January 30, 2006


So here I am, getting settled in Italy, readying for yet another Olympic adventure, my fifth.  Traveling to Torino was a bit of an adventure.  There are no direct flights from the United States to this city, so I came via Paris.  However, about half an hour before I was supposed to leave Manhattan, word came from my travel contact that the Torino airport was shut down because of a wildcat labor strike.  So I was re-routed through Paris to Milan, flying over the sparkling Alps, and then suffered through a windy two hour drive to Torino.  So it took much longer than I thought, but I have settled in, safe and sound, and hopefully the Torino airport will be fully functioning soon.

And now the countdown begins:  Opening Ceremony is February 10th, but there’s a lot of work to do between then and now.  One of my first tasks, as with anywhere that you are going to live for any period of time, is to get to know this place and think about what is to come, so how about a bit of background?

Where am I?  Torino, the capital city of Piemonte (the Piedmont region), is the gateway to Italy from western Europe, with ancient roots that predate its first destruction by Hannibal in 218 BC.  With over 2 million people now living in the metropolitan area, it is the largest city to ever host a Winter Games.  While the city is best known as the home of the Shroud of Turin, it is populated with a wide array of museums, industrial plants, and some stunning architecture. While almost half of the city’s structures were destroyed in World War II, Torino soon recovered, largely because of its heavy emphasis on industrial manufacturing.  At the center of the city stands the Mole Antonelliana,  which dots the skyline with its 548-foot spire, and forms the basis for the Olympic logo for these Games.  It houses the Museum of Cinema, as well as a glass elevator, and once atop, the mountains and vineyards of the Piedmont region are visible in every direction.

Of course, it hasn't stopped snowing since I arrived, so the only view I have seen is gray, gray gray -- so I have been strolling at ground level.  Turin has 11 miles of arcades – covered sidewalks – on which merchants sell everything there is to be sold.  Via Roma resembles New York’s Fifth Avenue, with everything from Prada to Armani to Gucci, while the open-air market, Europe’s largest, is row upon row of stalls with meats, vegetables, giant cheeses, and flowers.

Food, of course, is the centerpiece of the culture here, as it is anywhere in Italy.  Torino is the center of what is called the “Slow Food” movement, an approach to cooking designed to preserve traditional methods.  Rather than what people might stereotypically think of in terms of Italian culture, its cuisine is dominated by a lot of appetizers, a lot of game meat boiled in wine (indeed, minced donkey is one of the local specialties, although it's not one that I will likely be trying), and, of course, fresh pastas, including local favorites Tajarin, Agnolotti, and Cappelletti, and cheeses.  Lastly, at every meal a basket of grissini emerges, which could be called breadsticks, but it wouldn’t do them justice.

But perhaps mostly importantly, Turin is considered by many to have the greatest of chocolate traditions:  it is in this city that people first began eating chocolate for chocolate’s sake, rather than as a flavoring, and if nothing else.  In 1678, a royal decree authorized chocolate manufacturing, and with it, the art of chocolate-making began.  The local specialty is gianduiotto, which is a coca-hazelnut paste, but it has a lot of competition from a range of pralines, caramels, and other chocolate delicacies.

But Turin doesn’t save its chocolate for chewing – you can drink it, too.  There is, of course, standard hot chocolate, usually served with a light whipped cream, but even better is the bicerin, a layered hot drink of chocolate, coffee, and milk.  And it’s not just a mocha drink.  Everyone keeps saying to me when I describe it, “Oh, it’s like a Starbucks mochachino!”  No, it’s not:  trust me.  It is so much better.

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