Until recently, the city of Turin, in the north-west corner of Italy, was probably best known for being home to Fiat cars, the football team Juventus and for providing the city backdrop in the Italian Job. With its industrial heritage and sprawling suburbs, Turin has tended to be somewhat overlooked as an interesting destination.
But that could be about to change. Between 10 and 26 February, Turin and the surrounding Piedmont region is playing host to the Winter Olympics, which is expected to draw more than 1.5 million spectators. Ice hockey and figure skating events will mainly take place in Turin, while skiing and snowboarding will be held in mountain ski resorts such as Pragelato and Sestriere to the west.
For Turin, winning the Olympics doesn't just mean bringing in the crowds, it also means bringing in huge investment. For a city that's keen to shrug off its industrial image and reinvent itself as a dynamic, cultural centre, hosting the games is simply a massive opportunity.
Certainly, over the past four years or so, Turin has been getting ready to face the spotlight. Millions have been poured in - the estimated total cost of the games is a staggering €1,400m (£952m) - and as the city's infrastructure has been given a hefty overhaul, Turin has seen a building boom take place.
Investment has focused as much on regeneration as new construction projects. The south of the city, for example, has been almost completely transformed from an ugly, largely disused industrial zone to a residential and commercial centre. Many of the new Olympic facilities, including the Olympic Village and skating rink, have been built here, not far from the former Fiat factory, the Lingotto, now a modernist landmark housing a conference centre, shopping mall, art gallery and two Le Meridien hotels.
But what about after the Olympics? Making good use of all those new facilities when the Olympic crowds have gone home has been a problem for many host cities. But for Turin, the focus seems to be on the long term. Part of the Olympic Village will be used for office space, in keeping with developing the area as a commercial quarter, while many of the new sports buildings, such as the main ice hockey arena and the restructured Palazza a Vela will become art galleries and conference spaces, in line with the city's goal to attract international congress business in the future.
Aside from the building industry, the biggest beneficiary of the games looks set to be tourism, which is the fastest-growing sector in Turin. The city's tourist board estimates that between now and 2007 hospitality turnover in the region will rise by 23%.
According to Paola Musolino, chief of promotions at the Turin Tourist Board, building a successful tourist industry is vital for the city. "The Olympics have put Turin on the map, but our long-term goal is to be considered a tourist destination," she explains. "It's a big challenge because people know Turin as a manufacturing city. But Barcelona increased its tourism enormously after hosting the Olympics and now tourism is a major source of income there. We want to try to achieve that too."
Money has also been spent on improving much-needed transport networks, such as the new Torino Caselle airport terminal, which is due to be completed in 2008, at a cost of €90m (£61m). The city's first subway system is also being built, and high-speed rail links to other European and Italian cities have opened up access, reducing the journey time from Turin to Milan by half, for example.
For Musolino, such improvements are essential if Turin is to be taken seriously as a tourist destination. "We're doing a lot to promote Turin, such as encouraging low-cost airlines to come here so that we can sell Turin as a short-break option," she explains. "We currently have around three million visitors a year but next year, we're aiming to attract four million."
Hotels have been quick to move in on the scene, with international groups such as Le Meridien, Holiday Inn, Spanish chain AC and French-owned Campanile all recently opening properties in Turin, increasing bedspace by 7% between 2004 and 2005. But according to Musolino there is still a need for five-star hotels in Turin.
"As we're trying to attract conference business, it's very important for us to have an international hotel presence here," she explains. "We've lost out to other cities in the past because we didn't have the top-end hotels to offer delegates. Really, if you plan to hold worldwide events, you must be able to offer accommodation at all levels, including five-star, otherwise it won't work."
If the Golden Palace Hotel is anything to go by, there's already a demand at the top level. Despite opening only last month, the property, which is owned by Italian group Turin Hotels International, was fully booked for the Olympic period two years ago.
For general manager Massimo Celegato, the objective now is to ensure that the hotel retains high occupancy after the Olympics have finished. He's confident, though, that Turin can sustain a five-star market, particularly in the conference sector. He also hopes that the region's growing gastronomic reputation will begin to attract more leisure visitors.
