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Study Holidays

Newsletter 18, 2012 (1)

Study holidays in 2012

18–22 January: Lucca, Pisa and Pistoia

Some of the richest and most fascinating Romanesque architecture and sculpture in Italy is to be found in these three fascinating Tuscan cities. With Pisa airport nearby, Lucca, our centre for this holiday, is no longer the quiet backwater that it used to be, so an out-of-season visit will be best.  We should find it peaceful in January, when it is usually cold but dry — the Tuscans call January gennaio polveroso, the dusty month. Cathy Oakes, an expert on Romanesque art and head of History of Art at the Oxford University Department for Continuing Education, will introduce the wonderful buildings and artefacts to be found in this historic and lovely region.

30 January–5 February: Venice

This is the sixth holiday Learn Italy holiday in Venice with Alice Foster as tutor. It will be cold, but with luck it will be bright and cheerful. If you have never visited this unique city before, or if you know it well, out-of-season mid-winter is the best time to be there.

18–24 April: Siena and the hill towns of southern Tuscany

During this week in mediaeval Siena (which will include trips to nearby San Gimignano, Pienza and Montepulciano), we will stay in an historic hotel inside the city walls. Patrick Doorly will be our tutor in understanding the art and architecture of this unforgettable city.

22–29 September: Montalcino

'This week in September will be the tenth anniversary of the first Learn Italy study week, on the Etruscans, with Montalcino as its base. Would anyone like me to set up a holiday in 2012 for them and half-a-dozen friends in this beautiful mediaeval town in southern Tuscany? Montalcino is famous for Brunello wine, and we will certainly visit a couple of vineyards (though the vendemmia will be in full swing). Nearby attractions include Pienza, a village rebuilt as a Renaissance town by Pope Pius II; Montepulciano, another centre of wine-making, with lovely Renaissance buildings; and, of course, Siena.

15–21 October: Udine (dates as yet provisional)

Well, what is there to see in Udine? The Blue Guide to Northern Italy (its author Paul Blanchard is usually quite sparing in his enthusiasm) says the following: “Udine is a small treasure chest of Venetian art and architecture, and Cividale has some superb vestiges of Lombard art—a real rarity. And the landscape everywhere—from the verdant hills of the south and east to the white limestone peaks of the Carnic Alps in the north—is unforgettable.” We will also be visiting Aquileia to see remarkable Roman and early Christian remains there, and Trieste, the hauntingly strange city that was the port of the Austrian Empire. This region is also famous for its delicious white wines.

For further information about Learn Italy or any of the available study holidays, please phone Martin Gray on 01865 860984 and leave a message including your phone number, or e-mail martin.gray9@btopenworld.com

The man who screwed an entire country

This was the caption on the cover of The Economist for 11–17 June. Below the headline is a typical picture of the ‘Cavaliere’; he is laughing, his arms held wide in an all-inclusive self-congratulatory embrace, like the cruise-ship crooner that he once was. This edition’s main feature is a special report on Silvio Berlusconi’s Italy. It makes grim reading—in the first decade of this century, Italy’s annual rate of growth was 0.25% per year; only two other countries in the world did worse: Haiti and Zimbabwe. However, it is full of interesting analysis and information, and it is not absolutely without hope. I have some copies of this report; please get in touch if you’d like to read it for yourself.

Principina a Mare

I am just back from a week at the Italian seaside with my grandchildren. This is the fourth year we have stayed in self-catering apartments at a small resort on the coast of the Maremma, Tuscany’s malaria-ridden marsh, for centuries known to be ruinously inhospitable: Dante’s Pia Tolomei laments the area’s destructive power (‘Siena mi fa; disfece mi Maremma’). The whole large expanse was finally drained by Mussolini, and it is now given over to nature reserves, and to small farms growing vines, olives, sunflowers, wheat and rice. The coastal towns here are few and all modern. Principina was built during the 1960s, I guess, when Italy was prosperous. It is a peculiar place in one respect: the flats and villas and hotels (not many of these) are in the midst of the pineta, the thick forest of pines about two miles wide that runs along the coast of the Maremma. In summer, as soon as you turn off the main road into the forest, above the noise of engine and air-conditioning you can hear the deafening, crazy samba of the cicadas in the treetops.


Principina is populated during July and August by families of young children, their parents and grandparents. The rhythm of the day is the same for everyone. After a late breakfast the family groups make their way to the public beach, the spiaggia libera, on paths through the pines and over the dunes. Most of us ride bicycles, of every kind and size: tiny children lurch down the paths on midget two-wheelers with stabilisers; mothers with toddlers in child-seats follow at a more leisurely pace; grandparents bring up the rear, wobbling precariously on stately machines laden with deck chairs and beach umbrellas; occasionally ten-year-olds race by on mountain bikes. At noon people make the journey back for lunch; at four or five out they go again to the beach for another two or three hours, if heat and wind permit.


At around eight o’clock everyone eats supper outside on verandas and patios. At about half past eight, abruptly and completely, the cicadas stop shaking their demented maracas, alerted by some micro-change in the temperature. For a moment there seems to be silence, but then suddenly you hear the sounds all about you of human interaction, the noises of preparing and eating food and clearing up, clamorous phone calls or gentle adult conversation, children playing, babies crying—there is always a baby crying somewhere in the middle distance. The soundscape stretches to the very limits of audibility, a lovely panorama for the ear. Here is what Italy can sometimes provide better than anywhere else I know, a sense of pleasure in community, of the value and coherence of ordinary goings-on shared with others, strangers or friends, the momentary certainty that being human isn’t such a bad thing after all.