A city with drive

Stephen Bayley takes a pit stop in Turin, and finds the hometown of Fiat is fuelled by fast cars and fabulous food
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The Independent Travel

Turin is the most French of Italian cities. While Milan is the most German. But, of course, each is also distinctively Italian. Once politically connected to Savoy, Turin's dialect has strong French inflections. One of the city's famous old cafés was called the Caval d'Brons (bronze horse). Many of the tools used in the famous carrozzerie (the old horse-drawn coach-builders who evolved into the great car designers to give such shape, point and thrust to the city's image) have French names: batoir, tas à cheur, rabôt, varlet.

Turin is the most French of Italian cities. While Milan is the most German. But, of course, each is also distinctively Italian. Once politically connected to Savoy, Turin's dialect has strong French inflections. One of the city's famous old cafés was called the Caval d'Brons (bronze horse). Many of the tools used in the famous carrozzerie (the old horse-drawn coach-builders who evolved into the great car designers to give such shape, point and thrust to the city's image) have French names: batoir, tas à cheur, rabôt, varlet.

Turin is also international. The province of Piedmont has always been a crossroads: at one time the old Orient Express passed through here. But there is something about the modest size and good manners of the city that removes it from the competitive league of big, noisy, dangerous, cosmopolitan cities. To call Turin "provincial" would be unkind. Instead, Mon- tesquieu said it is the "finest village in the world". Accordingly, it has always attracted distinguished visitors who have enjoyed and recorded its exceptional architectural character.

One distinguishing feature of the townscape is the fabulous legacy of baroque buildings and planning left by Guarino Guarini and Filippo Juvara. Another is the distinctive porticoes, made necessary by the changeable climate. The painter Giorgio de Chirico stopped here in 1911 and painted Turin's famous tower, Juvara's Mole Antonelliana. A haunting memory of the 15km of portici stayed with him long after he had left Piedmont. These arcades make Turin dignified, but are a pleasure for the modern visitor, too.

Turin donated its architectural character to the dreamscape of de Chirico's metaphysical canvasses. But there are other philosophical connections. The restless, tormented philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche settled here. His friend Heinrich Köselitz had advised him that the serenity of Turin might be a remedy to quell the riot in his brilliant, diseased brain. Indeed, Nietzsche found the "aristocratic tranquility" of the city a solace after years of European travel and calamitous crises of career, health and psychology. In January 1889 he collapsed on a Turin street, an event that marked the beginning of his final decline into syphilitic madness.

Pleasure's debt to Turin is vast. Grissini, those snapping bread sticks you eat while waiting for guests in restaurants, were first commercialised here by Antonio Brunero in 1679. They were a favourite of Napoleon who took "les petits batons de Turin" with him on manoeuvres. It was in a shop where he worked as an assistant on Piazza Castello that Antonio Benedetto Carpano released his first vermouth in 1786. The name is a corruption of wormwood, or artemisia absinthium, a specific against hemlock poisoning and a powerful love charm. These qualities have clear benefits in a flavouring of alcoholic drink. Accordingly, a heavy-bottomed glass of Carpano jammed with ice is a Turin institution: in 1870 when a stockbroker wanted a half measure of bitter cinchona (quinine) added to his sweet vermouth he ordered a punt e mes (one and a half measures), and a new drinks brand was born.

As Piedmont's capital, Turin has an extraordinarily rich food culture. Piedmont's timeless nebbiolo grape gives us Italy's finest red wines: Barolo, Barbaresco, Gattinara, Carema and Ghemme. But it is not only brands, rather produce and dishes that make Turin gastronomically famous. The white truffles of Alba are generally thought superior to the black truffles of Umbria or Perigord. Turin can also claim agnolotti (giant ravioli), bagna cauda (anchovy sauce for dipping raw vegetables), bollito misto (the formidable arrangement of boiled meats usually served with salsa verde) and fonduta (fondue made with truffles and melted local fontina cheese). Turin's food stores are epic. The gorgeous Pastificio Defilippis on via Lagrange was, for instance, the inspiration for Antonio Carluccio.

There are many ghosts and presences in Turin, but the most prominent is the Agnelli family. They own La Stampa, Turin's fine newspaper. They also own the beloved "La FIAT". The name is an acronym for Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino, a product of a late 19th-century nationalist moment in the new state of Italy as interest groups established modern expertise. Turin got cars.

