ITALY SPECIAL

Venice: Sightseeing and syntax

A four-week Italian course in the heart of Venice can help you to speak like a local – and leave time to take in the stunning views. By Aoife O'Riordain

There comes a point in every language student's life when a period of practical exposure is needed in order for you really to progress. My chance came when I signed up for a month of classes at the Istituto Venezia, a language school for foreigners in the heart of La Serenissima, which also gave me the opportunity to live a bit more like a local in one of the world's most entrancing cities.

Home for my four weeks was a light-filled, first-floor apartment with views of a small canal. It was almost opposite the Angelo Raffaele church, whose campo (the Venetian version of a square) was the setting for Sally Vickers' novel Ms Garnet's Angel. This shabbier corner of the city was traditionally home to Venetian sailors and fisherman, most long since gone, but it still retains a slightly down-at-heel air, with few hotels and a fewer tourists: a small window on the real Venice. It might not have been the Grand Canal, but as far as I was concerned, it was all the better for it.

The Istituto Venezia was perfect. My month-long "Super Intensivo" course translated into four hours of group classes per day followed by one-to-one tuition in the afternoons, with plenty of time for exploration. The school was housed in a handsome building reached by a steep flight of steps just off the Campo Santa Margherita, the main haunt of Venice's sizeable student population. Locals and inquisitive tourists congregated in this yawning sun-drenched square edged by shops, bars and cafés, with tables spilling out into the centre.

My dozen or so classmates were more of a mixed bag than I had anticipated: a 45-year-old Japanese lady with an impeccable grasp of Italian grammar, some pensioners from Vienna, two youthful Swedish students, a young French au pair, a Russian who wanted to be a tour guide and a Brazilian with her heart set on studying architecture at one of Venice's two universities.

Every morning as I stepping out along my daily route to school on the Fondamenta Briati, I was greeted by scenes of Venetians going about their daily business. The rubbish barge made its slow progress collecting bags left out overnight; boats honked horns warning of their progress down the narrow canal; wine and olive oil was delivered on wide flat barges; and gaggles of students hurried to class.

In Venice daily chores take on another dimension. Trips to the nearest supermarket were transformed by a sky washed with a dusky pink sunset like a Canaletto painting. Posting a letter resulted in an impromptu circuit of churches such as the intimate Church of San Sebastiano, with its richly painted frescoes by Veronese; the dwarfing grandeur of Santa Maria della Salute; or the quiet charms of the 13th-century San Nicolo dei Mendicoli, set in the farthest corner of Dorsoduro. I spent one post-class afternoon surrounded by the Gothic splendour of Ca'Rezzonico, one of the city's most opulent Baroque palaces.

Venice is made for aimless wandering: peering through railings to secret, flower-filled gardens, or strolling down the broad Zattere, which edges the Giudecca Canal (where I was unexpectedly engulfed by a mist worthy of a Tiepolo painting). There was plenty of time to get lost and soak up the atmosphere.

When I arrived, my understanding of Italian grammar was about as clear as the water in one of its canals, but the constant repetition and patient explanations of our teachers began to pay off. Much of the emphasis was on improving our conversational skills with reading, debates, games and even the occasional (cringe-worthy) bout of singing. Conversations snatched on benches in the Campo Santa Margherita began to make more sense, as did the jokes of one of the Campo's fish sellers (where I could buy a kilo of clams for just €5/£4.20).

Not being confined to a student's budget also had its advantages. Dinners at Antiche Trattoria Carampane, a small restaurant set down a dead end in a silent alleyway in Rialto, were an opportunity to sample the local speciality of molleche, deep-fried tiny crabs. Another night it could be pan-fried, finger-thin razor clams at Alle Testiere, an even smaller gem tucked down a tiny alleyway near Campo Santa Maria Formosa.

Then there was the daily elevenses standing at the bar of Gobbetti, one of the city's best patisseries and a handy 20 metres from the school gates, which was the best place to fortify myself with a crema-filled croissant and a cappuccino before two hours of wrestling with the passato prossimo. Barely a night went by without indulging in the early-evening cicchetti, the Venetian equivalent of tapas, with a small glass of wine and a piece of bread smeared with baccala mantecato, a delicious creamy paste of dried salted cod and olive oil.

Conversations with locals in faltering Italian were another path towards improvement. Gianni Basso quietly plies his trade from his printing shop in a far-flung corner of Cannaregio, where he makes hand-stamped calling cards and stationery. Despite his sizeable international clientele, Basso feels strongly when it comes to the future. "Kent to Castello, Mayfair to Dorsoduro, non mi piace," he said as he flicked through his pile. He was referring to the growing number of foreigners buying up apartments in the city's six districts. "They buy apartments, stay for two weeks, then leave and don't contribute anything to the life of the city", he adds. "It's not good."

It's hard to disagree with Basso. The local population is now at an all-time low of less than 60,000; most residents have been driven out by high property prices and the practicalities of living on an island. Take a trip down the Grand Canal after sunset and you will only see a sprinkling of opulent palazzi with their lights burning. Walk around late at night and you risk not a mugging, but the possibility of getting lost without meeting a single soul who knows the city well enough to give directions. Local life is slowly being squeezed out by tourism.

Gradually I discovered the short cuts – the traghetti (gondolas that function as cross-canal ferries) favoured by Venetians to cross the Grand Canal where there are no bridges, and the sotoportegos (underpasses) – until the jigsaw of the city began to link together in my mind. I learnt only to visit St Mark's at night when the tourists and pigeons have dispersed, and that washing hung out to dry often ends up looking like a Jackson Pollock, courtesy of the local seagulls. I also learnt the mysteries of the future conditional and the congiuntivo.

Henry James wrote of Venice: "You desire to embrace it, to caress it, to possess it and finally a soft sense of possession grows up and your visit becomes a perpetual love affair". As far as I'm concerned, Venice, "si", relative pronouns, "no".

Traveller's Guide

Studying there

Istituto Venezia (00 39 041 52 24 331; www.istitutovenezia.com).

Staying there

Venetian Apartments (020-3178 4180; www.venice-rentals.com) offers apartments to let including Angelo Raffaele, an apartment sleeping up to the three people, for €€995 (£829) per week.

Antiche Trattoria Carampane, San Polo 1911, Rio Terra de la Carampane (00 39 415 24 01 65; www.antichecarampane.com).

Alle Testiere , Calle del Mondo Novo, Castello 5801 (00 39 041 52 27 220).

Gobbetti, Dorsoduro 3108B, Rio Terra Canale (00 39 041 52 89 014).

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Car Sales Executive - Franchised Main Dealer

    £30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

    Recruitment Genius: Group Sales Manager - Field Based

    £21000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Located on the stunning Sandban...

    Guru Careers: Email Marketing Specialist

    £26 - 35k (DOE): Guru Careers: An Email Marketing Specialist is needed to join...

    Recruitment Genius: Tour Drivers - UK & European

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity to join a is a...

    Day In a Page

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
    Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

    The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

    Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
    Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

    A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
    How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

    How books can defeat Isis

    Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
    The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

    The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

    The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
    Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

    Young carers to make dance debut

    What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
    Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

    Design Council's 70th anniversary

    Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
    Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

    Dame Harriet Walter interview

    The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

    Bill Granger's winter salads

    Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
    England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

    George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

    No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
    Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links