Nick Gordon finds the perfect language class combines formal tuition with exploration of Bologna's narrow streets.
We weren't absolute beginners. We had been attending a weekly Italian session at a locally run class for a couple of years but we judged ourselves to be at the stage where we stumbled over verbs and our vocabulary store was as lean as a slice of prosciutto.
What could be more enjoyable than a couple of weeks in Italy, eating and drinking in the culture and the cuisine and, at the same time, improving our language skills?
We searched "Italian language schools" on the web and found it-schools.com the most useful result. Its site showed a map of Italy and, region by region, described each school.
More than 100 were listed, in every city you could think of and in seaside resorts and obscure hilltop towns of which you might never have heard; there were courses in Italian and cooking, Italian and the history of art, Italian and cinema, Italian and opera. Confounded by the huge choice, we decided to write an email stating who we were (married, in our early 60s), what stage of Italian we had reached (enthusiastic bunglers), what our goals were (to improve our conversational skills in a reasonably large class, which we thought should be about six people).
We sent the email to it-schools.com and received more than 20 replies. We then narrowed these down to the places where we thought we would like to spend time.
We ruled out small towns because we wanted the buzz of the city; we also rejected cities such as Florence, Venice, Siena and Rome on the grounds that they would be overwhelmed with English speakers.
Which left ... Bologna. We liked the idea of Bologna because it has a reputation for outstanding food and wine, is compact, lively and we thought we could really get to know it in two weeks. Moreover, Bologna is near other wonderful places and the superb rail system, with its high-speed Frecciarossa service, meant we could get to Parma, Ferrara, Modena, Ravenna and even Florence in less than an hour for a modest fare: €24 ($33) return to Parma for two, €16 to Ferrara and €24 to Ravenna.
But which school in Bologna? We had several to choose from and we went on gut instinct. Serena Gordini, the director of ARCA, which provides a variety of residential courses, had sent a personal reply to my original email - a warm and helpful response. Of course, we could have made a mistake but fortunately ARCA met our expectations and more. When we arrive in the Santo Stefano district at 8.50am on a Monday, we are greeted in the lobby of the mediaeval palazzo that houses ARCA with enthusiasm and immediately sit a test so we can be graded.
Our standards are similar, good enough to skip the beginners' class, and so we will spend our two weeks in an intermediate class with seven other students.
They come from Japan, China, Australia, Spain, Greece and Switzerland. Their ages range from 18 to 64. A curious cocktail, perhaps, but, unlikely as it sounds, the chemistry and the interaction works. It is relaxed, it is fun - most probably because of the skills, patience and dynamism of our "professore", Andrea Bernardoni, a 49-year-old former lawyer who has lived in California and is now resettled in Bologna.
Class starts every day at 9am and finishes at 1pm. About 11, there is a pause, a break for coffee in a cafe and a chat (in Italian, naturally) around the corner.
Then we have the rest of the day to explore the elegantly colonnaded streets, climb one of the twin towers (497 steps; the other teeters more precariously than Pisa's) and realise why the Bolognese are described as cortesi, cordiali and amichevoli and why this beautifully preserved city is, unlike its more illustrious neighbours, Florence and Venice, a throbbing urban machine inhabiting the skin of a mediaeval powerhouse rather than a Renaissance theme park.
The cramped streets are pounding with micro-businesses, smart shops, humble kiosks and whining, weaving scooters.
Most of all, they are jammed with students, 80,000 of them, there to attend Europe's oldest university.
Bologna is an all-day, most-of-the-night buzz and not once did we feel scared.
At the end of the two weeks we are presented with certificates grading us according to recognised European standards.
Would we return? Magari, as they say: if only.
Getting there Lufthansa has a fare to Bologna from Sydney and Melbourne for about $2450 low-season return, including tax. You fly to Singapore (about 8hr), then to Frankfurt (13hr), and then to Bologna (about 90min).
We spent €600 ($828) on an apartment within 20 minutes' walk of the course venue, arranged for us through the school.
The course fees were €200 a week each. The school runs courses at five levels, from beginner to advanced, and has programs combining language with cooking, opera or film and can arrange private tuition.
Every week the school organises visits; we went to Parma — worth it just to see the battistero, the baptistery, a ticket into a 13th-century blockbuster featuring a cast of angels, demons, a gloriously painted ceiling and intriguingly weird carvings. See arca-bologna.com.