Leaving München, I had enough with trains and decided to take the ubiquitous FlixBus. I was off to Italy, one of my favourite countries, and to a new region I have never been to: Piedmont.
As we have discussed, Italy is easily broken down into separate regions with their own cuisine, language, and rhythm of life. Its national unification was only in the 19th century. Therefore, each region has been cultivating its unique culture for quite some time.
Piedmont is no different.
Getting There: Long Night Haul
I chose a night bus to save on accommodation. So, I arrived in Torino or Turin (in English) around 7:00 AM. It was a long ride and not without its hurdles. The bus driver was German-speaking and did not really know any Italian. Once we departed from Deutschland and entered deeper into this Romance territory, communication started to break down when Italian-speaking passengers started asking questions.
By the end of the trip, he was getting a bit surly (which I cannot blame him for). However, on the outskirts of Torino, he did leave a man at a pit stop with no remorse. Some German women, myself, and an Italian man tried to get his attention when we noticed that a seat was empty with luggage next to it, but alas, he did not care/ was already late.
Rule of thumb to all: when the bus driver says only 15 minutes for the break (in whatever language), he likely means 15 minutes, especially if he is German.
Luckily, the stranded fellow (I believe) was Italian himself, so he could at least communicate with people and arrange someway to get to the city.
Ho bisogno di un caffè [trans. I need a coffee]
Achey from a poor night’s sleep with all my bags, I departed from the arrival bus stop into a city I actually knew very little about. My boss back in Vancouver has lineage here, close lineage, like his father is from here. He is not of the Italian-North American schtick/legacy, which is legitimate in its own way, but he is actually rather Italian, at least northern Italian, in some ways.
So, let’s talk about what that means (to me) …
Piedmont finds itself on the foothills of the Alps. Its neighbours include Liguria (another region in Italy), Val d’Aosta (known for wine-making), France, and Switzerland. Home to FIAT and a history of chocolatiers, Torino is, if anything, affluent. Like most of northern Italy to be honest.
In general, the business and commercial centres are generally located in the north of the country. That is not to say that people from Piedmont (or my boss in particular) are stuck up. Let’s just say, quality counts though.
There is a lot of rich, historical culture in Torino, but interestingly, much of it is not necessarily from Italy. The city boasts a famous Egyptian museum (thanks to Europe’s history of royal egyptology) as well as the ‘shroud of Turin’, which apparently has Jesus of Nazareth’s imprint on it. The shroud is housed in il Duomo di Torino ‘Turin Cathedral’ in the centre of town.
Unsurprisingly, my time (although brief) in Torino can only be described as indulgent and exquisite. From the first coffee I sipped to the chocolates I sampled, I was happy to be back in Italy.
Pedemontium – Medieval Latin
Piedmont is also distinct for, unsurprisingly, the titular language of the region: Piedmontese or piemontèis.
Derived from Latin (shocker), Piedmontese actually has a considerable range outside this region as well. It has speech communities in adjacent regions. And, it was spoken by many Italian immigrants in North and South America for a time. Moreover, Piedmont is not only home to its namesake language, but other related languages like Occitan and a few, obscure Germanic ones due to the Swiss proximity.
Piedmontese, personally, resembles French more than Italian at least when it comes to vocabulary. However, it has its own history and peculiarities too. I recently followed this one minority language activist on Twitter who shares a lot of European examples. One recent one was Piedmontese, and I was shook to see it all there, diacritics and everything:
The umlaut over the ‘e’ is a trademark. Wëë!
When in Torino, speaking or attempting I guess in most cases (including yours truly) standard Italian is fine. However, in the open markets, which Torino is famous for, Piedmontese will be likely spoken more so between vendors and customers.
Snacking in Turin/Torino
For those taking Torino as a day trip, there is much to try for oneself. This part of northern Italy may not necessarily be the iconic region of Italy’s national cuisine: tomatoes, sauce, … spicy sausage etc.
However, Torino possesses an array of local and regional delicacies that one must try if in the city.
As I arrived quite early, I went for a coffee immediately, which luckily is not too hard to locate in Italy.
Close to the Flixbus stop (Corso Vittorio Emanuele II 131) rests Caffè Duchessa right on the corner into the Piazza Gian Lorenzo Bernini. With a rather refined interior, it is cash only and popular with older, well-off locals. The women working there were friendly and accommodating to an obvious, tired foreigner.
Another great little caffè is Caffè Oscar, which sits next to Piazza Amedeo Peyron. Although smaller, they offer quick and cosy service. Coffee there might be a perfect pick-me-up during the middle of the day.
For more substantial eats, an iconic dish to the region that I actually sampled in Vancouver is bagna càuda or ‘warm bath’. It involves a garlicky, salty anchovy dressing hot pot with crudités to submerge and wilt and gain all the flavour.
However, for me, I was not able to eat anything too heavy on account of carrying all my things and no adequate place to rest. (Although, I did end up taking a well-deserved nap in a park or two.)
The Piedmont region has also be influential in the Italian slow food movement, which means its produce is to die for (even compared to other Italian areas).
A Cherry Catastrophe
One stop that any visitor to Torino must experience is the Mercato Piazza Benefica in the Piazza Luigi Martini. It is a bustling market where locals buy clothing, jewelry, fruits, vegetables – you name it!
Closed on Sundays, it opens around 8:30 AM and goes until 2 PM every other day. These hours provided ample time for me to sift through the circular layout of the marketplace and suss out what I wanted to buy.
