June 2003 issue

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Italy's charms

Language students in Italy have many opportunities to experience the local culture, either through combining their language course with a vocational option or by making the most of their free time. Bethan Norris reports.

Italy is] a place where anyone can find some sort of passion,'' claims Emma Williams from Società Dante Alighieri in Siena. ''[The country] is rich in art, culture, music, history, food, wine and, most of all, joie de vivre.''

Students are often looking for more than just a language course, and Italy's many culinary, cultural and historical attributes can be a real attraction, testifies Katherine Muraglia from Omnilingua in San Remo. She points out that the art, culture, cuisine, landscape and people of Italy are world-renowned. ''The Italian language is one of the most poetic and colourful languages that exists and can only be appreciated at its full when immersed in the countryside and towns where it was born,'' she says.

Many language schools in Italy offer courses that combine language learning with another activity to enable students to experience one of the many different facets of Italian life. Anna Paola Bosi, from Il Sillabo in San Giovanni Valdarno, says that the school offers ''an attractive range of courses covering language, art and gastronomy'', while students studying at Centro Linguistico Internazionale Sorrento Lingue in Sorrento are given the chance to take professional or beginner-level singing lessons with Maestro Federico de Curtis, the former tenor of the Teatro San Carlo in Naples, says Cristiana Panicco at the school. In Milan, Il Centro Italiano offers cultural courses looking at particular aspects of Italian language and culture, such as fashion, art or contemporary politics.

Alessandro Vidoni, Director of Linguaviva in Florence, says that his school offers internship placements for students in the industrial and commercial areas of Florence and also language courses that diversify from typical classroom-based lessons. ''Our modern teaching approach, sometimes in open-air lessons in typical places in the city centre, is conceived to stimulate the students' interest - and will enable [them] in the shortest possible time to communicate and understand the multifaceted aspects of Italian culture and society,'' he explains.

The city of Florence provides an ideal backdrop for students to experience some of Italy's cultural attractions in their free time. Vidoni says that the school ''offers a rich programme of different daily activities'', which includes guided tours to the Uffizi art gallery and also to places further afield in the surrounding area of Tuscany. ''The visit to a Chianti wine farm with wine tasting and the excursion to Cinque Terre at the seaside are very [well] attended by our students,'' he says.

Tuscany is famous worldwide for its food and wine as well as its rugged and beautiful countryside. Williams describes the city of Siena as ''the jewel in the Tuscan crown'' and claims that the city has held on tightly to the culture and traditions of its past. ''This is most apparent in the Palio, the biannual horserace in the heart of Siena [at] the Piazza del Campo,'' she says. Dating back to the 13th century, the Palio is a bareback horse race between the different contradas (city quarters) of Siena. The city has 17 contradas in total but only 10 can compete in the race so competition is fierce. The race is preceded by costumed parades and celebrations that involve the whole city and its visitors. ''We try and integrate the students with some of the different contradas of Siena, especially during the Palio time through their dinners and parties,'' says Williams.

Outdoor activities feature highly in this area of Italy with numerous opportunities for walking, horse-riding, visiting local wine and olive farms and tasting the local produce. According to Bosi from Il Sillabo, the town of San Giovanni Valdarno is a ''delightfully small, medieval town in the heart of Tuscany, unstressed by tourist traffic, [where] it is still possible to savour the taste of Italian daily life''. Another attraction of the area is the large number of major fashion house outlets that provide ample opportunities to participate in the popular Italian pastime of shopping. Il Sillabo organises afternoon shopping tours by car and Bosi says, ''[students like] shopping in the centre or in the retail outlets of Prada, Gucci, Armani, D&G etc''.

For students studying within reach of Italy's vast coastline, there are plenty of opportunities to take part in different watersports. Muraglia points out that the beach is within walking distance of her school in San Remo, and sailing, diving, surfing and swimming are all popular activities. ''During the summer and warmer months, we have a school 'beach' where students can meet up in the evening for beach parties and karaoke nights [and] practise the songs they learned in class,'' she adds.

For students studying further south, the island of Sicily and Mount Etna, Europe's highest active volcano, is a popular attraction. Visitors travel from mainland Italy to hike around the volcano, while students studying at International House in Palermo can explore the trails in an afternoon.

In Ancona, on the east coast of Italy, where Inlingua language school is located, the list of outdoor activities available for students is almost endless. ''Activities include canoeing, kayaking, hiking, scuba diving, wine tasting tours, horseback riding, tours through the Grotte di Frasassi [stalagmite cave], shopping, boat rentals and more,'' says Shazia Justin from Inlingua Ancona. A popular excursion is to the town's port area, which is a five-minute walk from the school. ''Located at the port is Ancona's St Cyriac Cathedral,'' says Justin. ''The walk up to the cathedral is well worth the spectacular view of Ancona and the Adriatic coastline.''

Because Ancona is a port city, fish features heavily on the local menu, and Justin advises students to try the ''renowned Stoccafisso all'Anconetana [codfish] with the region's Verdicchio [dry white wine]''.

Getting students to try the local cuisine is given a novel twist at The Language Centre in Todi, where students are given the opportunity to experience a traditional Roman dinner created by a local archaeologist. ''Three courses [are served] including appetising hors d'oeuvres, spiced meat and several desserts,'' says Francesca Granieri at the school. ''The meal is served with charactersitic honey-seasoned wine and [students] have dinner in the garden of the archeaologist in the summer.''

Enjoying good food and wine is a popular pastime for Italian people and students are often quick to adapt to this Italian style of living. In Siena, Williams says that the piazza with its many bars becomes the ''pinnacle of the town's social events'' in the summer months, and adds, ''Here you can experience the Siennese lifestyle at its most fascinating and beautiful.''

Agent viewpoint

''Florence is the most requested city, followed by Bologna and Rome, and recently we have seen more interest in Sicily. Florence is chosen because of the art and the museums. It isn't a big city and also students can travel around in Tuscany. Bologna is popular because it is a university city, not far from the sea and also you can travel to other northern cities very easily. Rome is usually chosen by young people who already know Italy. Students around the ages of 30 or 40 years are more interested in arts and history and they often choose the culture and gastronomic courses. Students usually come back very happy with their experience, but sometimes they complain about the public transport.''
Federica Diaz, Il Centro Italiano, Spain

''We find our students are most appreciative of the relaxed lifestyle and friendly approach of the [local people]. Australasians by nature generally have an easygoing approach and find that the Mediterranean lifestyle is in many ways similar. Italy also offers so much history, so much culture, so much wonderful enjoyment of food and wine, all in an 'exotic' location. Because of its [typical] Italian feel, Tuscany is the most sought-after destination for our clients going to Italy. Tuscany offers world-renowned cities such as Florence and Siena for those looking to experience the rich architecture of the centuries, as well as the opportunity to simply stroll or sit and take in the ambience and streetscape of typical Italian life.''
Mark James, Savoir Faire Reservations, Australia

''Swedish students mostly enjoy the lovely culture and architecture that Italy offers. Visiting the many wine regions and watching wine processing are also popular activities. [Students] take every opportunity to practise the language, get a better understanding of Italian culture and at the same time, make friends and have fun. The schools that we work with offer many types of activities to the student during their free time. The most popular city is Florence, then Rome and Siena.''
Jose Hellberg i Falguera, IS Language Travels, Sweden

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