When you’re planning to city-hop and photo-op in a stopover to The City of the Seven Hills, don’t count on everything going to plan. As I found out this weekend, Italian train strikes are terribly fickle creatures.
The original plan, circa Thursday the 26th, had been that a group of 6 of us exchange girls would head to the Italian capital city for the weekend, but since 3–me included– had class on Friday, we split the group in two. The first 3 would set out on Thursday evening and my trio would follow a day later. Little did we know, the entire Italian rail system would go on strike for 24 hours between 9 PM Thursday and 9 PM Friday, shifting our entire schedule back by 8 hours and eating an entire day out of our planned Latin gallivanting.
Ever the gung-ho and quick-thinking trailblazers (admittedly with the help of brief panic, wine, and too many sandwiches in the Menton train station’s lounge), we regrouped and looked for a city we might reach easily enough in the morning that still offered the break from small-town living we were hoping for. Florence? Geneva? Aix-en-Provence? We settled on Turin, a measly 4-hour train ride compared to the 10 we’d have taken to Roma, and one place none of the three of us had visited yet.
The vistas were gray and commanding through the Alps in the early morning, as we rode through craggy ravines and stark passes veiled in mist in our one-car train. Here and there villages poked out through rock, many with the same orange and red-tiled roofs that we see along the coast. At Breil-Sur-Roya, a station between Ventimiglia and Cuneo when our route dipped back into France, I watched groggy sweatered men drink their coffee in the station bar until the mousy signalman (such jobs still exist!) waved us off.
We arrived just past 1 PM in Porta Nuova train station. Since the other two girls wouldn’t be using their Rome train tickets (I have a Eurail pass, so I only needed reservations, not a full ticket) we went directly to the Trenitalia desk. None of us speak Italian, but the Trenitalia officials waved us off when we asked if anyone spoke English, French, Spanish, even laughing at us when I suggested German. Not out of the question, we thought, but we were directed to Paciano (something like that?) at the next desk who understood enough French to immediately print out all six of the tickets that Ciera and Lauren had booked online. Errr… with a look of horror or her face, the girls realized the trio already in Rome were now without tickets, since you can’t exactly print the same tickets twice. Paciano waved his hands when we objected, asking us over and over how we were going to send the tickets to the Rome group and became immediately ornery when we tried to explain that, no, we wanted to change two tickets and leave the rest alone. He called over a manager, who spoke even less English/French/Arabic/German/Spanish/Dutch, who called over another manager, who called a lady who finally did speak enough French to be patient with us. Reexplaining the predicament, it became clear that the only possible solution was to claim a refund on all of the tickets and then rebook, including the tickets for the girls in Rome. Ah.
Frustrated, but with the refund form filled out, we looked for a hotel. The two available hostels in Turin are well outside the city center, so we took a look around the vicinity of the train station just for kicks. After a few, we found the Hotel Napoleon, where the gregarious manager (we named him Guiseppe, I have no idea of his actual name) invited us in and gave us a deal, including breakfast and a warm, clean room– more convenient and just about the same price as either of the hostels: finally something in our favor.
After a photo session on our little balcony, we ventured out into the city. Despite the cold and the rain, the place is beautiful.
My first food in Turin: a steaming cup of Caffe D’Orzo. Seeing the name on the menu and finding no other association but Orzo pasta, I had to investigate. It turns out that this is a beverage often served to children as a substitute to coffee (imagine training-wheels for espresso) because it is made with roasted barley and is therefore caffeine-free. I was instantly smitten with its dark and smoky taste, while still getting that the jolt of bitterness without the actual jitters from caffeine. Mmmmm… healthy…
There was some sort of protest going on in the Piazza Madama to free what appeared to be an Italian socialist party leader. A short woman with a very prominent lip-ring came over and shouted at us not to take pictures but wouldn’t say anything else as to what was going on. I still want to know what they were protesting exactly.
Especially when they leave hooks like this one:
It began to snow just as we entered the promenade to the residence of the Royal House of Savoy.
…which was closed. Following our noses, we came to the 15th century Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist, where the sacred Shroud of Turin is kept. Even as a nonbeliever, this is still a site to see. There was a copy of the Last Supper on the back wall, shrines to various saints decked in gold and ornate frescos, beautiful light grey marble floors, vaulted ceilings… There was a children’s sermon going on, and I was reminded a lot of the Hanging Church in Cairo, with the shape of the nave in relation to the two aisles, the abundance of decorations on the shrines, and the white arches separating the two being relatively low to other cathedrals I have visited.
Back in the winter air, we headed toward the Porta Palazzo Market on the Piazza della Republica. Ordinarily it is one of, if not the biggest open-air markets in Europe. We arrived late in the afternoon, so most of the stalls were already shut down, but we got a great view of the fruit and vegetable stalls that themselves covered more than a city block.
Hearing French, Italian, English, even Arabic among the apples and peppers and rutabagas, I felt very much at home.
We went inside to the meat market, where things were equally expansive.
We fetched assorted pastries from a bakewares stall and warmed up by walking around a kitschy mall off the main square that was built on top of the 17th century icehouse complex of the Royal House of Savoy.
After a stretch of shoe stores, trinket shops along the lines of Hallmark, and an “American style” barbecue grill… the Virgin Mary in her glass box.