By Jon Wilner

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.

"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.

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