Born in 1866, the original Giovanni Agnelli was an officer from Piedmont's harsh cavalry school at Pinerolo. With colleagues, who saw in the car an aristocratic plaything, they established Fiat on 11 July 1899. The Number One Fiat was manufactured later that year. With its 679cc twin, 4.5hp engine, tiller steering and rudimentary brakes, it had a top speed of 20mph. Agnelli's son Edoardo inherited the business, but was killed in a bizarre seaplane acccident. Edoardo's own son was Gianni: famous first as a playboy, Gianni Agnelli matured into not merely Italy's leading industrialist, but Italy's leading person (Popes included).

Agnelli had about him an air of ironic melancholy which reflected Turin itself. Stupendously wealthy, he believed "everything is on loan in life - everything". Once described as "too rich for mere quality", Gianni Agnelli developed fashion idiosyncrasies. His button-down collars were undone, his watch worn outside the cuff. Deeply tanned and immaculately tailored, late in life he started wearing crêpe-soled Tod's with his Savile Row suits.

Gianni's own son Edoardo was a sensitive aesthete (after too many misdaventures with drugs, he threw himself off a bridge). Instead, the heir was to be Gianni's nephew, Giovannino. I once did the Brighton Run with Giovannino in that very same Number One Fiat. With its total loss lubrication, depositing spoiled gunk on the A23, this aristocratic plaything had to be re-victualled with oil every few miles. Still, we rumbled on to reach Brighton in eight hours. Giovannino died in 1997 aged just 32, his uncle in 2003 aged 81. And now I am in Turin to meet their successor at Fiat. But first, a night on the town.

To stay, some prefer the suburban luxury of the Villa Sassi, but my love of Italian urban classics drove me to the new hotel in Lingotto, La Fiat's first factory on Turin's corso Dante. This is a spectacular Futurist conceit of 1916, designed in concrete by the engineer Giacomo Matté Trucco. With its amazing helical ramps and vast length, it was an architectural expression of La FIAT's metropolitan presence and an architectonic diagram of the principles of mass-production. There was a lunatic test-track on the roof where a memorable sequence of The Italian Job was filmed. Now the production line has gone, but the vast building has been redeveloped by Italy's leading architect, Renzo Piano. The assembly lines have been replaced by a vast shopping mall and a congress centre, no lovelier than their type anywhere.

Lingotto has one traditional hotel, but it also has the new Art + Tech where Renzo Piano's imagination has not been dulled by conservative management. A first for me, Art + Tech has Roland Barthes's trope about "cars are our cathedrals" on its brochure and inside, "the most amazing cafe in Turin" suspended in space. Nietzsche may not have found it tranquil, but would surely have been impressed by the swooshing glass-walled lifts and plasma screens in the immaculate modernismo of the bedrooms. Art + Tech is, given its location, surrounded by arc-lit railway sidings and car parks, but the impact of these is nicely diffused by Po Valley mist.

A historical architectural walk before dinner is a priority. Guarino Guarini came from Rome to design the Capella della Santa Sindone, the home of Turin's Holy Shroud. It's an obvious * attraction, but another imported architect made an even greater contribution. This was Filippo Juvara, a Sicilian from Messina. Juvara worked in an exceptionally inventive version of the baroque style. His basilica known as Superga is a six-mile taxi ride east. Sitting magnificently about 2,000ft above the city, it was hit by a plane carrying the football team in 1949. There is something specially Torinese and secular about this accident. Back in the city, a stroll around the vastly beautiful Piazza san Carlo and, very probably, a glass of Carpano at the Torino, which inspired Nietzsche to say Turin had "the most beautiful Caffes I have ever seen".

The choice for dinner illustrates the agreeable contrasts of Turin. The classic resort is the Ristorante del Cambio on Piazza Carignano. A long, high-ceilinged salon with red plush and chandeliers, it's an 18th-century classic with a menu to match. Cavour drank his bicerin, a hypnotising mix of coffee and chocolate, here.

By way of dramatic contrast is La Pista. Italians only reluctantly acknowledge health and safety at work, so Lingotto's famous, lofty banked oval has been replaced by the Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli, La FIAT's helipad (whose testicular glass departure lounge brings the style of The Italian Job up-to-date) and this very fine restaurant. The name means "track" and La Pista is, appropriately, best accessed by car, experiencing Matté Trucco's vertiginous and giddying helical ramps, as if you are a transmission component about to be incorporated into a Balilla or a Cinquecento. You park on the roof and gaze across the city at the Alps.

La Pista is modern, but elegantly so in that Italian fashion. The style of the food is inspired by la cultura del gusto, the culture of taste. The aim is a sub- Blumenthal exploration of gastro-possibilities. So, you can drink a local Moscato d'Asti or a Tuscan Soave Monte Fiorentine. So, you can eat fillet of red mullet with very thin pasta in a vegetable sauce and a dressing made with balsamic vinegar. More adventurously, pasta ribbons with basil and a sauce of scorpion fish with tomato.

