My stomach dropped as the glass elevator jolted into motion and my feet began to move away from the ground. As the elevator continued upward at a steady pace, heading towards the peak of the Mole Antonelliana, my stomach settled, and I waited with baited breath to reach the top of the lift. The elevator slowed to a stop, the transparent door slid open, and I stepped out to meet a striking view of Turin Italy, basking in the late morning sunlight. A sea of burnt orange ceramic roofs spread out in all directions; on three sides, the snow-capped French Alps rose up behind the city spires, perfectly clear on the warm May day; on the fourth side, the Po River wound through the patchwork roofs, cut across with elegantly arching bridges, and the buildings faded into rolling green hills, dotted with rustic villas. As I took in the breathtaking view, I felt a surge of excitement well up inside me. The sun was warm on my back, the morning air fresh and energizing, and I had all day to explore the vibrant city reaching out before my eyes.
When my feet were back on solid ground, I began winding my way toward Via Po, the main road in the area, hoping to satisfy my grumbling stomach before heading to the Palazzo Reale. Cream-colored buildings rose up around me on the narrow cobblestone alley, brightly hued flowers spilling over the balcony ledges. The neighborhood, situated near the center of the Universita di Torino, was teeming with students enjoying coffee at outdoor cafés and artisans selling unique and exotic crafts and, although slightly “touristy,” exuded a youthful and effervescent buzz. I reached Via Po and began seriously searching for a place to enjoy a light lunch. I decided on a small, atmospheric café a block from Piazza Castello and the Palazzo Reale. I ordered un’insalata, and five minutes later a heaping pile of tuna on two pieces of lettuce, adorned with a single, wrinkled cherry tomato, was placed in front of me (next time I’ll stick with my known favorite, caprese). I ate some olive oil soaked bread, downed a café macchiato, paid and headed up the street to the palazzo.
I crossed Piazza Castello, enjoying the warm sun and din of voices speaking excitedly in various tongues. As I neared the far edge of the piazza, the Palazzo Reale came into sight. A greening iron fence, topped with shinning golden spikes, stood 100 yards in front of a magnificent stone building, 6 stories tall and stretching half of the length of the piazza. Rows of windows reflected the afternoon sun, causing the palace to exude a powerful and commanding glow. I walked between two stone pillars, topped with fiercely roaring lions, marking the entrance to the palazzo grounds, purchased my ticket (a nominal 3.5 euros for students), and pushed through the doors to enter the grand palace.
My jaw dropped. A wide marble staircase rose before me; sleek, white stone walls, carved with copious elaborate designs and portraying magnificent paintings, 15 feet tall, rose to meet an elegantly adorned vaulted ceiling. Massive stone vases balanced on pillars lined the stairs. I climbed slowly up the slippery steps, head tilted upward to take in the awe-inspiring sight. At the top of the stairs, I entered another large hall, this one darker and tinged moor green and, in my opinion considerably less impressive than the entrance hall. I passed through and wound up a majestic, softly lit, white marble staircase, nicknamed the “Scissor Stairs” for the pair of scissors sly depicted in one of the carvings adorning its walls. At the top of the stairs, I embarked on my journey through the residence rooms, which had belonged to a variety of Italians royals throughout the ages. Despite the crowded, chaos outside, I was the only person wandering the halls. I walked along a deep burgundy carpet, drifting from room to room, slowly weaving my way around the palace. The antique wooden floors creaked beneath my sandals, and I pondered the other pairs of feet, belonging to Savoys, Habsburgs and other historically significant persons, that had tread the same path, and squeaked on the same loose floorboards. Pleasantly warm air drifted in through an open window, filling the palace with a calm, embracing silence and peace. Walls covered in luxurious silks, sultry red and cool blue, hand stitched with winding patterns in vibrant gold thread, surrounded me; delicate tables, hand carved over 300 years ago, depicting exotic oriental patterns stood below giant, fragmented mirrors that reflected distorted images; round tables positioned under cascading chandeliers were laden with delicate china, prepared for afternoon tea. The only items absent from the scene were the royals themselves. I was drawn back in time.
I felt as if I were in the Torino of two hundred years ago, wandering the palazzo on a still, hot summer day. A tepid breeze blew in through an open bedchamber window, carrying in the sweet smell of wildflowers. An overgrown lily pond, positioned in a carved out circle of trees, was visible outside; crumbling stone statues, almost hidden among the tall grasses, surrounded the small moss-covered, pond. I continued to stroll, soaking in the sun-bathed rooms and the aura of history permeating each consecutive space. My eyes rested upon glorious items, small writing desks, gilt beds and tiny locked chests with curls of azure paint peeling off, that had been used by famous royals; paintings that had commemorated births and honored deaths, signified unions and proclaimed the disintegration of alliances. I wandered through the last chamber, a sitting room previously belonging to Maria Antonia Ferdinanda, the Spanish wife of Victor Amadeus III. A plaque at the entrance of the room revealed Maria delighted in receiving the enlightened artists, musicians and intellectuals of the day, and detailed her love of knowledge and open-minded nature. The deep blue, plush cushioned chairs, blue and gold wall hangings and bright, open spaces of the salon seemed the perfect place for the exchange of novel ideas and innovative artistic practices. I closed my eyes and felt I could smell the artist’s freshly mixed oil paint, as the sounds of ingenious musical forms and excitedly determined voices, exchanging enthralling and perplexing new ideas, filled my imagination. I opened my eyes to the empty salon, took one last deep breath of the still palace air, saturated with history and promise, and headed for the exit.
As I walked away from the Palazzo Reale, returning to the bustle and noise of modern day Piazza Castello, I felt an acute sense of charged, absolute perceptiveness wash over me. It was as if my visit to the palace had awoken a previously untapped corner of my mind, allowing me to understand and experience the city in a new light. In my view, the day had been a tremendous success, for that is the purpose of world travel; to remove you from your comfort zone and distance you from your known environment and time; to expand and inspire your mind and break through the walls you believed were the limits of your world. The Mole Antonelliana offered an amazing view of Turin, a way to observe the entire city and surrounding are, but at the Palazzo Reale I experienced the city and became part of its vibrant life, fused with its rich past and deeply integrated into its thriving present.