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Originally published Friday, September 30, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Turin: Olympics in the piazza

The name of this city's most famous artifact works on multiple levels. It is a shroud — the supposed burial cloth of Jesus —...

Knight Ridder Newspapers

TURIN, Italy — The name of this city's most famous artifact works on multiple levels. It is a shroud — the supposed burial cloth of Jesus — and it's shrouded in secrecy: housed in a locked casket in a sealed chamber in Turin's cathedral, displayed every decade or two on order of the pope.

The Holy Shroud is said to have arrived in Turin in the 16th century, and a more fitting home it could not have. This elegant city is tucked in the northwest corner of Italy, far from the traveler's corridor that extends from Rome to Florence to Venice.

But the veil comes off Turin in February, when the Winter Olympics — packing an estimated 1 million spectators, 10,000 media members and 2,500 athletes — descend on the land of Fiat, Tic Tacs, Nutella and Juventus, the legendary Italian soccer team.

Home to about 900,000 residents, Turin (Torino in Italian) is the largest city to host a Winter Games. And unlike Salt Lake City and Lillehammer, Norway, it possesses enough history and culture to stand as a tourist destination without the Olympics. It's two hours by train to Milan (home of Leonardo da Vinci's "The Last Supper"), 30 miles from France and adjacent to the Alpine skiing paradise known as the Milky Way.

I spent several days in Turin this summer, and two things were instantly apparent: a refreshing dearth of tourists and an endless series of construction projects. Turin is building housing and upgrading its transportation, which includes adding a subway system and moving train lines underground. The city views the Games as a means to join Venice, Florence and Rome on the world stage.

If you go


Turin, Italy

Traveler's tip

The Games run Feb. 10-26, and the official Web site is www.torino2006.org. U.S. residents are not allowed to purchase advanced tickets directly from the Turin Olympic Committee. The official U.S. agent, CoSport, sells tickets online at www.cosport.com (877-457-4647) and through its parent company, www.jetsetsports.com.

Other ticket distributors include www.theonlineticketshop.com, a British agency, and www.razorgator.com. But their tickets are generally more expensive because of mark-up fees.

A few events are sold out, and more will follow as the Games approach.

Lodging

Because accommodations are scarce, you may want to work with a travel agent to put an Olympic trip together.

Booking Turin hotels directly will be tough to impossible. All of the downtown hotels have been bought in blocks for the Games by tour companies, according to Turin Olympic officials. Prices can be steep: often more than $500 or $600 a person, double occupancy.

We did find some simple one-star hotels online at www.ludustours.com for $260 to $400, double; for example, with a seven-night minimum and double occupancy, the rate for the Albergo San Carlo starts at $3,700 per couple.

Outside the city there are rooms available for less than $200 per night, but in some cases they are 50-75 miles away. Try www.jumbograndieventi.it. Many Olympic attendees are even booking lodgings in France.

Other options include www.trekking.gr/torino/, which focuses on home and apartment rentals; www.cartan.com, which specializes in extended stays (ie: six, 12 or 18 nights); and www.turismotorino.org, for a list of bed-and-breakfasts.

If you want tickets for the coveted opening or closing ceremonies, your best bet may be a package deal.

A six-day, five-night "hospitality package" from CoSport that combines accommodations at a three-star hotel in the Rivoli section of Turin; preferred seating for the opening ceremony plus tickets to five events (biathlon, pairs figure skating, snowboarding, ice hockey and speed skating); and ground transportation to those venues is priced at $8,628 per person, based on double occupancy.

That sounds like a lot of money until you see the price for the very same Feb. 9-14 package on www.selectitaly.com: more than $10,400 per person.

"There is a process of transformation for the city, of which the Olympics is a part," said Mary Villa of the Turin Olympic Committee. "We want to go from 100 percent industrial to industry, tourism and innovation."

