My Mini adventure

With a re-make of The Italian Job due to be released, Peter Popham follows in the tyre tracks of the original , taking a Mini Cooper for a spin around car-crazy Turin. And he doesn't forget that 'in this country, they drive on the wrong side of the road'

The last time I was in a Mini, you opened the doors from inside with a length of black plastic washing-line; and when we got to the house where the party was supposed to be, my friend who was driving activated the washing-line and rolled out into the road, dead to the world. Ah me.

That was more or less the time that screenwriter Troy Kennedy-Martin came up with the idea of a Lavender Hill Mob-type caper set on the Continent: The Italian Job, starring Michael Caine and Noël Coward; but also, upstaging both of them, starring three Mini Coopers painted red, white and blue, and the city of Turin.

Charlie Croker (Caine), you will remember, is fresh out of nick, and his Italian colleague, whose nice red Ferrari was blown to bits by the Mafia with him inside it, has thoughtfully left Charlie a home movie explaining how he can remove $4m in gold bullion from Turin by paralysing the city's traffic. All they have to do is slip a dodgy tape in the traffic-control system's computer and watch the city tie itself in knots.

But having removed the swag from the gridlocked van, how do you make good your escape? Answer: choose very small getaway cars, and use the city's unofficial routes - subways, historic shopping arcades, the porticoes of ducal palaces, rooftops, drains - in one of the funniest car chases ever filmed. Breathtaking, too, at moments: near the climax of the chase, all three Minis fly more than 70 feet between two buildings to escape from the police.

The re-make of The Italian Job, released next month, goes at twice the pace of the original, allowing two set-piece chases, one using speed-boats through the canals of Venice, another using new Minis through the streets of Los Angeles. Turin, however, has been written out of the script altogether. Which seems unfair. So I took a new Mini Cooper S for a spin around Turin, to see what they're missing.

The makers of the original film attest that the Turin authorities were extraordinarily co-operative, considering that the idea was to bring the city to a standstill. "The whole thing about Turin was about getting control of the city," says producer Michael Deeley, "and we had to cause chaos, because we couldn't do it without causing chaos."

"Gianni Agnelli," Mr Deeley adds, "was head of Fiat. Fiat owns Turin, which is a company town. One of my dearest friends called Gianni Agnelli and said 'I want you to help as much as you can'. The police respected Mr Agnelli... and they did what he wanted."

Agnelli is no more; he died in January after a long illness. But even though Fiat is in dire straits these days, Turin remains Fiat's fiefdom. It was the booming Fiat car business that sucked in thousands of workers for its factories from the south of Italy, transforming the city's outskirts with grim estates and turning the city into the dynamo of the Italian economy. Fiat, and Agnelli himself, dominated post-war Italy in a way that has no equivalent in other European countries. It was thanks to his choke-hold on generations of politicians that Italy has one of Europe's best motorway systems - and a neglected public transport system. It was also thanks to Agnelli that for decades Fiat enjoyed a near-monopoly of Italy's domestic car market. In 1968, when The Italian Job's cheeky Minis bounced through Turin, it was against a backdrop of nothing but Fiats.

Turin may be a company town; but anything less like Detroit or Dagenham is hard to imagine. The historical centre, still the vibrant heart of the city, has none of the ugly pawmarks of modern development in British cities such as inner ring roads, leaving the ancient heart becalmed on a series of traffic islands. Turin is gloriously intact, succeeding without strain in being ancient and up-to-date at once. Backstage, out on the edges, the dynamo roars. In the centre, front of house, one sees all the other things Turin has refined down the ages to make life gracious: Baroque architecture, barolo and barbaresco wines, handmade chocolates...

The Italian Job is, among other things, a remarkably chauvinistic film, getting easy laughs out of every "wop" stereotype in the book - the waving of hands, the gabbling, the lechery, the chaos. But even a film intent on making Italy look ridiculous couldn't disguise the fact that they had descended on one of Europe's jewels.

