The taxi delivers me to the address of my B&B in Turin, an elegant Art Nouveau building near the centre of town. I scrutinise rows of brass bells but none of them are marked with a name I recognise. I delay the taxi driver, rouse a waiter in the nearby café and disturb a cleaner ensconced in her linen closet. Finally the cleaner relents and with a sigh of resignation pushes a bell marked Cimoli.
“Second floor,” says a mysterious voice and the door clicks open.
Giant pulleys, which reach up to the ceiling on the sixth floor, clunk into action. I open the wrought iron gates, sniff the mahogany and squeeze into the one-person lift. Dora is there to greet me.
“The lift is old. She needs to take her time but she is good,” she says, reassuringly.
“Why is the B&B not marked on the bell?”
“For privacy,” she replies, with an enigmatic smile.
We clamber across a balcony overlooking an interior courtyard. Signoras on balconies beside, above and below us tend their plants, hang out their washing and sooth crying babies. Dora shows me to a tastefully furnished room. She is a translator who has travelled the world. Rather like the lift, she needs to take it slow. It takes about an hour to scan my passport but then I am released. Free to discover Turin.
I can’t stop walking – down cobbled Medieval streets, past Baroque churches and through Art Nouveau arcades, looking upwards to admire a flamboyant façade, a burst of Baroque. I never expected such elegance.
The streets are laid out as a grid, a legacy of the Romans, so it’s difficult to get lost. I peer into brass, marble and wood-panelled interiors of restaurants, shops and cafes.
No longer able to resist the artistry of a pasticceria display, nor the smells wafting out the doorway, I stop at a café in Piazza San Carlo. I eat cream filled pastries under the watchful eye of Emmanuele Filiberto, the man responsible for moving the Savoy court to Turin in the 1500s.
Refreshed I stroll down streets named after the great and the good – Francesco D’Assisi, lover of animals; Antonio Gramsci, one-time leader of the Italian Communist Party and Guiseppe Garibaldi, one of the founding fathers of Italy.
I arrive in Piazza Castello as people gather in the tiny Caffè Mulassano for an aperitif. A waiter in a bow tie serves me chilled Prosecco with a cut glass platter of delicious canapés. As I leave the Signora rings the brass cash register inlaid with swirling Art Nouveau flora and fauna. A mere 9 Euros for what will serve as my evening meal.
The following morning I explore one of the largest open markets in Europe. Breasts of white cheese suspended from makeshift stalls. Fresh pasta filled with sardines and lemon, mushrooms and everything. I glance up at the medieval clock and see that time is running out. I panic. I have missed a once in a life-time opportunity to visit the cathedral to see the Shroud, the piece of linen, said to bear the image of Christ. I have not visited any of the palazzos, showcasing the splendours of the Savoy court. Nor have I visited the recently refurbished Egyptian Museum.
I make my way to Mole Antonelliana, a former 19th-century synagogue, now a museum dedicated to Italian cinema – whatever happened to the Jewish community for which it was intended I wonder? At least one museum visit might salvage my conscience. But there are scores of tourists and school children outside the Mole Antonelliana and I hate queues. I turn into Via Po and stumble across a poster for a museum of the decorative arts. I walk under an archway and into an elegant palazzo where I find the reception to the Fondazione Accorsi-Ometto. Laura gives me my own personal tour of the 27 rooms of Pietro Accorsi’s collections. Pietro was of humble origins but, in the 20th century, rose to become, across Europe, one of the most significant collectors of 18th century decorative arts. As his wealth increased he started to furnish his house just outside Turin, where he lived with his sister, with some of his favourite purchases. The museum is where he held his office and some of the rooms replicate how his house used to be.
“So what is your favourite item?” I ask Laura, who studied art history in Turin and never left.
“The works by Piffetti,” she says with enthusiasm. “He was a genius.”
She points out a cabinet, a table, even a safe by Piffetti. Too elaborate for my taste but I can admire the skill. I prefer the original Chinese paintings on rice paper integrated into the furnishings and the decor. And the dining room with its Chinese inspired wallpaper.
I leave happy with this more intimate, museum experience, affected by Laura’s passion for this museum and her adopted city.
“You must come back,” says Dora as I leave her flat. “It’s a wonderful city. I wouldn’t live anywhere else in the world – hills on one side, mountains on the other and just the right size. And there’s plenty going on now – ever since we had the Winter Olympics.”
I wave goodbye to the signoras still on their balconies, take the lift down – the slow lift. I will be back – maybe to visit everything I missed or maybe just to stroll those seductive streets.