August 2005 issue

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Tour of Tuscany

Rolling hills, quaint hilltop villages, charming cities and an artistic heritage unrivalled in Italy - there is no doubt that Tuscany is not short of selling points. Amy Baker enjoys the trip.

Tuscany is one of the most famous and visited areas in Italy, and claims some of the best culture and countryside in the country. The Tuscan landscape is hilly and mountainous, offering splendid views of the rural land, while its cities have exquisitely preserved their historic charm and boast architectural highlights such as Bruneschelli's Duomo in Florence, the leaning tower in Pisa and the old walled city of Lucca.

"With its art and interesting cultural sites, Tuscany offers multifaceted cultural experiences," says Maddalena Ferriani of Linguaviva Group, based in Florence. Andreas Gründer at Italiamo in Livorno adds, "Students know Tuscany to be one of the most beautiful regions of Italy with the most famous wines, excellent cuisine, and they know of the most important cities like Florence and Siena."

Ferriani says that Florence in particular is a good choice as a base for students, because of the many international students in the city, the fact that locals are used to foreign visitors and because the city has "a unique concentration of the most important artistic heritage of the Renaissance period." Linguaviva organises language courses in the city combined with "art, design and cooking programmes and a rich programme of social activities, offering students the possibility to discover the great richness of Tuscany", she says.

At Accademia del Giglio, also in the city, Lorenzo Capanni is keen to highlight Florence's easygoing social scene. "Florence is a small lively city full of bars and restaurants, where students can meet people from other countries," he relates. "In the evening, students go to a bar or they have a meal together in a pizzeria or trattoria. In the afternoon, they go shopping or visit [some of the many] museums."

There are numerous museums and sights to see in Florence, such as the famous Uffizi Gallery, said to house Italy's greatest art collection (and long queues to get in as a result) and the Galleria dell'Accademia, a museum of paintings but with its own tourist magnet: Michelangelo's original marble sculpture of David.

Other must-sees include Florence's 15th-century Ponte Vecchio (bridge), which is lined with old jewellery shops, and the fantastic Duomo (cathedral) with its pink, white and green marble facade. It is the world's fourth-largest cathedral, crowned by an enormous dome built by Fillipe Brunelleschi, who won a public competition to design it, and it remains a remarkable achievement of design today.

With all of its treasures - including works by Botticelli, Michelangelo, Donatello, Raphael and da Vinci - Florence certainly offers students an enriching experience, which according to Tracy Bray at the British Institute of Florence, is an important consideration for language travellers. "Students these days want more than just a language experience," she says. "They want a whole cultural experience and a base which is well connected to other main attractions, cities and events."

Siena is another popular city in the region. It is famous for its beautiful Piazza del Campo, which was once an ancient Roman forum and still hosts the annual Palio di Siena, a bareback horse race around the square. A charming city of orange rooves, Siena also has a number of language schools. The city has some impressive Gothic architecture and a favourite activity of students is climbing up the Torre del Mangia in Piazza del Campo to enjoy the impressive views of the city below.

Another study option for students interested in going to Tuscany is Livorno on the coast. Despite being Tuscany's third-largest city and a significant port, Livorno is not a well known destination for language students. They are therefore pleased to discover, says Gründer, Livorno's beautiful areas "like the quartiere di Venezia (Venezia district) and a wonderful coastline with nice beaches and a beautiful cliff".

Livorno also has picturesque canals and hump-backed bridges and a reputation for good seafood as well as other "un-Tuscan" charms: an ethnic mix among the locals and a distinct lack of tourists. Gründer adds that among the best things about Livorno are "the coast, the sea and the seafood cuisine".

Offering a totally different experience from coastal Livorno is Montepulciano, a famous wine-producing town that is the highest hilltop town in Tuscany. Home to Il Sasso language school, Montepulciano is a great base for hikers and walkers and has been referred to as the "pearl of the 16th century" because of its Renaissance-style buildings in the walled town centre. The drive to the town is also impressive, with cypress trees and olive groves dotting the undulating landscape. Other nearby treats off the traditional tourist route include Bagno Vignone, a calcium spa swimming pool on a hilltop, and sulphur spas at Saturnia and Petriolo.

Scuola Toscana is a Tuscan language school based in Viareggio, situated on the coastline north of Livorno. Brunella Belluomini at the school relates, "Viareggio was for the first 60 years in 1900 the place to be for intellectuals, kings, artists and musicians. The five-kilometre long seaside promenade, with its liberty and art deco café bars and hotels, were their meeting [places]."

One of the best times of year to visit Viareggio is in February, when Carnevale takes place. For four consecutive Sundays, ornately decorated floats take to the streets in a festival atmosphere. Belluomini also relates that the white marble quarry behind the town is where Michelangelo used to climb for the best slabs of marble for his sculptures, and students can visit this for themselves.

In Lucca, Centro Koine occupies a central position on the second floor of a building, affording its students views over Lucca's streets and churches. With whitewashed walls, stone floors and high-beamed ceilings, the school has a distinct charm. It offers a course for those wanting to explore Tuscany: students get to go olive oil and wine tasting, visit the park of San Rossore, the Le Pievi medieval settlement and, during the evenings, sample dinners in different local restaurants. "In Lucca, you don't have all the troubles you find in a big tourist town," says Andrea Moradei. "You can walk and observe without being swept up by a car or scooter."

Agent viewpoint

"The obvious advantages of studying in Tuscany are the great number of cultural events, but we also find that a lot of students go there because the origin of the Italian language is from Tuscany. There are a number of nice towns and cities of different sizes all within reach of the famous Tuscan landscape. We send students to Florence and Siena, which are, at least for foreigners, fairly similar except that Siena is considerably smaller than Florence. They both have the charm we expect of Italian cities and popular universities. Florence is more popular and the most well known city in Tuscany because of its history of art and literature. " Johan Johan Stenhammer, Sprakpunten, Sweden

"We offer students the choice of four locations in Tuscany: Florence, Lucca, Cortona and Orbetello. By far the most popular destinations for the past three years have been Florence and Lucca. As for the advantages of Tuscany in general; it was the seat of the Italian Rennaissance, there is a concerted effort to protect wilderness and it is a slower paced region than Rome or Milan. I would be remiss not to mention Centro Koine - its experienced and responsive staff are second to none."
Patty Hayashi, International Summerstays, USA

"Tuscany is famous above all for its endless vineyards bounded by cypress trees, as well as a high quality of life and gastronomic culture. Viareggio has long beaches and a great nightlife and is [good] for younger people. Lucca and Siena are smaller and quieter than Florence. All accommodation is withing walking distance from school. Florence has a great variety of cultural and leisure activities for students of all ages."
Kathy Krebs, Carpe Diem, Germany.

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