High Speed Trains and Slow Food – Italy and France by Train Part 1: Turin Shrouded in Fog

Who doesn’t love an o’dark hundred 05:30 wake-up call… Yes, it was another early start but it was imperative that we were packed and ready to leave for our early morning TGV. We came downstairs to find our in-laws’s dog in the most comical of sleeping positions atop the sofa; out cold and with his fluffy legs splayed wide in the air, perhaps trying just a little too hard to channel those early morning rays. The rest of our early morning was thankfully uneventful and we enjoyed a quiet drive to the station where we arrived with plenty of time to spare before our train departed. We said our goodbyes to the in-laws and headed down to the platform for what would be the first of two high speed train journeys that day, a TGV Duplex to Lyon.

TGV 9854
Depart: Valence TGV 07:20
Arrive: Lyon Part Dieu 07:54
Seats: Unknown (Standard Class)
Locomotive: TGV Duplex (Top Speed 320kmh)

The only memorable part of this short trip was that we arrived five minutes late into Lyon Part Dieu at just after 08:00 and headed straight over to Paul for a much needed espresso and brioche to keep us going for the four-hour trip to Turin. In hindsight I think a king sized cup of filthy Starbucks coffee might have done a better job.

TGV 9241
Depart: Lyon Part Dieu 08:31
Arrive: Torino Porta Susa 12:24
Seats: Carriage 8, Seats 45 and 46 (Standard Class)
Locomotive: TGV Réseau (Top Speed 320kmh)

By the time we had successfully weaved our way through the cacophony of school groups congregating across the station, those famous chimes told us it was time to head to Voie E for boarding. Yet again we somehow ended up at the far end of the train and had to walk all the way down to Zone Z.

The Franco-Italian TGVs are labelled accordingly but otherwise appeared to be no different from any of the other single deck TGV Réseau trains in use across France.

We ambled along at a leisurely and uneventful pace in the direction of Chambéry. From this point we were treated to some beautiful alpine scenery; the right-hand side of the carriage seemed particularly good for this. Of course our assigned seats were on the left.

There were a few other stops along the way before our train passed under the Alps and we crossed the frontier to Italy.

Luckily for us that misty mountain scenery of sleepy towns and villages continued on the Italian side of the border.

Our progress however felt increasingly slow and this was confirmed when the posted five minute delay soon became a forty minute one. As we approached our destination the view from the windows had become flatter and increasingly urban. Not long after we rolled into Torino Porta Susa.

Hotel: Mercure Best Western Crystal Palace Hotel Turin
Room: Family Suite
Status: Accor Platinum

The Mercure as it was branded at the time of our trip was actually nearer to Porta Nuova station rather than Porta Susa where our TGV arrived, so we took the shiny new looking M1 metro line a couple of stops which got us there in no time at all. Our hotel was happily only a short walk from the station under covered arches filled with cheap takeaway restaurants, which in turn were flanked by a myriad of stalls selling all kinds of enticing knock-off items. Our first impressions of the area were not the greatest, though to be fair the Trip Advisor reviews warned as much. This slightly negative feel was not helped by the hotel’s neon sign being switched off and I wasn’t convinced it was to save energy during daylight hours! It was not looking great and I was already getting grief from Anne-So as the closer we got to our accommodation the further afield it felt from the romantic trip we had in mind.

Thankfully things began to look up once we entered the hotel through its tiny front door. We were warmly welcomed once I handed over my Accor Platinum card and passport and were informed we’d been upgraded to a suite. As the hotel only had seven suites we’d clearly lucked out a little.

The upper floor was a spacious mezzanine containing the bedroom area. The room also featured a balcony and huge floor to ceiling windows.

After settling in we headed out for a walk to grab some lunch. We decided upon M**Bun which dubs itself a slow, fast-food restaurant. The red and gold logo made us feel like we had entered a very classy Italian McDonald’s.

We placed our order, grabbed our buzzer and found a quiet table.

For me the thing that sets first class Italian food apart from the paler imitations is the quality of the ingredients used and as M**Bun is the restaurant arm of a family farm they are therefore able to ensure all the beef that ends up in their burgers conforms to a high standard. A few minutes after sitting down our buzzer went off and I collected our orders.

I washed mine down with the locally produced, sugar free Mole Cola.

Thankfully the pretension of many of the more fashionable burger joints one may find across the capital cities of the world was not found at M**Bun. We were given a simple toasted bun with lettuce, ketchup and a sliced tomato to keep our meat company. The burger was tasty, substantial and unlike the ones found under the golden arches had a proper meaty taste that kept us filled-up all afternoon. Our potatoes were more like freshly fried crisps and were delicious. This did not taste like a typical quick-energy boost of a lunch that left you empty shortly after eating it… it tasted like we’d arrived in Italy!

At the base of the hill was the rather grand looking Gran Madre Di Dio.

