Turin's Turn

TRA turin. Turin, Italy. 2005. Rear of the Palazzo Madama, showing Roman structures; war memorial in foreground.Photo credit: R. Paul Herman
TRA turin. Turin, Italy. 2005. Rear of the Palazzo Madama, showing Roman structures; war memorial in foreground.Photo credit: R. Paul Herman (By R. Paul Herman)
By Gayle Keck
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 15, 2005

You might think of Turin as a one-relic town, known only for the Shroud of Turin, that singed, mended, priceless piece of cloth that may or may not -- depending on whom you believe -- bear the image of Jesus.

But look out. Scenes of Turin will soon spill forth from your TV. Jay Leno will start cracking shroud jokes. You're going to get up close and personal with Turin, because it's hosting the 2006 Olympic Winter Games.

Known as Torino in Italian, this city of about 860,000 people lies 86 miles west of Milan, though it's decidedly less glitzy than its fashionable neighbor. At the moment, it's considered a tourism backwater, even by Italians -- and that's actually not so bad. You'll find nary a postcard or tacky souvenir. Taxi drivers shyly ask for help with their English. In fact, you won't encounter many English speakers at all; French is the more common second language.

Next February, though, 1.5 million spectators, 10,000 members of the media, more than 5,000 officials, coaches, judges and staff, and 20,000 volunteers will descend on Turin. And don't forget the 2,500 athletes. All ice events except curling will take place in the city, while the other events -- from bobsled racing to slalom skiing to the biathlon -- will whoosh, schuss and bang in three mountain sites outside of town.

After all the Greek drama leading up to the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Turin is determined to be different. No will they/won't they speculation about whether the venues will be ready. Those in charge want everything finished well in advance of the opening ceremony on Feb. 10. And, to up the degree of difficulty, officials have decided to build a subway system, move the regular railroad underground and install some subterranean parking garages.

Today, there are as many construction sites as tourist sights. Here's what's going on, and why you just might want to visit anyway.

Bob (or Roberto) the Builder types can sign up for a hard-hat tour of Turin's Olympic building sites, offered by Turin Tourism. I set off on the tour with multilingual guide Michela Maggiora, joined by another American and a pack of Italian businessmen.

Tough times descended on Turin in the 1960s, Maggiora told us, and many factories on the city's south side lie vacant. No surprise, then, that much of the Olympic renaissance is based in that area.

The Lingotto complex, an old Fiat factory transformed into a convention center by architect Renzo Piano, is the hub of Olympic activity. It will house major media outlets and the Olympic Committee, and it has a dramatic arched bridge spanning a wasteland of railroad tracks to connect it with the Olympic Village. The indoor speed skating venue will also be nearby.

The Lingotto already holds two Meridian hotels, a shopping mall and a minuscule museum, the Giovanni and Marella Agnelli Picture Gallery. But with works by Tiepolo, Canaletto, Manet, Renoir, Matisse, Modigliani and others, collected by Fiat heirs (the car company is headquartered in Turin), the place packs a punch. Atop the building, you can see the Fiat factory's banked test track, placed there because cars would rise upward in the production process, emerging on the roof to zoom a few trial ovals. The fabulously unnecessary danger of it all is exhilarating.

The opening and closing ceremonies will unfold in a different venue, a renovated Mussolini-era stadium. When I visited the site, workers were busily attempting to transform Il Duce's hulking concrete mass.

Next door, a vast Hockey Palace is under construction, and this new building is a tribute to modern Italian design. The rink will be 25 feet below ground level, to keep it from dwarfing the nearby stadium -- and to make it a shorter climb into the stands, which are half above ground and half below. Plans call for the 12,332-seat arena to be sheathed in stainless steel embossed with bubbles, giving the facade a "vibrating" effect, according to the designers. Turin is laced with streetcar tracks, and the orange cars seem to careen out of nowhere, contributing to the video-game thrill of driving on the city's construction-clogged thoroughfares. Now Turin's building a subway nearly six miles long with 15 stations, 13 of which are intended to be open by November.

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