One month at a language school in Venice

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Learning Italian in Venice - a dream

Italy is one of my favorite destinations and I get by fairly well with a smattering of Corsican together with some Italian vocabulary and grammar picked up over the years. But this time, I decided to take the bull by the horns and start learning Italian the proper way, at a language school and, after googling the various possibilites, I picked the Istituto Venezia. The attraction of having a whole month to explore Venice obviously played a part in my choice but the online reviews for this school were also positive.

All my contacts with the school were extremely friendly and efficient and I especially appreciated their kind cooperation when, at the last moment for family reasons, I had to change my dates.

At the school, there are five levels: ranging from beginners in Level 1 to those who have several years of study (and language schools) under their belts in Level 5. I found myself in Level 3 which suited my ability down to the ground even though I have some serious gaps due to the unconventional way in which I have gradually learnt Italian.

Since I was staying on Giudecca island at Il Redentore guest-house, my daily commute was by vaporetto over the Giudecca canal to Zattere and then a short walk to the Campo Santa Margherita, followed by a cappucino at a local café. I can think of worse ways to start the day!

Both of our teachers were excellent although their job is not easy. The courses have a theoretical starting date every 4 weeks but in fact people come and go every week. This means that the class groups change every Monday. The "plan of attack" seemed to be to pick a particular aspect of grammar together with a suitable text. Without showing us the text, our teachers would then kick off the class with a group discussion encouraging us to use vocabulary covering the subject matter of the text which we would then use in the exercises which followed. This strategy enabled us to cover in the four weeks I was there the following: imperative, comparative, conditional, prepositions "di", "a", "da", double pronouns, indirect pronouns, subjunctive, pluperfect, personal pronouns, relative pronouns and more. The language spoken the whole time was Italian and I was overjoyed at the progress I made.

Playing the tourist

I have been to Venice half a dozen times but never for more than a few days. This time I decided to forget the main tourist attractions and just to wander, checking some of the churches discovered on the way. For the most part, I kept away from the well-beaten path between the Ferrovia, Rialto and San Marco. I also took part in some of the activities organised by the school: guided walking tours, films, cooking (in Italian, of course).

The following blog alloggibarbaria.blogspot (in Italian) is great for gaining an insight into the architecture, traditions and everyday life of this special city. Below are three of the many "vere da pozzo" (decorative wellheads) to be seen all over Venice. They no longer serve their original purpose but are for the most part fairly well-maintained.

And here are two of the classic views of Venice: Santa Maria del Rosario dei Gesuati on the Fondamenta Zattere and a milky view of the Doge's Palace and the Campanile of San Marco.


By keeping an eye on the posters in various parts of the city announcing coming events, it is very easy to know what is going on. There are numerous opportunities to hear a Vivaldi concert in one of the Venetian churches but I also fitted in a number of other concerts or shows: musicians and ballet in costume at the Scuola grande dei Carmini, a Debussy concert at the Fenice, Purcell and Monteverdi by visiting musicians from the U.K. at the Chiesa San Pantalon, Mozart's Requiem given by a visiting French orchestra and choir to a packed house at the Chiesa San Trovaso, i Musici Veneziani with extracts from opera at the Scuola grande di San Teodoro and a very odd, but nonetheless enjoyable, show (in English) on the history of Venice at the Teatro San Gallo.

Because of the weather conditions and in particular the acqua alta, my usual concert-going gear included several warm woollies, a thick winter coat covered by a rainproof jacket with both hoods up, a long warm scarf and my faithful gumboots. The umbrella was useless because of the wind hurtling down the narrow "calli".

Commissario Brunetti

The Commissario Brunetti novels by Donna Leon are written in English and recount the cases taken in hand by this very Venetian police commissioner. Practically all the novels have been made into films, for some reason only in German, it appears. But since I watch German television, I am a firm fan and never miss an opportunity to watch (often for the umpteenth time) any Brunetti film which is scheduled. Of course, I had to go exploring Brunetti's favorite spots as well as the film locations.

This book by Toni Sepeda Brunetti's Venice: Walks Through the Novels put me on the right tracks. Below is the colonnade which is supposedly in front of the police station although in fact it is by the Chiesa San Francesco della Vigna. To the right is the original police station although, apparently, the headquarters are now close to the Piazzale Roma. The sloping bell-tower is that of the Chiesa San Giorgio dei Greci.

If I understood correctly the directions in Toni Sepeda's book, the first two photographs are of Brunetti's home although I'm not sure that that is the roof terrace used in the films. Commissario Brunetti is fond of good food and, as a true Venetian, he knows where to hunt it down. He can't go past the Rosa Salva pastry shop without stopping for a tasty "cannolo".