"The city has moved forwards immensely," says Celegato, who forecasts a 75% business, 25% leisure split at the Golden Palace. "The entire infrastructure has changed in the past few years and as a congress city, we can offer exceptional value for money. We can now be considered as a valid alternative to Milan, for instance."
For Celegato, the influx of hotels is a positive development. "We've always had a choice of hotels in Turin, but now the major corporations are arriving here," he explains. "But we need that to grow. The more hotels there are the better it is for the city in the future."
The Pragelato Resort Set high up in the Italian Alps, near the medieval village of Pragelato in Piedmont, is the brand new five-star Pragelato Resort and Spa, which opened at the beginning of January.
An hour-and-a-half's drive from Turin, the de luxe resort sits at an altitude of 1,534 metres and boasts stunning mountain views. Located between two national parks, the Olympic ski slope is just a few metres from the site, while a custom-built cable car can take guests directly up to the famous "Milky Way" skiing region, with its 400km of pistes.
Owned by a group of private investors, the €65m (£44m) Pragelato resort took 18 months to build and is the first five-star development of its kind in the area. Open all year round, it offers a huge choice of winter and summer activities, from snow sports at the hotel's own ski academy, to white-water rafting, kayaking and horse-riding in summer. Europe's highest golf course is also nearby.
Accommodation includes a 55-bedroom hotel as well as 150 de luxe chalet apartments. Aimed predominantly at the premium leisure sector, Pragelato's facilities are impressive, with three different restaurants, three bars, a shopping centre, a spa (complete with indoor pool overlooking the mountains) and even a private cinema. Three-night weekend packages start at €550 (£376) per person.
Efforts have also been made to make the resort as child-friendly as possible. A children's "village" includes an all-day nursery, as well as supervised indoor and outdoor play areas, organised activities such as karaoke and mini-Olympics and a chill-out area for teenagers.
As part of the development, there are also 85 freehold apartments available for private ownership.
Food and drink in Turin Turin and its surrounding region, Piedmont, might not have the tourist sights of Rome or Florence to attract visitors, but its gastronomic pedigree is impeccable. The aperitif was born here, for a start: vermouth, (white wine infused with herbs and distillates of fruits and juniper) was invented here by Turin producer Carpano in 1840. The city became a major centre for production, and famous brands Martini and Camano are still made nearby. Even today, aperitivo hour is still an important part of life in Turin, with bars often laying on a generous free buffet of stuzzichini, or Torino tapas, to pull in customers.
Cooking in Piedmont is taken very seriously indeed and is recognised throughout Italy as being one of the richest regional cuisines. The white truffle, in season from September to December, is a highly prized local ingredient and is added whenever possible to dishes such as pasta, risotto and fonduta, the Piedmont version of fondue. One traditional Piedmontese dish is bagna cauda, literally meaning "hot bath", which consists of raw vegetables dipped into a sauce made of olive oil, garlic, chopped anchovies and thinly sliced white truffles, served in little bowls on individual heaters.
Piedmontese cheeses are highly rated, with specialities including Toma, Bra, Robiola and Castelmagno, and the region's wines, especially reds such as Barbera, Barolo, Barbaresco and Dolcetto, are considered to be among the best in the world.
Turin is famed for its chocolate, too. The gourmet choice is probably gianduiotti, a blend of cacao and toasted hazelnuts, but down-to-earth Nutella is also a local invention, while those gold-wrapped Ferrero Rocher nuggets are the creation of Turin-based chocolate dynasty Ferrero.
Turin is also home to the Slow Food movement, which aims to promote gastronomic culture. Slow Food was founded in 1986 by Italian food journalist Carlo Petrini, who was unhappy at the way traditional foods and farming methods were being sidelined. The final straw for Petrini came when McDonald's opened on the Spanish Steps in Rome, so he decided to set up Slow Food, whose aim is to "protect the pleasures of the table from the homogenisation of modern fast food and life".
Today, the organisation spans more than 100 countries and has about 80,000 members, including 1,500 in the UK. It organises events, workshops and seminars around the world, and every two years, in October, it organises a vast food show called the Salone del Gusto.
Over several days, Slow Food producers from around the world set up stalls and sell their foods to the general public, giving talks and workshops and meeting like-minded sellers to swap ideas and techniques. The next Salone del Gusto will be held in Turin between 26 and 30 October 2006.