In this scenario, knowing Italian does help, immensely. Although, I could not maintain a conversation about jewelry (which was overpriced to begin with), I could speak about food. Thank you, my not-Italian mother, who readily cooks, eats, and reads about cuisine. I wonder if that rubbed off on me …
I settled on some ripe Piedmontese cherries for about €4 a kilogram. For those who are interested, ‘cherry’ in Italian is ciliegia with the plural being ciliegie. It is feminine, grammatically.
Produce and when to buy it is rather seasonal in Italy (in a good way). For reference, I was there in early June.
Only certain goods will be available during short portions of a year. Eggplant (melanzana), asparagus (pl. gli asparagi), and fava beans (fava, duh) were all in season at the time I was there with the former two entering into it. Fava beans (also called broad beans) are often eaten raw with a sharp pecorino and salty prosciutto, and their season is subjectively shorter to get their optimal flavour. Another delicacy one will likely see in early June in an Italian market is zucchini or squash flowers, which are perfect when fried with cheese inside. Scrumptious.
However, as I was on the go, I chose cherries. Cherries are only on the market in late May and early June. So, I jumped on the opportunity. Perhaps, too much so.
As it turns out, cherries are a laxative. I learned this fact on …
And, there I was, eating them like nobody’s business sitting next to all the old Italian people who like to sit on benches in parks. I was waiting for a new acquaintance I met on Grindr who offered to show me the city. NOTHING ELSE – I swear.
As I finished my little bag of goodies, he picked me up and after a quick tour, we settled on pizza. Specifically, Pizza Speedy (a small chain) at one of its rather upscale branches (Via Luigi Cibrario). I opted for a white pizza with gorgonzola. Yum!
It is popular and affordable if one is in a rush/ on a budget.
However, at this local pizza joint, I learned that cherries are a laxative while in the loo. Lovely. A mere, 40 minutes after consumption.
From then on, I was in constant fear of dying of dehydration. And, in order to use businesses’ lavatories, I would buy a quick stand-up coffee (as is custom in Italy); however, coffee is also a laxative. I entered myself into a vicious cycle. Oh dear.
Move Over Nutella!
As many are aware, Nutella is an Italian hazelnut combination with a global reach. Hazelnut and chocolate, what could be better?
Well, another version of hazelnut and chocolate!
The famous gianduja is a local confection to the city that was created during the Napoleonic era. It is technically a nougat, but chocolate-like, so more prone to melting. Anyway, it is a widely sold treat in most bakeries and candy shops in the city. Tourists and locals adore it alike.
Of course, I had to stop in to buy some for myself and my next misterb&b host. I am not much of a sweet tooth, even with chocolate to be honest. (I love me the savoury.)
But, these little nuggets are fucking amazing. They are so rich, one is enough for like thirty minutes. I would not binge these babies, also because they are a little expensive.
One can buy them pre-packaged in cute boxes as gifts or get loose ones bagged and weighed. More often than not, they are wrapped in thin foil to prevent sticking and misshapenness. They come in little oblong trapezoids too.
The Pasticceria Leoni is adjacent to the Piazza Benefica and extremely welcoming to its patrons. Although maybe not to my price advantage, they knew exactly what I wanted and I was out of there in less than 5 minutes. I recommend.
Parco del Valentino & Beyond
Strolling, munching, sweating, in fear of the toots … by this time in my Torino saga, it was around 3 PM and getting toasty. So, I decided to head to the park for some shade and relaxation before heading to Milan: my next stop.
As I learned through my new Italian friend’s quick tour, Torino possesses two main transport hubs now. The main train station is Porta Nuova, close to the Parco del Valentino, while Porta Susa also functions as a secondary, smaller one. Ironically, Porta Susa is a little more recently built than the one with ‘new’ literally in its name.
Porta Nuova is one of the largest (and rather important) stations in northern Italy, as it connects directly to Milan and then to Rome.
Most depart from here, so it is a necessary point of reference to keep in mind. Additionally, it is pretty large, so budget time to find the ticket boxes and purchase them. It will take longer than expected.
Just past Porta Nuova, there is the Parco del Valentino, which is the major park in Turin by the Po river. Yes, it is called Po. Like the panda.
On a sunny day, it is popular among youths for playing frisbee, catch, having picnics, and smoking weed. I was there for just a few hours, sunbathing and eating my chocolates and doing some audio work. One will also have to fend away vendors selling inflatable balls and the like for some peace. Some salespeople also get rather testy with you if you do not buy anything from them. You were warned.
Non voglio niente is ‘I don’t want anything’ in Italian; it is a useful phrase, but only sometimes in this country when not offered free samples.
As one can see, there is much to say about Torino and Piedmont itself. One must tap into the rhythm of the Torino to better leverage one’s time there. Know what is in season and buy it; enjoy the places where locals go and chill out; and, take a breather when everyone else does.
I took multiple naps in that city without a roof over my head. Torino is a major city, but small and relaxed in comparison to its neighbour, Milan. Take advantage of this refined, calm atmosphere when you can, especially if only for a day.
Given its tasteful nature, both aesthetically and culinarily, I am sure most visitors to Torino will be back in due time. Don’t rush it.
Next, it is off to Milan/Milano, which while I was there, was experiencing one of its many fashion weeks. I came in the knick of time to become even more self-conscious about myself! (Ha.) But, actually, Milan had been on my checklist of cities of the world to visit for sometime prior. So, I was more than excited to just feel lowkey luxurious and be gluttonous (food-wise that is)! Stay tuned for this last round in Italy …