Acqua alta - literally, high water

"Acqua alta" is a phenomenon which occurs when several factors combine: high tide in the Adriatic, a south wind, heavy rain in Venice or to the north, full or new moon, more often than not between autumn and spring. During my stay in October/November 2012, we had several instances of high water (between 140 and 150cm above standard sea level) and the Hi!tide Venice application on my smartphone was my constant companion.

Any "acqua alta" more than 100 cm above the standard sea level is announced three hours beforehand by a siren followed by a series of "musical" notes indicating whether the forecast is for 110cm, 120cm, 130cm etc. Bear in mind that it is closely linked to the tide and therefore (in normal circumstances) levels will go down twice in every 24 hours to a level allowing people to get out and about.

Luckily for me, the worst high tide was on All Saints' Day so no school but I had planned to get out and about with my gumboots (yes, you will be able to find them all over the city) to take photographs. But in fact wading through water almost up to your knees is far from easy and the water quickly slops over into the boots. This is why Venetians have three types of boot: low ones for minor puddles, standard gumboots for more serious occurrences and waders for when it gets really bad. So to sum up, I have to admire those people who manage to take countless photographs of Venice submerged.

Cruise ships

Crossing the Giudecca canal several times a day, I had plenty of chances to be impressed by the gigantic cruise ships which make their way up the canal to the maritime terminal. A deep trench was dredged specially to allow them through and they each have a tugboat to the bow and to the stern and, I should imagine, a local pilot on board, to make sure that they do not deviate from their route.

The subject is controversial, many people pointing out the pollution caused by the permanent presence of cruise ships in Venice and there were a few grumbles from locals on board the vaporetto whenever we were held up to allow one to pass. On the other hand, would Venice be prepared to give up the substantial income brought into the town in the form of port dues paid by the cruise companies and in money spent locally by passengers before and after their cruise? As far as I can see, Venetians were always known as notable traders.

Food and lodging

My room at Il Redentore guesthouse was comfortable and spotlessly clean. Set up as a single room, it had not only a cupboard and refrigerator but also a desk with shelves so I could do my homework in my room. Each room has its own shower and WC as well as free wifi. I had chosen the Redentore thinking that there would be plenty of opportunities to mix with other foreign students but this was not really the case during my stay. There is a quiet study and also a communal kitchen but it is mostly used by a group of young students staying for the whole year.

The local Prix supermarket close to the Redentore vaporetto stop was open at all hours, including on Sundays, and was my mainstay for breakfast ingredients and salads and tinned soups which I could get ready in the kitchen.

I tried quite a number of restaurants and I wasn't expecting to find good food at reasonable prices in Venice. But I was especially disappointed to find how tasteless most of the food was. I did, however, enjoy good meals at the following restaurants: Gam Gam Kosher restaurant on the Cannaregio canal, Taverna San Trovaso on the canal of the same name, and Antico Gafaro on the Salizzada San Pantalon as well as the Paradiso perduto on the Fondamenta della Misericordia.

If you don't mind standing up to eat and drink, an economical way is to get a glass of wine and a selection of snacks at one of the cicchetti bars, followed by a delicious and extremely reasonable cake (or two) at one of the excellent pastries shops, Tonolo behind Chiesa San Pantalon, for instance.

Life goes on

It's only when you are actually there that the difficulties of a life on water finally hit home. Everything and everyone gets to where they are headed by boat or on foot : deliveries to shops, building materials, emergency services, police, funerals, weddings, waste collection. The three photographs below show a delivery to a small shop on the Rio di San Trovaso, a delivery to a large Billa supermarket situated on the wide Giudecca Canal and building work with a small crane loaded onto the barge.

My personal favourites

When my children were small, I remember how difficult it was to get them to walk any distance without whining. Venetian parents have found the solution: (kick) scooters, they are everywhere and make going to school in the morning something to look forward to. Masks too are on every corner and in every "campo". And my lunch would often consist of a couple of delicious "tramezzini" photographed here at the Bar alla Toletta in the calle della Toletta.

Not Goodbye but Arrivederci

Venice is not one of the places to which you can say "been there, done that" and then forget about it. As long as it is there, I shall want to go back. And when you see such photographs, who can argue with that?

The left-hand photo was taken from the gardens of Il Redentore on Giudecca looking towards the lagoon and the islands of Santa Maria and San Servolo. The right-hand photograph is a view from the Zattere dei Gesuati looking towards the Giudecca canal.

Useful websites

I found the following websites invaluable when preparing my stay in Venice: