The frigid waters of the Dora Riparia, in Italy's northwestern Piedmont region, raged as I sat nervously in my kayak awaiting instructions from the river guide. The Italian guy in front of me had just capsized into the current while trying to navigate between two boulders. Now it was my turn. "America! Go!" yelled the guide, using his only English. I paddled furiously, anxious to avoid a disgraceful flop on behalf of my nation. Miraculously, I squeezed between the rocks, dropped several feet over the mini-waterfall and exited the current. The guide turned to the waterlogged Italian and asked how to say something in English. Then he turned to me and smiled. "Ah-may-rica! Gold med-a-lay!"
If Olympic fever is descending on the city of Turin, host of the 2006 Winter Games, you'd never know it by combing the summer slopes of Sestriere. The resort, an hour's drive west, will host most of the alpine skiing events and is a treasure trove for bikers, hikers and all manner of adventurers. But its pistes and rivers - such as the wily Dora Riparia - are unknown to most foreigners. "Have many Americans visited this summer?" I asked the owner of the Hotel Il Fraitevino, in Sestriere, as I checked in late last summer. "No," she replied. "You're the first."
Turin and its surrounds won't be quiet for long. As new spectator venues go up in the mountains and the athletes village takes shape downtown, planners are setting out to frame Turin (known locally as Torino) as Europe's newest alpine playground - a ploy they hope will distinguish a region too often passed over for Italy's signature cities. And as Olympic travelers will discover, Turin has serious chops, boasting some of the country's most distinctive cuisine, art and architecture, all while serving as the gateway to world-class skiing. (Rome may have the Sistine Chapel and Florence the Duomo, but you're not going to see them during après-ski.) Don't wait for the Olympic crush; go now to see the city's evolution.
Start at Sestriere, venue for the slalom, giant slalom, downhill and super G races. The resort teems with European skiers in winter, but summer visitors have the village (population 200) and its 18-hole golf course - one of Europe's highest - to themselves. The list of summertime options is long: mountain biking, kayaking, climbing, horseback riding, hiking, hang gliding and more. On rest days, there's the city, an elegant, cosmopolitan enclave quietly coming into its own.
When I visited last summer, Italy was in the throes of a heat wave. "CALDO," (hot) blared newspaper kiosks lining Turin's cobbled streets. The Italians, however, dressed as if they had just walked off a fashion runway: young men in form-fitting shirts and dress pants and women wearing flimsy, sheer fabrics. Both Fiat and Alfa Romeo have factories here, leading some to deride the city as the "Detroit of Italy." Motown should be so lucky. Turin's historic center is an open-air museum of Baroque architecture, palaces, cathedrals and piazzas. The city is also one of Italy's greenest, with tree-lined boulevards, parks and a forested hill from which visitors can admire the old town, circa 28 B.C., from across the River Po.
Turin is best known as home of The Shroud, the piece of cloth in which some believe Christ's body was wrapped, but it also has an astounding 40 museums dedicated to everything from cars to Egyptian artifacts. Crunched for time, I skipped 39 of them and headed to the Museum of Cinema, mainly for its prime location in the city's most visible landmark, the Mole Antonelliana. (The structure's 548-foot spire is so beloved among Turinos, it inspired the 2006 Olympic logo.) A glass elevator whisked me to an observation deck for views of distant vineyards and rice farms at the foot of the Alps.
A camera crew was shooting a Fiat car commercial on the stone piazza in front of the Palazzo Reale, a principal gathering spot, so I headed down Via Po to window-shop and people-watch. Aloong 11 miles of arcades - covered sidewalk markets - merchants hawk everything from leather coats and dresses to gelato and pastries. Armani and Gucci shoppers gathered along Via Roma, Turin's Fifth Avenue. The city's open-air market is among the largest in Europe, and it's chockablock with stalls heaped with cut flowers, salamis, vegetables and cheese rounds the size of wagon wheels.
Food itself is always a fine motivation for visiting Italy, and Turin's cuisine is legendary. The city is the epicenter of the "Slow Food" movement (preserving age-old cooking methods), and gourmets arrive every fall for the Salone de Gusto, the world's largest food and wine fair.
Grabbing a table at a restaurant in the Roman Quarter along a pedestrian-only plaza, I ordered a bottle of local Barbaresco red and nibbled grissini (breadsticks), a Turin invention. A hearty ravioli filled with Castelmagno, a local cheese resembling a mild Parmesan, was followed by a plate of prosciutto and sweet melon. An accordionist serenaded diners into the night. "Perfect," I mused, taking it in. But with some of Europe's most dramatic peaks so close by - and never far from my thoughts - I vowed that the next time I sat in this spot, I'd be wearing ski pants.