LIANE HANSEN, host:
The Winter Olympic Games get under way next month in Turin, Italy, a city of contrasts and contradictions. Once the national capital, then an intellectual cradle, and later the country's industrial powerhouse, Turin has grand cuisine, majestic wines.
And as NPR's Sylvia Poggoili reports, it is also a city of secrets.
SYLVIA POGGOILI reporting:
Turin is not on the international tourists' radar screen. Tucked into the northwest corner of Italy, surrounded by the Alps, Turin lacks the Mediterranean flair for exhibitionism. Even street musicians keep a low profile here. And yet, it's a city of grandiose baroque palaces, with more than six miles of covered porticos lining its majestic squares.
Tour guide Mirella Caligatti (ph) says Turin's rational, military-like urban blueprint is only one facet of the city's personality.
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Ms. MIRELLA CALIGATTI (Tour Guide, Turin): People are not only reserved, they have two thoughts. What they show you is just their surface. This character, that influence our architecture, too. If you look at the facades, they are really simple, pure, severe. If you go inside, you discover that the spaces are really rich, they're really elaborate, refined and so on.
POGGOILI: Turin rose to prominence in the 16th century, under the rule of the Savoy Royal family, French speakers who later led the fight for Italian national unity. But for centuries, Caligatti says, the Savoy kingdom was very small.
Ms. CALIGATTI: So, the power of the duke was a cultural one. And they used magic, religion, culture, just to make people believe that they were powerful.
POGGOILI: The Savoys built a grand city in the image of Paris and Vienna. They invited to their court alchemists and men like Nostradamus. Turin became an intellectual meeting point. Erasmus graduated from its university. Mozart and Rousseau were frequent visitors. And, it's in Turin that Nietzsche wrote some of his most important works. And in the 20th century, Turin produced some of Italy's leading intellectuals and writers, including Primo Levi.
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First founded on the banks of the Po River by the Celts, Turin still has many signs of its pagan past. One of its largest churches looks like a Greek temple and its name, Great Mother of God, echoes the notion of Mother Nature.
Over the centuries, Turin also developed a reputation for the irrational and esoteric. It's known as a center of both black and white magic. There are rumors that black masses are still celebrated in the city's labyrinth of underground tunnels.
But Turin is perhaps best known for the presence of the Holy Shroud, the linen cloth the Catholic Church claims Christ was buried in. It's kept in the cathedral and exhibited to the public only every decade or so.
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One name in particular is connected to Turin's recent history. In the 20th century, Fiat was to Turin what the auto industry was to Detroit. And the prevailing philosophy in this one-company town was what was good for Fiat was good for Turin. The company's decade-long crisis has had devastating repercussions on the local economy, and left many Turin residents feeling orphaned.
Giuseppe Coulica(ph) is a young author, and Turin is his favorite subject.
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Mr. GIUSEPPE COULICA (Author and Resident, Turin): Like every other post-industrial city, Turin is trying to find a new way of living, a new identity. So people -- they don't really have to wake up at 5:00 in the morning to go to the factory any more. And many, many young people are trying to find new job, invent new job themselves.
POGGOILI: The Winter Olympics have presented Turin with a unique opportunity to cast aside its industrial decay. The games have triggered a massive urban renewal effort. The once-gray city is shedding its soot and its old monuments are gleaming in their original colors. Old factories and warehouses have been refurbished into museums and trendy shopping malls.
Taxi driver Gianni Rimundi(ph) says that in its history, Turin has had to re-invent itself many times.
Mr. GIANNI RIMUNDI (Taxi Driver, Turin): (Speaking in Italian)
POGGOILI: He says Turin was first the capital of a small kingdom. Then it was the capital of Italy. Then it became the industrial capital. Now, it's trying to become something else. He says, let's hope it succeeds.
Sylvia Poggoili, NPR News.
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