin marble fountains), and the Piazza San Carlo (with its 19th-century equestrian statue of Emanuele Filiberto di Savoia).

Duck down a side street and you'll come upon the Museo Egizio, the most prominent Egyptian museum outside of Cairo, and the nearly 300-year-old Teatro Carignano. Reminders of the city's glory days are all around, most notably in the area around the Piazza Castello, which includes the royal armory (Armeria Reale), library (Biblioteca Reale), palace (Palazzo Reale), and gardens (Giardini Reali). Nearby is the Mole, with its 530-foot needle, its cinema museum (Italian film was born here), and a terrace that provides a panoramic view all the way to the Alps.

From there, if stamina and shoe leather suffice, you can walk along the Via Garibaldi to Il Quadrilatero, the city's bohemian district, with its cafes, galleries, bars, and boutiques. The other neighborhoods worth seeing are best reached by taxi. Lingotto, site of the old Fiat factory and most of the Olympic ice venues, has been undergoing a post-industrial makeover. Across the Po River, La Collina, the villa-dotted hill section where the wealthy reside, has upscale shops.

Not that Turin, which once was on the Grand Tour, is ever going to challenge the touristic trinity; Rome, Florence, and Venice simply have too great a head start. What the Torinesi are hoping is that the Olympics does for their city what the 1992 Summer Games did for Barcelona, which has gone from a ramshackle, dead-in-the-water port to one of the continent's hottest cities. ''By hosting the Olympics, Barcelona discovered again the sea," Castellani mused last year. ''We shall conquer again the mountains."

What Turin has all to itself is the Alps and some of Europe's best skiing in Sestriere, which will host the Games' Alpine events. Time was when Turin was the western gateway to Italy and once a new tunnel provides three-hour rail access from Paris, it should be again. The cambiamento may have turned this old Roman settlement upside down, but the mountains aren't going away. Neither is the chocolate.

Contact John Powers at jpowers@globe.com.

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