When a parcel of homework arrives a few weeks before setting off to Italy for a Learn Italian in Tuscany course, one can only suspect that the planned week-long experience will be anything but a passeggiata in the park.
There is much to learn: conjugations of verbs, suffixes, specific vocabularies, complicated plurals — Italians don’t just add an ‘s’, and, idiomatic expressions to memorise in the hope that we might be mistaken for locals.
I am picked up from my Florence hotel and whisked through undulating farmlands striped with vineyards and dotted with terracotta-roofed farmhouses before arriving an hour later in the little mountain village of Moggiona – population 300.
Home for the week is to be I Tre Baroni – a comfortable and friendly family-run hotel offering country accommodation and good regional cuisine overlooking a peaceful valley with the medieval castle tower of Poppi in the distance.
The three Baroni brothers run this friendly establishment and while all speak good English, are happy to allow us to practice our new-found language skills.
On the first evening, I meet other participants over drinks and nibbles by the pool. They are three English women who have done several Italian courses before. It is 11 years since I studied any Italian – and have managed to forget most of it. Our teacher is Marcello Montanari who teaches in various schools in Le Marche and when time allows, is a working archaeologist.
Next morning after a breakfast of croissants, yogurt and just-baked tortas, we pull up chairs under a market umbrella on the terrace for our first lesson. Marcello immediately makes us feel comfortable and, presuming nothing, begins with the l’alfabeto – only 21 letters, then moves on to numbers – uno, due, tre, the days of the week, months, seasons and popular greetings and expressions. Before we know it, we are asking and answering questions and telling the group about ourselves.
We also dip into Tuscan history and culture — Dante, Boccaccio and Petrarch were all local boys. We discuss their influence and importance in letteratura, l’arte e la storia.
Classes are unstructured and focus on conversation. They are held each morning with an excursion planned each afternoon to practice our Italian and to learn more of the area. The following morning, we discuss the previous day’s activities – and each has a different story to tell.
One day we explore medieval Poppi and happen upon a religious procession through the cobble-stoned streets. Another day we drive through the mountains to the Camaldoli Hermitage where monks still sell herbal teas, tisanes, pills and potions through an Antica Farmacia that dates back to 1450. Then there is a visit to lovely Arezzo where we stroll around the impressive piazza, view the renowned Piero della Francesco frescos in the Basilica of San Francesco before dining like locals on platters of prosciutto and cheese with good regional wine.
Another day we buy ingredients at the local market for a picnic. Each has a shopping list. I have to buy cold meats – prosciutto, mortadella and salami and cheese — perhaps some local pecorino and some fresh goats cheese which I buy from a cheesemaker whom I learn used to farm 50 goats in the surrounding mountains to produce cheese, but now after a wolf attack, has just 20 left.
One afternoon we have a wine-tasting with the hotel’s sommelier, Luigi, and yet another day have a hands-on pasta-making class with executive chef Francesco who explains the process – in Italian. We knead flour and eggs, shape the dough, roll and cut tagliatelli, cut out circles for ravioli – filling them with spinach, ricotta and truffles – and then devour it all for lunch… Ē delizioso!
On the last day, we visit an organic farm, Fattoria La Vialla where we dine heartily under shady trees on home-made fare and sip Tuscan wines before it rains. We retreat to the farmhouse for vin santo and biscotti before heading home.
Tri-lingual Janet Simmonds of Grand Tourist, organiser of the language program, insists that the aim of the exercise is for participants “to enjoy the culture, language, food and wines of Italy.”
She says: “The focus is on confidence-building, communication and enjoyment. It’s about progressing at the individual student’s own pace. There is no competition and certainly no deadlines.
“It really is about being able to get your message across to someone else in another language. You don’t necessarily have to worry about endings and gender – so long as you can make yourself understood – that’s the main thing.”
GETTING THERE: Grand Tourist provides transport from Pisa or Florence for participants at the beginning and end of the trip.
DO: Learn Italian in Tuscany is a seven-night/eight-day experience for up to 10 participants that includes accommodation, daily informal language classes, daily activities or excursions into the Tuscan countryside, welcome and farewell dinners, daily breakfast and either lunch or dinner daily, pre-trip Italian preparation and suggested reading and transfers from either Pisa or Florence airports or Florence hotel.
WHEN: This wonderful experience takes place September 24 to October 1 2011. Next year’s programs will be held from June 23 to 30 and September 15 to 22. The program costs GBP1695 per person in a double or twin room, GBP1795 in a superior room.
CONTACT: Grand Tourist +44 (0)1829 751 038, email@example.com, www.grand-tourist.com
STAY: I Tre Baroni
Previous participants have said:
“A wonderfully well organised week…. superbly researched, splendid accommodation and great walking too! It was great to meet you all. What a wonderful group of people!”
“We all thoroughly enjoyed the pasta making experience and were delighted to be eating our homemade pasta for lunch – a great time had by all. The wine tasting with Luigi was great fun and we all learnt something new.”
“This is a fabulous (and very unique) week of culture, language, sunshine and wonderful food & wine.”
By Tricia Welsh