The requisite ingredients — world-class museums, stunning baroque architecture and superb restaurants — are in place. It's Italy with a Parisian twist: wide boulevards, arcade-lined streets and a flourishing cafe culture. (French is the second language.) Turin's climate supports the lifestyle most of the year, but winters are cold and damp. It could be 28 and snowy one day, 45 and sunny the next.

Sites and tastes

Turin's version of the Champs-Elysées is the Via Roma. It has a profusion of designer stores and connects the enormous Piazza Castello, the central square that will serve as site of the medals ceremonies, with Piazza San Carlo, the food-and-drink mecca.

Turin is loaded with quaint neighborhoods. One night we strolled through the ultra-trendy Quadrilatero Romano, in the northwest corner of the city center. It's busy, although not Latin Quarter-busy, and the restaurants offer a screaming deal for those who aren't famished: buy one drink, get the antipasto bar for free.

Most of Turin's tourist sites are on or near the Piazza Castello. The gaudy Palazzo Reale dominates on the north end and contains dozens of displays, including a collection of Chinese vases; tours are available, but only in Italian. One wing of the Palazzo houses the Armeria Reale, which has one of Europe's best collections of armaments.

A few blocks south of the Piazza, on Via Accademia delle Scienze, is the Museo Egizio and its 30,000-plus artifacts. Turin officials consider it the equal of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and the British Museum in London, thanks in part to the statues of Ramses II and the sarcophagus of Nefertiti. Although the Museo doesn't have a headliner to match the Rosetta Stone (London) or King Tut's gold (Cairo), it's certainly worth an hour or two.

The Holy Shroud (sindone in Italian) is sealed away in the Duomo di San Giovanni, a 15-minute walk west of the Piazza Castello. City officials doubt it will be on display during the Olympics, but a full-size copy hangs to the left as you enter the cathedral. There's clearly an image on the cloth; it's just that no one knows whose image. When I suggested a shaggy Johnny Damon, the guide, who must have been a Yankees fan, ignored me.

Is this really the shroud Joseph of Arimathea used to wrap the body of Jesus after the Crucifixion, or history's greatest hoax? (Some believe it's a primitive photograph taken by Leonardo.) Radio-carbon dating performed in the 1980s pegged the shroud's age to the 14th century, but a subsequent fire has given true believers a morsel of hope: The heat could have altered the molecules and contaminated the radio-carbon results.

If you need more shroud lore, wander west to the Museum of the Holy Shroud, on Via San Domenico. There's a short film that explains the cloth's markings — in mind-numbing detail — and several displays of souvenirs from the shroud's public appearances, which are as frequent as J.D. Salinger's.

There are two other museums worth visiting, one off the map and the other offbeat. The Museo dell'Automobile is two miles south of the city center, on Corso Unita d'Italia. There are hundreds of vintage cars, including Maseratis and Fiats. (Useless fact of the day: Fiat is an acronym for Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino). The museum's marquee attraction is the Isotta Franchini driven by Gloria Swanson in "Sunset Boulevard."

The most entertaining museum in Turin, by far, has nothing to do with artwork, armaments or artifacts. It's the Museo Nazionale del Cinema, a few blocks east of the Piazza Castello on Via Montebello. The name is a bit misleading in that it traces the history of both Italian and international film.

You want scripts? It has "Citizen Kane" in Italian and the original "King Kong." You want props? It has a Darth Vader mask made from the original mold. You want animation? It has original "Pinocchio" drawings on celluloid. There's a display on the merchandising of "Star Wars," called Plastic Wars. The upper walkways are lined with American movie posters translated into Italian, including "L'Uomo Bicentenario" ("Bicentennial Man"), "Balle Spaziali" ("Spaceballs") and "Il Terminator" (Our Governor).

The top floor has a haunting series of displays on the history of television, from the small black-and-whites of the 1950s to the wide screens of today. The final display, on reality TV, has 20 televisions looking at the walkway and an inscription that reads: "Instead of us watching TV, it's TV watching us."

In less than six months, Turin steps onto the screen.

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