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Trip Report First catch your octopus - 10 days studying Italian in Tuscany.

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Inspired by the trip report of some other brave souls who have been on language courses, mainly in Italy but also elsewhere, and by another student in my italian class, about 3 months ago I screwed my courage to the sticking post and signed up to spend a week in a language school in Orbetello in the south of Tuscany, followed by a few days in Florence, which is where I am now. You are probably thinking that it would have been better to do two weeks, and you would be absolutely correct, but for reasons beyond my control [which of course had resolved themselves by the time the trip started] I could only manage to get away for 10 days, so I decided to do a week’s course followed by a few days in Florence hopefully to practice what I had learnt!

How, you are asking yourselves [or possibly yourself] did she choose which school to attend? If you google for example “langague schools in Italy” you will come up with literally hundreds of choices. I started by thinking that as I would be travelling alone, I should make things as easy as possible. That meant choosing an airport where I knew that there was easy access to the train system as I didn’t want to drive. And as allegedly the purest Italian is spoken in Tuscany, that narrowed it down to flying into Pisa and choosing somewhere that I could get to easily from there. So that meant possibly Pisa, Lucca, Siena, and Florence.

There are LOADS of language schools in Florence. I don’t know how people choose between them; I did it by rejecting all of them on the basis that I had been to Florence for a week with the family a few years ago and I didn’t want to go to somewhere I already knew, if not well, then a little, as it was likely that any activities and excursions would repeat some of the places with which I was already familiar. Then some other fodorites recommended a school in Siena, but that suffered from the same problem - I had been there before. I found a very nice-sounding school in Bologna [and I had read a lot about the food in Bologna so I was quite keen to try it] which came well-recommended but initially the school could not accommodate me for the dates I wanted, and by the time they came back to me with a proposal, I was already comitted elsewhere.

Eventually, I ended up here: in Orbetello, on the south-west coast of Tuscany, just before it becomes Lazio.

It had the advantages that it was in an area completely new to me, I could do a variety of activities including learning about local cuisine and wine, and the person I was communicating with, Maria, seemed very friendly and helpful. and it was reasonably priced - €450 for the weeks’ activities and €50 per night B&B in a local hotel. So in the end, my decision was made for me.

Let's find out how I got on:

DAY ONE - Sunday 8th May

With a flight to Pisa at about 1pm, I needed to leave home at about 8am to do the 3 hour drive to Bristol airport and to get there in time to check in, get through security, etc. Having gone to bed early to prepare for my 12 hour journey, I slept hardly at all, and by 7am I was exhausted! But I was on the road by 7.45 and apart from a 30 minute wait at the gate due to some unspecified technical problems, the Easyjet flight went like a dream, and landed on time. For those who like me prefer to travel with more than one change of clothes, which IMHO makes taking carry-on more or less impossible, the luggage had arrived almost before we had reached the baggage-reclaim area, and by 16.30 I had my train ticket [€11] to take me to Orbetello from Pisa aeroporto via Pisa Centrale. Those of you who have travelled by train in Italy will know that it is necessary to validate your ticket in a machine on the platform before you board the train; if you are familiar with Italy will not be surprised to read that none of the machines worked. Luckily, someone had grabbed the guard, and had got him to write on their tickets, so I did the same and thrust my ticket into his hand before he could escape, as on a previous journey we had forgotten and been fined, so I was VERY keen that shouldn’t happen again. As it happened I would have had time to find a machine at Pisa centrale while I waited for my train, but it was one less thing to worry about.

Changing trains at Pisa was not particularly difficult, but it was hard work - lots of steps down from the platform we arrived at, and lots more to get to the right platform for Rome, [Orbetello is conveniently on the line from Genoa to Rome which goes through Pisa]. I began to wish that I had packed less, though with one bag well within the weight limits on easyjet and one piece of hand luggage, I had not felt that I had overburdened myself. [note to self - put all clothes out and then put half of them away]. [on the way back I found out that there are ramps and/or lifts, but you have to look hard to find them]

Helpfully, all the trains were shown on overhead displays with their final destinations, and train numbers, as well as which platform was needed, and announced in italian and english. Somewhat to my surprise, the train I needed actually started at Pisa, so I had plenty of time to get on, and arrange myself. Fortunately it was by no means full so I was able to keep my luggage next to me, which was good as before we left, a couple of disreputable looking types came through the train leaving cards begging for money [amusingly printed very professionally in what looked to me like pefect italian and very good english] and after we had set off, they came through the train asking for handouts. I have found that if you simply say “non” they go away, and so it proved, but if I’d had to leave my luggage in the area at the end of the carriage, I would have kept a very good eye on it while they were around. Another argument for travelling light/er.

I don’t know why, but I had not expected the journey to be so long [I had printed out the timetable so it shouldn’t have been a surprise] but the train seemed to take ages to inch its way down the coast of Tuscany, stopping at one little town after another. But the scenery gradually became more dramatic and interesting, and as we were nearing my station, I spotted some deer grazing in a field close to the lines. Then suddenly we were there, with yet more stairs to negotiate, down and up again, before I could extracate myself from the station. Disabled people did not appear to be well catered for; there was a ramp leading up from the underground passageway beneath the platforms, but I couldn’t find the one leading down! [see above - I did find it on the return trip as it made sense that there would be one; but it was pretty well hidden!]

Maria, the school’s organiser, [and as I later discovered, tour guide, teacher, driver and trouble-shooter] had kindly offered to pick me up from the station and I had phoned her from the train, but I was not entirely surprised when she was not there to meet me; when she arrived she said that there had been a traffic jam because all the weekenders from Rome decided to return home at the same time, and the local council were digging up the roads. This was certainly true - traffic was having to use a car-park as a thoroughfare in order to get from one part of the town to the other, to the dismay of people trying to use it for its more usual function. but my first impressions of Orbetello were good - a lovely town set in a beautiful if slightly smelly lagoon, surrounded by hills, woods, castles and beaches.

Having parked the car [not in the middle of the new thoroughfare] she walked me to the hotel she had booked me into, and we agreed to meet about 30 minutes later, when hopefully she would have located some other sutdents so that we could get to know each other over dinner. As I had last eaten a sandwich on the plane at about 2pm, and it was now after 8 that appealed to me greatly, but after 45 minutes of hearing nothing, I took things into my own hands and chose a restaurant for myself. I’d just ordered when she phoned; fortunately the others had not sat down anywhere and they came to join me, along with Maria. Equally fortuantely, it turned out that completely accidentally, I had chosen a very good place to eat. I decided to try the spaghetti con vongole [clams] e bottarga [smoked grey mullet roe] which was really excellent; with a 1/2 litre of red wine, sparkling water and home-made pannacotta, it all came to €25. Not a bargain, but reasonable for what I had. My dinner companions and I soon introduced ourselves - my fellow students turned out to be two middle-aged teachers from Denmark with the same first name [which had apparently caused great confusion when they had made their bookings] and a yound german girl. They were already following the school rules of speaking only italian, so I had no choice but to join in! It also turned out that we were right next to the school [mind you, Orbetello is the sort of size that nothing is very far from anything else] which proved useful the next morning when I had to find it in a hurry.

Although Italy is an hour ahead of England, by 10pm I was exhausted, and I was very happy to be escorted back to my hotel by my fellow students before they dispersed to their various lodgings, and I didn’t even unpack before crawling into bed and going to sleep. After all, there would be plenty of time for that in the morning!

Next - let the fun begin.

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