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
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special
tv
News
Claudia Winkleman and co-host Tess Daly at the Strictly Come Dancing final
people
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
news
News
Elton John and David Furnish will marry on 21 December 2014
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
Sport
SPORT
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
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

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Recruitment Genius: Class 1 HGV Driver

    £23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful group of compan...

    Day In a Page

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
    Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

    Marian Keyes

    The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

    Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

    Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
    Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

    Rodgers fights for his reputation

    Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick