I took a detour to Torino before my next WWOOFing stop. Here I couchsurfed with the delightful Manu. Manu’s half Peruvian, half Italian and all Torino (Torinian?). Having grown up in the city and worked there (most recently at the omnipresent Fiat), he knows the city inside out and wherever we went, he had plenty of historical trivia to share. He was also full of stories about Italy’s contentious politics and cultural anomalies, like the politics of sports. He’s part of a fan group for Torino’s futbol team, but apparently, just supporting the same team doesn’t necessarily make you part of the same club. Other things, like political beliefs, would determine who you root with.
My first day was a bit of a challenge. All day it was drizzling or pouring out, and, being a Monday, all the museums were closed. Still, I managed just fine. In the morning, Manu drove and walked me around a few neighborhoods, like the French deco-adorned Liberty district where he grew up. Then I wandered through town, losing myself in the countless palace-bordered piazzas.
In the afternoon I wandered into something that looked old, palatial and open. Turns out it was Palazzo Barolo, one of the more “off the beaten royal path” museums. I visited several incredible palaces and villas during my few days in Torino, but oddly enough, this turned out to be one of my most interesting stops. In the scheme of Italian palaces, the rooms here weren’t the grandest or most ornate; but in the scheme of Italian palace tours, it was tops. After learning that there was no English signage anywhere and noting just a couple of rooms with old furniture in sight, I thanked the attendants and thought I’d sit this one out.
“You’re not going to see?” they asked me. They assured me one of the man with grey hair could share some information in English and the next thing I knew, I had a private tour guide. He didn’t really speak English, but had a special staff printout of the palace’s history in English that he tried to relay and eventually let me sit down and read. In very slow Italian, he explained the allegories painted on the ceilings, the history of the palace and the Barolo lineage to me, going to great lengths to describe words I didn’t know through hand gestures and the few Italian words I did know. He even drew pictures on the back of the English printouts (which he secretly gifted me at the end of our tour) and let me check out the rooms blocked off for renovation.
The story of the palace was surprisingly depressing. Elena Matilde was the daughter of Monsu’ di Druent (Counte Druent), the first man of the house. Druent married Elena to Gerolamo IV Gabriele Falletti, one of the Barolo (yep, like the wine) descendants. They were married, had three sons and all was going swimmingly…until the Counte lost control. Turns out Druent liked to gamble, a lot. He blew through his daughter’s dowry, which meant married life for Elena was finito (though how great could a marriage so utterly dependent on dowry really have been?). Gerolamo and the kids stayed out in the country, leaving poor Elena to her own accord in the city palace. Left distraught, alone and longing for the company of her children, she jumped out the window onto the streets of Torino…and legend has it her ghost haunts the palace. Later, over pizza a la 20-something Italian boy (think homemade dough with canned olives, tuna and veggies fired on the stovetop) Manu and his friends informed me that the palace was often closed for renovation, and they’d never heard of anyone touring it.
To lighten things up, I found a great spot for apperetivo (a magical time before dinner when bars provide free food to anyone who buys a drink…the quality varies from peanuts, frozen pizza and oversalted olives to freshly cooked hot dishes either served buffet style or to your personal table) while I killed time before meeting up with Manu. I wandered into the swanky part of town across the River Po, and spotted a lit up VINI sign, a neon oasis in the rainy, dreary evening. It was a sweet, casual little wine bar and shop with a table full of quality reads like the Italian version of Idiana Jones and Danielle Steele style English novels. There was a teeny toilette to match the teeny bar; by far the smallest I’ve experienced in Italy so far. It one of those special standing/pee into the floor toilets, and there was still barely enough room to walk in and stand. I cracked my first joke in Italian to the bartender, noting that he had the biggest bathroom in all of Italy. Okay, not stand up material, but it got a good laugh. The fact that he understood me at all was enough to make me smile.
Manu made me feel totally at ease from the minute I met him, so I decided to stay an extra day so I’d have time to check out a few museums and other essentials like the original Italian food mecca, Eataly. A nice chunk of what I think was a grana padana (more on g.p. to come) and a few slices of proscuitto di parma made for a pretty ideal picnic train lunch.
From the ceramics collection in PalazzoMadama’s Museum of Ancient Art. “I’m a little teapot…”
Just another afternoon in the garden….Reggia di Venaria (the royal summer residence outside the city center):