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In 1706 Turin was invaded by the army of Luigi IV (Louis IV for most of us) who hoped to transform Piedmont into a French province during the War of Spanish Succession. He ran into fierce resistance from the troops of Duke Vittorio Amedeo II. The story tied to the Basilica di Superga goes like this:

On September 2, the Duke climbed into the hills above Turin to survey the field below. The city had been under siege for four months already. At a small church on top of the second highest hill, the Duke knelt before a statue of the Madonna and made a vow. If he won a victory against the French, he would erect a glorious temple to the Virgin on that very spot. I think you can figure out the rest. The Duke kept his promise.

Designed by Filippo Juvarra, the court architect who has left an indelible mark on Turin, the church was begun in 1717 and finished fourteen years later. This was accomplished only after demolishing the original church and lowering the hill by forty meters (130 feet) to make a large enough platform for the new church. We’re talking about a “hill” that would be a mountain in Australia. It is still 669 meters (2,195 feet) high.

The dome of the grand church is 65 meters (213 feet) high. To the rear of the basilica is an enormous monastery. Constructing such a monumental building in this particular location in the days of ox carts is absolutely staggering.

Together with a half dozen others, we had picked an absolutely miserable day to ascend the hill. It was cold, wet and foggy. The spectacular view that has been lauded by famous men throughout the centuries was nowhere to be seen. Still, there were young men on mountain bikes all geared up for a fast descent on the steep, winding road down the hill. I kept my fingers crossed that their brakes were in good repair.

As I looked out over the fog-filled valley, a question came to me: What’s wrong with this picture? Striking a bargain with God, a Duke decides to command the creation of a church on a high promontory above the city. But he doesn’t have to dig the foundation, lug the stones, make the bricks, cut the timbers. That is left up to his peasants, the sons of the soil. I’m miserable just standing here in my windproof fleece three hundred years later. What must it have been like to actually work on this? I can’t begin to imagine.

Getting up to the top was not even a chore. We had reached the summit easily on public transport. There was a long tram ride on the 15 across the city to the suburb of Sassi, then a rickety ride up the hill. A funicular had been constructed in 1884, then converted to an electric “rack” rail line in 1935.

With the exception of one chapel, the entire inside of the cathedral is now full of scaffolding. Three centuries of wintry weather and a lack of regular maintenance takes a toll. We contemplated a guided tour of the royal tombs of the House of Savoy, then decided to save it for another day. We simply have to come back for the view.

But there was a small cafeteria. And there, on the menu, the ideal drink for the cold, blustery day—hot chocolate. You can spend an entire life thinking you know what a thing is, then discover that you had no idea.  You had been taken in by poor substitutes all this time– thin, watery tasteless stuff. The frothy, delicious chocolate was absolutely heavenly, almost obscene in its rich sweetness.  So Italian.

Oh, mia Madonna! For heavenly hot chocolate like that, what vow could I bring myself to make? What homage to the angel who brought such stuff to earth. Another glorious cathedral? A statue?  An alter? Perhaps not.  But I would definitely light a candle.  Ciao for now.


It struck me yesterday that I must have become infatuated with Italy at the movies. Aside from the dramatic, but shopworn Sunday school stories about Herod and the role of the Roman soldiers as ‘extras’ in the story of Christ, I had no real notion of what ‘Italian’ meant until I went to the movies.

From 1965 to 1967 I went to the movies a lot. I was living and studying in Paris, the home of the most passionate cinema aficionados on the planet. I would buy my copy of Pariscope and ferret out the films being shown in “Version Original“(whatever language the film was made in.)

This kind of exhibition was not popular with the masses, but the French purists wouldn’t have it any other way. We would huddle together in the dark, deciphering the flickering sub-titles while trying to keep up with the stories unraveling before our eyes and ears. I got an education in cinema, from Battleship Potemkin to Pierrot Le Fou.

The Nouvelle Vague was exploding on the scene—with the local hero, Jean-Luc Godard at the forefront. But he was like the Sartre of cinema, often intellectual, profoundly aloof. For me, apart from Bunuel, a Spaniard, the most magical of all were the Italians—Fellini and Antonioni. They were the ones who managed to get their dreams on screen.

Turin was the birthplace of Italian cinema, so it is singularly appropriate that it should be the home of Italy’s homage to cinema. And what better building to put it in than the Mole, a spectacular structure that soars into the sky through an artful stacking of bricks. From the balcony at the top, you can see the whole city of Turin spread out below, the encircling Alps to the North and West.

From inside, split across five floors, there is the world of movies. Through interactive exhibits and “rooms” that focus on cinematic themes (from the Western ‘showdown’ to love and death), the story of filmmaking unfolds, from its beginnings (experiments with light and shadow plays) to DVDs.

A fleet of foam-covered deck chairs cover one entire floor of the “temple” to movie magic, allowing film pilgrims to watch two huge screens unreeling selections of flickering images. A long, circular staircase snakes up the interior for temporary exhibitions. currently featuring the films of Roman Polanski. Even the bar immerses one in the experience, with translucent, color changing tables and small screens replaying the eating scene from Tom Jones. C’est le fun! Arrivederci a presto. Ciao.



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