Thursday, February 3, 2011

TURIN: Day Two and a Half

The Albergo San Carlo entrance in the heart of Turin's second largest piazaa.  Don't let the imposing facade fool you.  It is barely a three star hotel. 

Two cathedrals anchor one end of the Piazza San Carlo

My hotel is on the right side of this arcaded facade of the Piazza San Carlo

A wide view of the Piazza San Carlo

By the time I got to the hotel in Turin, it was 6:30 PM, nearly seven hours past my original arrival time.  My travel karma seems to be terrible these days. In more than 45 years of air travel, I’ve never lost a bag. I’ve heard horror stories from friends about this happening, but the worst suitcase issue was a late arriving bag, which was resolved in a few hours.  This time I think the bag is gone forever, and I have to buy clothing and a new suitcase while I’m here.

My hotel, the Alburgo San Carlo is located right in the heart of Turin’s historical center, in a large and imposing piazza, brilliantly lit at night.  It’s on the fourth four of a square of identical multi-story eighteenth century multi-purpose buildings that combine a large square of arcaded restaurants, coffee bars (very popular here), and retail shops on the main level with offices, hotels, and other businesses.  It’s a modest three-star hotel with few amenities, but it’s spotless.  My room is typical of the type.  It’s fairly large, with a big double-window that opens into the courtyard side of the building.  A massive, handsome antique armoire dominates one wall with an old fashioned walnut and antiqued brass embroidered twin beds and matching night stands with marble tops,  a tiny desk and a wood and upholstered arm-chair in one corner and a small mini-fridge to complete the décor. There’s wifi here, but I have to go to the lobby to use it!

The owner, who also lives here with his family (an adorable little boy, and a teenage son) has been most helpful in getting me settled, not an easy task with an exhausted hotel guest without luggage, lacking sleep, and new to a strange town.  In the midst of trying to send my friend Christine, a note telling her I was here, I had a honking nose-bleed!  I was terrified of bleeding over the last of my existing clothing.  The quick thinking of the owning saved me (there was a funny and touching moment, when his youngest son handed me his used tissue!).  He sent he to a local grocery store where I could stock up on the missing toiletries and some water.  And then he sent me to a local trattoria for a restorative Italian dinner.

Da Mauro, is a pleasantly old-fashioned, family-run restaurant a few blocks from the hotel. It’ one of those sprawling, overly-bright restaurants, with all three large dining rooms busy and bustling with weeknight diners (always a good sign).  The large menu offered familiar dishes from all over the country’s cuilinary map. I was starving.  I hadn’t eaten since ten this morning, and I quickly stumbled my way through the menu with my inept command of Italian with a pretty and efficient young waitress, who quickly figured out my requests with humor and warmth.  I would start with a dish of gnocchi Valdostano, braised rabbit and a mixed salad and a half battle of Barolo.  The restaurant was filled with locals, businessmen, couples, and a few lone diners such as myself. I brought along Ken Follett’s latest novel (more about that later) to keep me entertained and settled in anticipating a good dinner.  I wasn’t disappointed.  The gnocchi were tender and perfectly cooked and the sauced with rich heavy cream, Parmesan, thin strips of ham and freshly ground black pepper.  It was a lovely beginning, a nose-thumbing indulgence that made me laugh as I contemplated at least three days of being without my cholesterol medications, now lost with that missing suitcase!).  Next came a generous portion of tender, braised rabbit.  I still don’t understand Americans squeemishness about this wonderful meat.  Its mild taste is certainly reminiscent of chicken and it’s one of those lean meats you would think fat-obsessesed Americans would take to their hearts.  But no—visions of Thumper and Bugs Bunny keep intruding.  Their loss I’m afraid.  This dish was tasted of onion, carrot and celery and bay leaf.  It was served by itself on a plate (I rejected the roasted potatoes after the gnocchi), and it was just what the doctor ordered.  A mixed salad followed with escarole, Roma tomatoes, shredded carrot and thinly sliced fennel, all dressed with carafes of olive oil and happily, red wine vinegar (instead of the wearily familiar and, to those who know me well, unpleasantly sweet and pungent balsamic vinegar (which I prefer cooked in sauces, rather than raw on salads). The food, wine, finished with an aromatic espresso restored my good mood. It was a terrifically restorative meal for about $42. I headed out the door promising to return before my trip was over. 

Walking back to the hotel I noted many of the usual retails giants you fine in every city.  Hermes, Prada, Max Mara, Calvin Klein, Stuart Weitzman (yes, Maryann, you can buy his shoes here too). The old buildings are imposing.  I made a mental note to visit two churches, one truly massive, the next day.  I’ll go to see the Shroud of Turin and stop by the Egyptian museum as well. 

Back in the hotel, I found Christine has received my email, but I was really only interested in collapsing into bed.  Not even Ken Follet could keep me awake. I said a mental prayer for the return of my suitcase, and with the lights out, fell immediately and gratefully to sleep.

Ken Follett has often been a comfort to me in a crisis.  I was privileged to work with this talented and prolific popular writer through six of his novels beginning with his magnificent Pillars of the Earth.  I remember riding home on a Greyhound bus after a visit for my mother’s 70th birthday in the wake of 9/11.  The only thing that made that 19-hour ordeal bearable was the entertaining distraction of reading Code to Zero.  I bought his latest, Fall of Giants last fall, read about 100 pages, and because of work and a hectic holiday season, put it down.  This trip offered the ideal time to finish this huge novel (nearly 1000 pages) and so far it’s been a grandly entertaining read.  The first in a projected three-volume work set against the epic events of the 20th century, Follett ambitiously recreates the lives of several American and European families caught up the tumultuous months leading up to the onset of the First World War.  In short order, I’m about a third of the way through the book, and expect to be finished before I fly home.  But its hefty weight has led me to the decision to buy a Kindle when I return home! 

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