We’d finally concluded the short but steep climb to the Chiesa di Santa Maria al Monte dei Cappuccini. At the top of the hill alongside the church was a monastery that also appeared to be offering food to the needy. One gentleman on his bicycle heading down the hill seemed to be in need of some clothing instead as he appeared from the top and back to be totally naked!

We had a quick look around the church and then took a long and scenic walk back down the hill and along the Po, passing through Valentino Park, out across the student district and back to the hotel.

We returned to the hotel to find a fruit plate and rather pleasant bottle of Drappier Carte d’Or champagne as our welcome amenity. It was such a lovely touch that we decided to get a little merry before heading out to dinner at Bib Gourmand rated Scannabue that was just a short stroll down the road.

Scannabue was located on a peaceful square just off the main road. They found my booking and we were given a pleasant table located in a quiet corner of the dining room. Our meal proved to be a good introduction to the pleasures and pitfalls of dining in Italy as a foreigner. First of all, many places will have an English language menu. Unfortunately as we later found out it was not exactly the same as the Italian one, including the prices. With our limited knowledge of Italian we thought it was sensible to take one of each. Secondly, most places have a mandatory cover charge for bread and water and finally sometimes a primi (or first course) can easily be a meal in itself!

We decided to skip the antipasti and order a primi and a secondi (main course) each.

We placed our orders and to start we were served a tasty amuse bouche of codfish and mash potato.
My primi was fresh tagliatelle served with a delicious Savoy rabbit ragu.
Anne-So chose the squid ink pasta with baby calamari, tomato confit, Pantelleria capers and taggiasche olives.
For my main I picked out the greppi pigeon dish with a Toma Genzianella stuffed onion; that melted cheese was perfect for dipping my pigeon lollipop!
Anne-So had the Polipo Croccante; octopus with a hummus like bean and garlic sauce. The seafood had a very delicate flavour and was perfectly cooked.

The portion sizes were generous and despite feeling stuffed there was a 5 Chocolate Experience on the dessert menu that proved impossible to turn down.

A brush stroke of dark chocolate sauce, a raspberry chocolate case, passion fruit sauce, three layers of chocolate mousse and a chocolate biscuit base; I promise you it was as amazing as it sounds!

Even though it was our first night in Italy we thought we’d already had the perfect meal but sadly a small billing issue, which was repeatedly apologised for but not ultimately corrected got ever so slightly in the way. In the end I paid up the small difference in price between the English menu and the Italian one as I was not going to let a few Euros ruin an otherwise amazing dinner. We headed home to the Mercure for the last of the champagne and a much needed cup of coffee. I felt our time in Turin had gotten off to a stunning start.

We started our first morning in Turin with a short walk to Caffee San Carlo, past the high-end shops at the far end of the Piazza San Carlo.

This coffee shop was apparently once famous as a hangout for rebellious intellectuals, though these days it’s more widely known for its beautiful interior rather than its collection of old men enjoying coffee and the morning newspaper.

Our breakfast was definitely on the pricey side but we both agreed it was absolutely worth every Euro cent. Other than staying in a grand old five star hotel when else do you get to enjoy your morning brew with a giant chandelier?

We spent the morning visiting the Duomo, home of the Turin Shroud which is housed opposite a particularly ugly government building, the Palazzo Lavori Pubblici, I’ll leave you to add the additional letters that better describe how it actually looks.

Turin Cathedral was constructed during the late 1400’s and is a fairly small building. We walked along the nave with the cloth covering at its end, which at the time of our visit hid the progress of the now completed renovation to the Chapel of the Holy Shroud that had been damaged by a mysterious fire in 1997. So on to the shroud itself, which is usually the main reason one visits the cathedral. Some people claim it depicts Jesus of Nazareth and the fabric is the burial shroud in which he was wrapped after crucifixion. However, others have noted that the existence of the shroud was first mentioned in the late 14th Century when a local bishop wrote that an unnamed artist had confessed that the object was a forgery. Whilst it seems that the exact truth behind the famous cloth will never be fully unravelled, radiocarbon dating of a sample of the fabric is consistent with the account of that unknown bishop.

After the misery of the shroud we enjoyed a pleasant and meandering walk through the city streets, taking in as much of the misty atmosphere as we could.

Our route then took us past the Porta Palazzo market, the largest in Europe and what looked like an amazing place to buy fresh food. We continued walking until we arrived at a grubby-looking hole-in-the-wall that was to be our lunch spot.

Trattoria Valenza was a place that time had forgotten for the last twenty, maybe thirty years or more.
The service was friendly despite nobody speaking a word of English and Anne-So’s patchy knowledge of Italian.
I had a delicious Ligurian gnocchi dish to start, it was perfect in every way.
Anne-So had a penne ragu, which was also delicious.
For mains we shared a plate of tender roast veal.
And a humongous pork chop with a wedge of lemon for additional flavour.
I was also tricked into ordering a side of courgettes, a vegetable I rarely enjoy eating.

We split everything and whilst the veal was nothing special, the pork chop with rosemary and a squeeze of lemon was out of this world. I also finished my half of the courgettes which for me is quite an achievement so clearly they must have been good! Our meal was accompanied by a cheap pot of red wine which could have easily passed for a salad dressing!

