It’s like stepping into a scene from Chocolat. As soon as you slip inside the dimly-lit Caffè Al Bicerin, tucked away in the historic quarters of Turin, in Italy’s north-west, you get a sense that guilty pleasures await. Pairs of women huddle around small, marble tables savouring slow sips of a hot, creamy drink between rapid bouts of Italian. It’s Turin’s signature brew, bicerin – a layered concoction of coffee, chocolate and cream – that lures customers, as it has done for more than two centuries.

As she sets down the steaming bulbous glasses, Al Bicerin’s owner, Maritè Costa, advises us not to stir. The reason for her request soon becomes clear – the first mouthful delivers a strong shot of espresso, next comes a rich flow of milky chocolate and, finally, the three ingredients combine to deliver a flavour that explains why no less than 15 Italian women are crammed into a tiny café in the middle of the day.

But Turin’s love affair with chocolate is no secret. It was here, in Italy’s fourth largest city, that chocolate in its solid form was first created. To cope with the shortage of cocoa beans during the Napoleonic wars, Turinese chocolate makers mixed cocoa with the more affordable hazelnuts, forming a delicious paste that in 1865 became the bocconcino or cicca (mouth-sized bit). Turin’s original solid chocolate, gianduiotti, is a mouth-watering morsel made in the shape of an overturned boat and wrapped in gold foil.

Chocolate is very special to Torinos,” says local guide Alessandra Angherà. “It has a long history in this city and we have a special appreciation for good, quality chocolate. It is a luxury, but one we cannot live without.”

From March 4-13, Turin celebrates its chocolate-covered past with the annual CioccolaTo festival. This month-long event showcases food, wine, music, literature, cinema and art – all inspired by chocolate. Tasting trails are mapped out in each part of the city to help visitors track down cafés, restaurants, confectioners and workshops to sample the best chocolate treats.

As tenuous as the link may seem, chocolate is also playing a key part in promoting the city’s role as host of the 2006 Winter Olympic Games from February 10-26 and the Paralympic Winter Games from March 10-19. This year, CioccolaTo incorporates sport into its agenda with events such as ‘Winning with cocoa: chocolate sports’ and the Chocolate Olympics, which offers a taste of the sports to be featured during the games. The move forms part of a concentrated effort to redefine the city’s image for a global audience.
As the original home of luxury car makers Fiat and major pen manufacturers, Turin has long been overlooked as an industrial city and shunned by visitors in favour of Rome, Venice, Florence or Milan. Angherà says the Olympics present the perfect platform for Turin to update its image. “People have this idea of Turin as a grey, industrial city,” she says. “We have the same level of culture here as any other Italian city so it is important for us to host the Olympics as it is our chance to grow up as a city and to show the rest of the world what we have.”

With less than 12 months until the Games begin, physical evidence of this transformation can be seen across town. An underground rail network is being created to complement the city’s existing tram and bus systems while industrial spaces are being reclaimed to make way for sporting venues, an Olympic Village, boulevards, cycle tracks and public meeting and exhibition space. Most of the sporting action will take place at the Alps flanking the western side of the city, where facilities are being upgraded and created.
For all its desire to change, Turin already has plenty to offer. With its smorgasbord of museums, stunning architecture, art galleries, great restaurants and bars, a friendly population and snow slopes on its doorstep, the city has a solid base to build on. Come February 2006, the world may be surprised to discover what it’s been missing out on.