Learning Italian in Bologna

Learning Italian in Italy can take you out of your comfort zone, but it definitely has its perks. One such perk involved having a lesson in a wine cellar, which I found did wonders for my fluency.

The red roofs of Bologna

The red roofs of Bologna

“We have a saying in Italy,” said our teacher Giordana. “He who doesn’t drink in company is either a thief or a spy.” Giordana’s announcement was greeted with smiles and raised glasses. The primacy of wine in Italy was one of the easiest lessons to learn during a three-week summer course in Italian language and culture at the University of Bologna .

Although the news that we all had to give a talk during the final week of our course caused some consternation amongst the shyer members of the class. Talk for ten minutes in front of everyone? In Italian? A glass or two of Emilia-Romagna’s finest wines beforehand seemed liked a good idea. I made a mental note to do something similar when the time came for my talk.

Statue of Neptune, by Giambologna

Statue of Neptune, by Giambologna

We made our way down to the cellar to find a long table covered with a crisp white linen tablecloth and an array of sparkling wine glasses. Fresh bread, ham and cheese were set out on oval platters, arranged in front of a row of wine bottles. Roland, who was training to be a sommelier, began his informative if heavily accented talk. As he spoke we studied our handouts giving a selection of wine-related vocabulary and pondered the colour of the wine in the glass. We sniffed and we tasted.

It may not be connected, but the presentations given over the next few days were noticeably fluent. Eric gave a relaxed talk on Dutch football teams, Maria talked about a female partisan and Sara eulogized Italian coffee. I talked about the Etruscans, the mysterious people who founded Bologna, and was pleased with myself for managing to get in three subjunctives.

The patron saint of Bologna, Saint Petronius, keeps watch over his city

The patron saint of Bologna, Saint Petronius, keeps watch over his city

The Summer School in Italian Language and Culture at the University of Bologna attracts participants from countries as far afield as Hong Kong and Australia, Holland and El Salvador. It caters to people of all ages, from college students to the retired, and all levels of Italian, from beginners to advanced students, focusing on the spoken language. Although the clearly enunciated Italian we heard in class was sometimes wildly at odds with the language heard in the street, which tended to be mumbled, shouted or swallowed as often as it was spoken.

Bologna's famous porticoes

Bologna’s famous porticoes

The average Bologna street is an intriguing place to explore, even when surrounded by mumbling locals. The city is famously home to some forty kilometres of porticoes, providing street after street with much needed shade and tranquillity. Like so much else in Bologna, they began with the founding of the university in the eleventh century. So many students flooded into the city, that the upper floors of the buildings had to expand to accommodate them all, and the porticoes expanded with them to take the extra weight. A law was passed making the minimum height seven feet so that people on horseback could pass underneath.

I particularly enjoyed the daily walk down the bohemian via Zamboni on my way to class in the heart of the university district, stopping for a coffee here and an ice-cream there. The latter was a necessity in the fierce summer heat. According to the free newspapers handed out in the morning, the heat wave had resulted in a ten percent increase in ice-cream consumption.

Portico leading to the Sanctuary of San Luca

Portico leading to the Sanctuary of San Luca

The course included a variety of cultural visits around the region, including the Byzantine delights of Ravenna and Parma, the latter home to Toscanini, Correggio and parmesan cheese. In Bologna itself we visited the Palazzo Caprara, normally closed to the public, and saw Napoleon’s bed. Beneath the city, we walked the length of the Aposa Stream, named for an Etruscan queen. Legend has it that works of art were hidden down here when Napoleon went on his looting spree. We visited the church of Santo Stefano, built on the site of a temple dedicated to Isis. Bologna is not a tourist city, but there is a great deal to see, secreted away behind the sturdy walls and hidden down winding side streets.

Napoleon's bed in the Palazzo Caprara

Napoleon’s bed in the Palazzo Caprara

Secretive it may be, but there’s no secret that the university still dominates Bologna. Founded in 1088, it is the oldest university in Europe, and it has an impressive list of alumni. Dante Alighieri, Petrarch, Nicolas Copernicus, Thomas Becket and Erasmus are just a few of those who studied here. Many of the impressive palaces in the city centre are now home to various faculties and libraries, and there are a satisfying number of bookshops, more than I’ve seen anywhere else in Italy. As students at the summer school, we were given an identity card, which entitled us to discounts at cafes and museums across Bologna, as well as access to what is quite possibly the best university cafeteria in the world.

At the end of the course we were given our certificates in a brisk ceremony in the shiny new university building on via Belmeloro,  and we had the feeling of following in the illustrious footsteps of our predecessors. Yes, I can say, I studied at the University of Bologna. No need to mention it was just for three weeks.

Written by and photos by Paris Franz for EuropeUpClose.com


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  1. Frank J. Kana says

    Please take the czech republic out of Eastern Europe category and place it correctly in Western Europe.

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