Hiking the Alps Outside Torino, Italy

Mountain hut Pontese, outside of Torino. Photos by Max Hartshorne.

Mountain hut Pontese, outside of Torino. Photos by Max Hartshorne.

Getting to the Top is Worth the Work

By Max Hartshorne
GoNOMAD Editor

We motored by bus out of the city of Torino, heading for a mountain village deep into the Alps on a September afternoon.

The small coach wound around the hairpin turns, and one of our mates kept putting his hands in front of his face, as he was afraid to look out the window. The bus strained as it made its way up the steep paved road, and pebbles flew off to the side down a vast face of rock.

By the side of the winding road, goats with long tapered horns grazed on an impossibly steep rock face. They were not wild mountain goats, but a herd tended by a faraway farmer.

Our destination was a gigantic dam in the Gran Paradis National Park, with huge letters across its broad face of the cement that read Citti di Torino. As we climbed up and over the dam, we saw a brilliant aquamarine lake that was created when this dam was built.

Up above the lake were dramatic snowy peaks, and a set of mountains ringing the water. We were heading way, way up there, to that hut with the yellow roof. Wow it was far up!

Steeper and Steeper

The beautiful lake behind the dam, below the Mountain hut Pontese.

The beautiful lake behind the dam, below the Mountain hut Pontese.

Settling into our own paces, we took the increasingly steeper climb to the top and grabbed hold of rocks and branches to keep us moving ahead. Looking back I saw that we all were getting a little winded, but it felt so great on this blinding sunny day to be there.  Our prize awaited us in an hour or so up at the top, where steaming cauldrons held bubbling risotto with beef.

An hour of hard hiking, using rocks as stairs and walking through soft forests and then, hiking above the tree line on broad flat rocks. “No one said it was going to be easy,” I laughed, and indeed, it was one of those hikes that makes you feel great because it was tough.

Looking down on that steep path and this light blue water when we reached the Refugio Pontessi, it all felt just right. Inside, a feast cooked on the mountain awaited. Everything comes up to this remote hut via a cable car that’s strung all the way from the bottom. No way you can pack that much up here!

A City that Feels Like a Town

Many visitors to this city of about 900,000 enjoy taking to these country roads and finding their own hiking routes up into the Alps. There are also abundant parks both in the city and by the lovely Po River to enjoy.

The dam that we hiked over to get to the Hut Pontese.

The dam that we hiked over to get to the Hut Pontese.

Torino is known as the capital of the Alps, and capital of the Piedmonte region, the fourth-largest city in Italy. It’s a city filled with immigrants, and that becomes clear when you see the multi-lingual signs in Arabic, Romanian and other languages in little shops and bodegas.

The largest outsiders are from Romania, seconded by Morocco and Albania. The feeling that you’re in a country other than Italy sometimes comes upon you as you walk a narrow street following a woman in a headscarf.


Turin, as the city is known by people outside of Italy, is home to Juventus, once the most successful football club in Italy, which gives this small city big time FIFA status, the do battle with other Premier league teams in the Derby of Torino, the oldest arena in the country.

The city made it into the limelight in 2006 when they hosted the Winter Olympic games, they became the largest city to ever host the winter games. The events were held an hours drive away over winding mountain roads from the city in the Alps in the mountains to the west.

The Torino public market.

The Torino public market.

At the Torino Public market, we saw uniformed and plainclothes police menacing some of the vendors, who took off like scared cats as the men with truncheons rounded the corner. You get the sense that some of the people they are chasing are these immigrants or unlicensed peddlars avoiding their tax bills.

Torino is a lively and elegant city. In the distance, the dormant hulk of a former Fiat factory looms. But beyond are the Olympic and Royal Mountains, glistening in white. The Po river winds its way through the city, and a big boulevard heads right to its banks.

The city, once Italy’s capital, has broad, tree-lined avenues and winding side streets, with elegant palaces and both old and new buildings that are striking. It seems more like a town than a city, friendlier and more gentle to a visitor.

Climbing the Stairs to the Fort

About an hour out of the city is the Forte di Fenestrelle in Val Chisone, the largest fortified stone structure in Europe, built in the late 1800s.  With almost as many bricks as went into the Great Wall of China it is vast and sprawls over thousands of yards. We spent a few hours walking the imposing set of long stone steps up to just a few of the seven different fortresses that are built on a steep mountainside.

Bicerin ready to serve in Torino's Al Bicerin cafe.

Bicerin ready to serve in Torino’s Al Bicerin cafe.

It was difficult to imagine troops fully laden with armor and swords making these climbs, up unending staircases made of brick, winding far, far up into the clouds. We made it through about stage one of a seven castle arrangement, though many visitors go the entire distance of three kilometers almost all uphill.

Drinking Bicerin

Before we ever made it to Torino, word had filtered back that Bicerin was an iconic beverage that was made famous in the city. Not only that, but that there was a very old cafe called Al Bicerin that has served this delicious Northern Italian version of hot chocolate since 1763.

We met the owner, Mrs Marite Costa, and she served up a tray of delicious chocolately Bicerin in wine glasses, each with a foamy head and a thin coffee and chocolate flavor. It wasn’t as milky as hot chocolate, it was dark and rich and unforgettable like very strong mocha.

This cafe, with its marble tables, crowded coziness and long history, is a must stop in Torino. They

Ventaglio, incredible casa vicina

Ventaglio, at the incredible Casa Vicina

also offer a full line of their own homemade cremini (creamy pralines), chocolate bars, and other delicious treats right next door.

Eataly: Foodie Heaven

The other must stop in Torino also has been known far and wide, and it’s empire is expanding. That is Eataly, a food emporium like no other that’s inspired and promoted as the epicenter of Italy’s Slow Food Movement. There are now two Eataly’s in the US–one in NYC and a new one in Boston, Massachusetts.

The gigantic orange facade with large glass windows looks like any other modern department store or supermarket. But behind the big doors is a foodie’s dream, a place where the selection of cheeses, meats, wines, pastas and a thousand other delicacies is unparalleled.

At Eataly, however it’s not just about buying, it’s more about learning and appreciating food in all its slow glory. The Slow Food Movement talks about its manifesto on their website, where they declare “we’re in love. We are people in love with quality foods and beverages: their stories and traditions, the men and women who produce them, the places they come from and the children who grow up in those places. ”

The cavernous, bustling store features a yards-long wooden bar in the center of one of the floors. Here patrons sip wine and cocktails with giant hams and other meats hanging above their heads…and everywhere the scents and views of the world’s most wonderful foods. Parmesans and Romanos and pasta of indescribable variety…the rarest ones that you can’t find, from all over Italy, are all here, in their own five floor-to-ceiling racks.

After walking through their large wine area, featuring bulk wines that sell by the liter and range from E5-15 per bottle, fill your own, we made our way to a back door and to a very exclusive restaurant, Casa Vicina. There we sampled an impressive chef’s tasting menu at E80 per person.

One creation I”ll not soon forget was his martini glass with six rich flavors, layered like a dessert, called Bagna caoda da bere. Absolutely stunning with the strong vegetable flavors each coming out at the same time.

Eataly is the kind of place we all wish was located right near us. An outpost opened in New York City and it’s about as amazing a place any Italy lover can imagine!

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