To finish we had a “caffee de la maison” as our waiter put it, which was an espresso laced with amaretto and a large slice of lemon peel to balance the sweetness.

Whilst it wasn’t quite what we were expecting it made for one heck of a great pick-me-up.

Trattoria Valenza was the kind of place we had been looking forward to eating out at and made for the perfect contrast from the more sophisticated service we’d mostly enjoyed the night before!

After lunch we walked back via the market to the Polo Reale complex of museums. We started with the rooms of the Palazzo Reale which were spectacular, though if you have visited Versailles, Vienna or even Buckingham Palace then you will not be overwhelmed by their beauty. We admired the intricate ceilings, chiselled statues and opulent luxury of times gone by as we passed through the ballroom, dining room, along the staircase of honour, through the numerous apartments and even the throne room.

At the end of the tour was the beautiful Armeria Reale with amazing decorated swords and suits of armour lining the Galleria Beaumont.

We managed a brief walk around the 19th Century Biblioteca Reale, a lovely old library where if Harry Potter had been Italian he would certainly have studied there!

We finished our tour of the Royal Museums with the Galleria Sabauda which contained many hundreds of interpretations of Madonna col Bambino on the first two floors. Thankfully the third floor was more to my taste with some beautifully-lit Flemish and Dutch portraits as well as some landscapes, including a few depictions of homes in England. For better for worse we did not have time for the top floor.

We finished our afternoon of museum visits with the Museo Archeologico, it was not particularly fun for us with few items catching our eye and the most memorable moment was being asked to leave as the museum was closing.

We decided to spend the early evening taking a scenic walk towards dinner, passing the beautifully brutal RAI TV building, the stunning cinema museum and grabbing some chocolates from Gobino on the way.

Whilst taking a quick rest in the park near the restaurant we realised how much we were enjoying the city and how peaceful it felt.

We arrived at the Taverna dell’Oca (Goose Tavern) to a warm welcome and an amuse bouche of sparkling wine, the usual bread basket and some cured meat in olive oil, the leftover oil made for a nice little dip for our bread.

We placed our order and to start I took the antipasti plate of cured meats with pickled vegetables; it was huge and we probably we could have shared it.

Seeing as we were eating at the ‘Goose Tavern’ the meat was all goose-based, though some was mixed with pork.

To enjoy the above antipasti, it is recommended that you take a few bites of meat followed by a spoonful of pickled vegetables to cleanse the palate. My plate had ham, cured ham, foie gras, terrine and pâté, all of which were delicious.

I had chosen a half bottle of Barbera d’Asti red wine to wash down the food.

Anne-So ordered the asparagus with fried quail egg and fondue sauce; that too was very nice.

As we had filled up a bit at lunchtime we decided to take two primis for our main courses.

I had a delicious red wine risotto with a mini cheese fondue in the middle.

I was advised to take a forkful of the risotto and dip it in the cheese. The dish was amazing with just the right amount of bite to the rice and a delicious sharpness from the fondue to balance the creaminess of the rice.

Anne-So chose the ravioli filled with goose and asparagus which she said was one of the best ravioli dishes she’d ever had and even allowed me a small bite to prove the point.

I was too stuffed for dessert and unlike the night before nothing could tempt me.

Anne-So some how found room in her dessert stomach for a panna cotta with chocolate sauce, I just about managed a bite.

Again she said it was delicious with both flavour and wobble when often you only get one or the other. We settled up and enjoyed a relaxing walk back to the hotel to rest for the night.

We started our final day in Turin in the pouring rain and headed in the direction of the Egyptian Museum.

We stopped for shelter, coffee and a brioche at Eataly on the way to wake us up.

It was good but the Italian breakfast pastries there were not as much to our liking as the French ones that we are more used to.

That said the pistachio paste in my croissant was delicious.

The rain had calmed and we continued on to the museum. The ticket office was hidden away down stairs and on arrival we were greeted with a wall of sound. There was a huge school group making a racket that was amplified by the low ceiling. Oh well, the joys of beating the weekend crowds.

We soon had our tickets, audio guides and had dropped our soaking wet things in the lockers. Thinking a couple of hours would be enough we chose the longer tour with the idea of compacting the last few rooms if we ran short of time. We both thought that the museum was incredibly interesting, the audio guides provided were logical, informative and had some passionate personal stories behind the expert love of all things Egyptian. There were unfortunately a couple of negatives: the touch screen guides had no proximity sensors so placing them to your ear could cause either an accidental press of the back button, pause or volume control and the large number of tour groups navigating the museum made it a challenge to navigate through the huge clusters of kids and pensioners bumbling round the exhibits (in some of the rooms there were four large groups going round at the same time).

In the end, time ran away from us and we returned to our hotel to pick up our bags and continue with our adventure. We had an unexpectedly enjoyable time in Turin and would highly recommend a visit.

High Speed Trains and Slow Food – Italy and France by Train

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