April 2012 issue

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Italy’s magic

With a rich cultural heritage, great weather and delicious food, Italy is a recipe for success for language travellers, so much so that few want to leave. Gillian Evans reports.

A visit to Italy can start a lifetime’s love affair. Sanda Stevanovic at Scuola Leonardo da Vinci in Milan first visited as a teenager and “fell in love with the country, its people and its unique culture”. The language also bewitched her. “Italian is simply magical and it goes straight to your head and to your heart,” she says. Stevanovic opened the langauge school with her husband because “we wanted to give others the possibility to feel the same emotions”.

Perhaps the most difficult choice to make is which region to study in. The length and breadth of Italy oozes with cultural and historical treasures, beautiful landscapes, pleasant climate and mouthwatering food. Language schools pepper their timetables with a tasty bag of treats, from wine and food tasting guided tours and seminars on gelati Italiani (Italian ice cream) to opera and theatre excursions, trips to world-famous museums, and art lessons. “Sometimes the real problem is knowing [what] to choose!” says Amanda Lowe at the British Institute of Florence.

Florence is often described as an “open-air museum”, says Giorgia Biccelli of Linguadue Milan, part of the Linguaviva schools with branches in Milan, Lignano and Florence. “The concentration of cultural heritage in a relatively small space is quite astonishing.” However, while the Renaissance culture is maintained, “It is not locked in time; the city pulses with life from scurrying students in the university quarter to the businessmen who whiz by on their motorini.” As well as the city’s famous sites, such as the Duomo and the Uffizi Gallery, Lowe highlights Florence’s hidden treasures. “There is always something to see as you wander down the smaller side streets of the city.” There’s plenty going on, such as a city-wide language exchange between students from different countries, film nights, culinary events, and young designer exhibits, says Andrea Adams at Santa Reparata International School of Art.

An hour from Florence and offering a hidden Tuscan experience, is the town of San Giovanni Valdarno, home to Il Sillabo language school, where Aga Szatkowska highlights the ease with which students can immerse themselves in the community. “The town is small, the people here know each other, [and] after a short while, you have a feeling that you too get acquainted with them,” she says.

Further north, Viareggio is beachside Tuscany. However, Giovanni Poggi at Centro Puccini says there is more than just the beach. “It’s a city with a population of over 64,000 and is the main centre of the northern Tuscan Riviera known as Versilia.”

Another gem is Orbetello, set amid a sparkling lagoon with beautiful beaches and a rocky coastline. “We are surrounded by natural marine and coastal parks, an oasis of the WWF and eco-systems specially protected by the laws of Italy,” says Maria Secchi at Terramare Italian Language and Culture Centre. “Our students return for many years, because here they enjoy their time on their language holiday.” The people are very friendly, says Marco Di Agostino at Orbitlingua. “Orbetello is a small but vibrant town in summertime, and it is [easy] for our students to get to know local people,” he says. “After two-to-three weeks in Orbetello they are considered to be ‘Orbetellani’.”

For a taste of Italian home cooking, Laura Montanaro, who set up Poliedro school in San Bartolomeo al Mare with her husband, offers cooking lessons at their home, their most requested activity. San Bartolomeo al Mare is situated on the Riviera dei Fiori between San Remo and Alassio, a truly beautiful location, says Montanaro. “The climate is pleasant, the greenery of the hills merges in the intense blue of the sea. [Inland from] the beach there is an enchanting countryside to explore, where, between strips of century-old olive trees, unchanged medieval cities rise, steeped in history.”

Another ancient city, further east along the coast, is Genova, which boasts the largest medieval city centre in Europe. “Genova is an ancient city, full of art and history, well worthy of exploration,” says Claudia Martinez del Hoyo from inlingua Genova. “It is ideal for someone who wishes to see the real Italy and speak Italian wherever they go.”

“The nice thing about Lombardy is that you can do exactly what you want at any moment that you wish to do it,” says Stevanovic. Lombardy has lakes, mountains, rivers, ancient cities, unspoiled nature and a rich artistic heritage, and is home to Milan, “the most international city in Italy and the world’s capital of fashion and design”. But Alberto Canella at IH Milan argues that there is more to Milan than fashion and finance. “There are dozens of museums and churches unknown even to local people,” he says.

Milan is also a shopaholic’s paradise, with the famous Quadrilatero della moda, a dense population of designer boutiques. “Here you will find everyone from Dolce & Gabbana to Etro, Versace, Prada, Bulgari, Jimmy Choo and many others,” says Simone Fracalossi at Uptodate Fashion Academy.