So the next day, and in fabulously Italian fashion, they have changed my meeting. Not simply the time, but the entire city. After a harrowing drive to Milan I greet Lapo Elkann in the epically gloomy Palazzo Durini Caproni di Taledo. This is the headquarters of the department store La Rinascente in which Fiat, almost inevitably, has an interest. Lapo, is the younger son of Margherita Agnelli. With his brother, Jaki, he represents the family control of Fiat. He is as engaging as his grandfather.

In two hours of very fast, curiously accented English we never lose eye contact... except when one of several mobiles rings, as they do. Often. He is also as restless as his grandfather. When visiting his seven houses, Gianni Agnelli never took a suitcase. He once went to Africa for half an hour. Lapo has also inherited his grandfather's strong sense of style. Vanity Fair had him as one of the best-dressed men in the world. I know: he showed me the Italian tricolore lining his suit jacket. We had a brilliant, eccentric, turbulent meeting, as much of body language as of minds. Then he drove to Monza. As a parting gift he tossed us the keys and said, "Take my Ferrari back to Torino."

Gianni Agnelli told Sally Bedell Smith, 'doing things without giving the impression of suffering is a question of good manners. To let people think you are carrying a huge weight is an undeveloped-world approach to life'. So we start her up in the courtyard of the Palazzo Durini. A feral howl echoes around the portici. The Ferrari 575M is a direct, if unexpected, descendent of that Number One Fiat. Five hundred horsepower, ravishingly voluptuous looks, an aristocratic plaything. Although, given the congested reality of the autostrada, a Volkswagen van has no problems keeping up with us, this Ferrari is an extremely fast car. And you contemplate the absurdity as you pass (briefly achieving about 240km/h) north of Bra, home of a famous sausage (salsiccia di Bra) and home too of Carlo Petrini's Slow Food organisation, the most significant political movement of modern times.

Petrini believes that GM foods lead to a "loss of knowledge and wisdom". Slow Food has a biannual Salone del Gusto, a cosmic farmers' market, in Lingotto. Soon Slow Food will have a University of Gastronomy at Pollenzo. This brave idea has elements of invention and compromise that are typically Italian: this is a university with shareholders and a fine restaurant. Still, quite correctly Petrini says only two things are necessary for the survival of human kind: food and sex. Fiat is, of course, a major sponsor of Slow Food.

Back in the Turin traffic we pass the Mirafiori factory. Outside is a solid marble statue of a Fiat 500, the cute Topolino that motorised Italy and laid the basis of the marque's modern fortune. So successfully did the Cinquecento motorise Italy that it is a relief to step out of the beautiful, demanding, exigent, Ferrari and head for the nearest Carpano. Turin is an immensely satsifying and fascinating city. Even the anguished Nietzsche found consolation here. Somewhere between Vittorio Veneto and the Gran Madre, he stopped and got out of the traffic that filled his mind and told his friend Köselitz, "Evenings on the Po bridge: superb! Beyond good and evil." Essato.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Turin is easy to reach - so long as you start in London. British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) flies from Gatwick, easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyjet.com) from Luton and Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) from Stansted. From Turin's airport, a bus operates every 30-45 minutes to the city centre, taking around 40 minutes for a fare of €5 (£3.50).

STAYING THERE

Le Meridien Lingotto Art + Tech, Via Nizza 230, Turin (00 39 11 664 2000; www.lemeridien-lingotto.it). Doubles start at €150 (£108), including breakfast. Hotel Villa Sassi, Strada al Traforo di Pino 47, Turin (00 39 11 898 0556; www.villasassi.com). Doubles start at €220 (£157), including breakfast

VISITING THERE

Mole Antonelliana, Via Montebello 20, Turin (0039 11 8125658) is open Tuesday to Friday 10am-8pm, Saturday 9am-11pm and Sunday 9am-8pm; closed Monday. Lifts to the tower cost €3.62 (£2.60).

EATING THERE

Cambio, Piazza Carignano 2, Turin (0039 11 543760)

La Pista, via Nizza 294 (by car), via Nizza 262 (by foot), Turin (00 39 11 63 13 523; www.lapista.to.it).

Marino alla Scala, Piazza della Scala 5, Milan (00 39 2 80 68 82 01; www.marinoallascala.it).

Pastificio Defilippis, Via Lagrange 39, Turin (00 39 11 542 137)

FURTHER INFORMATION

Turin Tourist Office (00 39 011 535 181; www.turismotorino.org)

Italian State Tourist Board (020-7408 1254; www.enit.it)

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