Like a pan of very special chocolate, this city has been simmering gently for more than 2,000 years. Not much survives of Augusta Taurinorum, the ancient Roman city founded here in 28BC, but the classic Roman grid plan dictated the city's austere, well-ordered development more than 1,000 years later. The remains of one of its ancient gates is enclosed within Palazzo Madama, the marvellous palace that is at the heart of the city today: the heart, not merely because for centuries it was the home of the ruling Savoys, but also because it is a synthesis in stone of the city's entire history, from ancient Rome by way of the Middle Ages and the Baroque to the Risorgimento, the exuberant late 19th-century style that accompanied Italy's unification under the kings of Turin.

It is up the splendid long, curved outdoor staircase at the back of Palazzo Madama that Charlie Croker improbably jogs to meet his cronies as they plan the robbery; and in one of the state rooms inside (a further indication of Signor Agnelli's favours) that he delivers his final briefing to the gang, culminating in the vital information: "Just remember, in this country they drive on the wrong side of the road."

Palazzo Madama is set in Piazza Castello - "Not a square, Arthur, a piazza," as Croker reminds his underling - around which Turin's life revolves. From here it's only a step to the Giardino Reale, the Royal Garden, with its lawns and statuary; a straight line to the mid-19th century railway station; and another straight line, heading west, to the Ponte Vittorio Emanuel I over the river Po. And here we pause because this spot, besides being one of the prettiest in the city, was also the location for two of the best scenes in The Italian Job (though, such is the trickery of film, they appeared to be occurring in two quite separate places).

It was down the flight of 38 steep steps that leads from the neo-Grecian Tempio della Gran Madre di Dio church that a white wedding was processing when the Mini Coopers came bounding from either side of the church and clattered diagonally down the steps, narrowly missing the bride and groom ("good luck!" yells one of the robbers).

And some minutes later, after executing the hair-raising jump between two buildings, the same three cars, barred by the traffic jam from crossing the bridge, came trundling axle-deep across the weir just north of the bridge here - to disappear into a sewer, which was actually filmed beneath another car town, Coventry.

That was the last Charlie Croker and his mates saw of Turin. More fool them. Too busy plotting to remove the gold, they'd missed practically everything that makes a visit to the city worthwhile. The coffee shops, for example, such as Al Bicerin, the tiny wood-panelled café that opened on the Piazza della Consolata, a kilometre or so north-west of Piazza Castello, in 1763, since when it has comforted the likes of Cavour and Alexandre Dumas with its own invention, now one of the city's most famous products: bicerin, a cocktail of coffee, hot chocolate, milk, whipped cream and liquor, Turin's winter warmer.

One of the gang grabbed a panino from a hapless customer's hands as they careered through a galleria, but that was as far as their adventures in Italian cuisine took them. So they went home knowing nothing of places such as Ristorante Sotto la Mole, where you can wash down flan di lumache (snail pie) and finanziera alla Piemontese (Piedmontese banker, a selection of offal) with a magnificent selection of barolos.

"Sotto La Mole" means "at the foot of the pile", and the "pile" it is at the foot of is the most amazing building in the city: a colossus of 167 metres, built in 1863 and still both the tallest building in the city, by far, and the tallest traditional brick building in the world. A marvel of 19th-century engineering, it is also, with its classical portico sitting at the base of the high aluminium spire, an inspired attempt to expand the traditional vocabulary of architecture to the new dimensions made possible by science.

Originally intended to house a synagogue, the Mole Antonelliana today contains a spanking new interactive National Museum of Cinema, where one day, perhaps, fans of both British comedy and Italian culture will be able to dissect the original Italian Job, frame by frame.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

Getting there: you can fly direct to Turin on British Airways (0870 850 9 850, www.ba.com) from Birmingham, or Ryanair (0871 246 0000, www.ryanair.com) from Stansted. Fares on both airlines are extremely variable; reckon on £100 return on Ryanair or £150 on British Airways as a good price. From Turin's airport, a local bus operates frequently to the city centre.

More information: Italian State Tourist Office, 1 Princes St, London W1R 8AY (020-7408 1254, www.enit.it).

Travel advice: The Foreign Office says, "The vast majority of visits to Italy are trouble-free." But it does warn, "You should be alert to the dangers of car and street crime in cities."

Comments