Boasting one of the world’s oldest universities, Bologna is full of young people, making it dynamic despite its medium size. “There’s something for everyone here,” asserts Luca Armaroli at Accademia Lingue e Culture Europee (ALCE) in Bologna, “whether it is art galleries and museums, a classical music concert, a hike in the picturesque surrounding hills, or a walk in one of the city’s many parks that you are looking for.”

A tour of the capital is like stepping back into Roman times, with well-preserved relics around every corner such as the Roman Forum, Pantheon, and the Colosseum. But, says Fabio Boccio of StudioItalia, “Rome is a city full not only of artistic and cultural attractions, but also plenty of entertainment – from the nightlife in Trastevere to the new amusement park in Valmontone.”

A quiet, authentic Italian experience is offered at Città di Castello situated in Umbria, known as the “green heart of Italy”. The region teems with beautiful medieval villages such as Assisi and Orvieto, and an historical legacy left from the Etruscans and Romans. “There are a lot of activities the many tourists like to undertake,” says Laura Gastaldi at Lingua Più, “[from] a guided tour of churches and museums, to a bike ride along the Tiber River or a vintage Vespa tour”. Claudia Wiegleb at Lingua Sì, Orvieto, advises, “There are many cultural initiatives in the town and surroundings, it’s situated in a beautiful and varying landscape,” she says. There is “an ample choice of monuments, architecture, art masterpieces and sites, and last but not least, food and wine are just excellent,” she adds.

“Sicily has an amazing heritage in history, art and art history, and it is here where the roots of the whole Italian culture can be found,” asserts Alessandro Adorno of Babilonia in Taormina. Sicily is at the meeting point of three continents, “There are few other places which have been impacted by as great a number of civilizations,” says Adorno. Similarly, Francesca Gulli at Federico II language school in Catania says, “The architecture is really impressive. In our area it is possible to find visible traces of a very ancient and rich past, and in our region it is possible to find Greek temples, medieval castles and churches, and lots of astonishing Baroque buildings.”

J Barry Haywood of Eurolingua Institute, which offers homestay language courses in various locations, highlights Siracusa, located in southeast Sicily. “A Unesco World Heritage Site, [Siracusa] is notable for its rich Greek history, culture, amphitheatres, architecture, and as the birthplace of the preeminent mathematician and engineer Archimedes.”

“Simply stated,” concludes Enrico Zorzella at Eurocentres Firenze, “Italy is la dolce vita, and many people who travel to this incredible country never want to leave.”

Agent viewpoint

“Our students generally like the culture, food, lifestyle, history and friendliness of the people in Italy. We send most students to Rome, Florence, Venice, Milan and Bologna. Rome and Florence are popular due to their attractiveness and well-established direct trains and flights from Switzerland; however we have started [to offer] Bologna and it’s good to have an alternative to the main destination. Personally, I like cities such as Bologna and Rome the most; Florence and Venice are awesome too, however too touristy. Furthermore, I prefer Tuscany and the Amalfi Coast for the best ‘off the beaten track’ locations - a nice retreat at the beach, indulging in excellent food and wine.” 
Marcel Rüfenacht, Pro Linguis – Language Studies Abroad, Switzerland

“Italy has always been one of the most popular tourist countries in Europe.
Spanish students like Italy’s social life, people, gastronomy, nature, culture and most importantly: people are very open-minded and that makes them similar to the Spanish mentality. We have focused our Italian language courses we offer mostly in Rome and Florence. Both cities are really attractive for our students. We work as well with one of the best schools in both areas. Last year our most popular destination was Rome since its history, monuments, street life and culture are unique. Our students have the opportunity to combine Italian language courses or activities with tourism. They can explore the capital, make new friends and learn more about the fascinating Italian culture.”
Advisor viewpoint Aneta Petrova, Astex, Spain

“Students appreciate the climate and the bustling, yet relaxed lifestyle, which is quite different to Sweden. Our most popular cities are Rome, Florence and Milan. Rome because it’s the capital city and has more famous monuments and locations; Florence because of its beauty, [and] art history combined with its reputation for being friendly and exciting despite its fame; Milan because of its strong connection with world class design, and perhaps also its proximity to the mountains for those who enjoy skiing and hiking. They are surprised that there is so much life everywhere: traffic, people chatting on the street and in crowded bars etc, and that this goes on well into the night.”
Jenny Minnema, Blueberry, Sweden

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