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Il Sasso: A Rock-Solid Italian Immersion Language School in Tuscany

Author with teachers at Il Sasso Italian Language School
The author with her teachers, Sara, Costanza, and Roberta.

She’s going to live MY dream... I thought when I heard about a friend’s plan to attend Il Sasso, an Italian language school in Montepulciano, Italy. It didn’t take me long to do some crafty calendar-adjusting and put down my 200 Euro deposit for a 2-week course to begin my own real-life dream of living in Italy and learning the language. 

Montepulciano, the quintessential medieval Tuscan hill town, is the backdrop for this Italian immersion school. As early as the 14th century, Tuscany established itself as the hub of dialect-free Italian. Il Sasso Scuola di Italiano per Stranieri continues in that noble tradition. Students from around the world discover at the language school the superior level of professionalism and personalized instruction.

Il Sasso is locally owned and operated, not part of a chain. The school was established in 1983, taking its name and logo from an Etruscan stone found in the fortifications of the ancient village. It remains under the direction of its founders, and is recognized by the Ministry of Education.

7:45 a.m. Monday: “It’s time to leave for school,” my friend Donna Drago calls out, as we leave her comfortable Tuscan apartment, La Loggia, in a 500-year old farmhouse near Radicofani, just 25 minutes from Montepulciano. Winding our way through Tuscan cypresses, pastures of white Chianina cattle, and fields of just-blooming poppies, we arrive outside the walls of Montepulciano, park our Fiat, and begin the walk up the hill toward Il Sasso. As shopkeepers sweep their stoops and bring out their wares, my feet soon tell me that my cowgirl boots are a fun fashion accessory, not the ideal choice for walking uphill on ancient, cobblestone streets.

The Diverse Classes at Il Sasso

Il Sasso offers many course options: group, individual, wine, literature, history, culinary, art history, garden, and fiction. I chose the group lessons (about $570 for two weeks), and first on the agenda was a placement test. The test didn’t take long because I didn’t know most of the answers. After a conversation with Silvia, I was placed in Elementary 1, the equivalent of first grade. 

Cooking with Il Sasso classmates
The author with Il Sasso classmates at Gattavecchi Ristorante for a cooking class.

My teachers, Costanza and Roberta, each brought their special brand of teaching to the group. Il Sasso teachers are local residents with university degrees and specialize in adult education training. Through games, conversation, pantomime, reading passages, and outright cajoling, Costanza took me from being a newbie learner through the paces of first grade level Italian. I dubbed Roberta “the closer,” just like the baseball pitcher who comes in to finish the game. She gave me faster ears; that is, the ability to listen to real Italian and pick up the gist of the conversation. 

Group classes begin at 8:45 and end at 1:15 with two breaks. Students flock to the coffee bar around the corner at 10:15. After two nights of my heart pounding at 2 a.m., I learned to order a decaf cappuccino. I felt oh, so Italian, when Alessandro, the barista, made eye contact, we’d nod, and he knew immediately to make me a decaffeinato cappuccino.

At the start of class each morning I could always anticipate the question, “Che cosa fai ieri dopo classe?”  What did you do after class yesterday?  Flipping through my mental rolodex while gazing out the huge window in the classroom, I prayed that the right Italian words would magically float down and paste themselves on one of the ancient walls for me to read. 

“Vado... spa... ieri,” I say. (I’m trying to say, “I went to a spa.”) Costanza smiles, “Sono andata la spa ieri,” she gently corrects. “Dovè?” (Where?) she says. And so it goes...and soon I realize I’ve just had a 10 minute conversation in Italian, answering questions, providing comic relief for fellow students, and feeling pretty darn good about all that vocabulary I studied and picked up. One student describes forgetting his wallet when he went to the supermercato (grocery store), another paints a picture of her afternoon trying to trade recipes with her homestay hostess while using her dictionary. Costanza tells us she got a traffic ticket.

Eating and Living Well

When my daily lessons conclude at 1:15, I make a beeline to find la mia amica Donna, a more advanced learner who is in second grade. She arrived at Il Sasso a week before me because those with language experience may begin classes on any Monday. Now the big decision: Where shall we have lunch?  We choose one of the outstanding local trattorias, order wine, and exhale. It’s time to speak English. We share what we’ve learned, and we eat.  And we order more wine. After two glasses of good wine, a lunch of Tuscan delicacies, we head out for afternoon activities. 

Il Sasso offers a wealth of optional seasonal activities. Students might choose a walking tour, cooking class, a trip to neighboring villages such as Pienza or Cortona, a visit to an organic cheese farm, or a lecture on the history of the area, ranging in price from free to 35 Euros. Afternoon private lessons are available for 40 Euros an hour. Some afternoons I simply needed quiet time. I experienced mal di testa (headache) from so much listening and learning. I think my brain actually hurt at times due to all the stimulation and linguistic gymnastics.

Homestay and Immersion

I moved to a homestay accommodation during my second week. Right around the corner from Il Sasso I stayed with Gabriella, a lovely retired teacher who spoke to me only in Italian. Staying in an Italian home enhanced my experience and expanded my language skills. One classmate begged her homestay hostess to make smaller dinners, but hey, you’re in Italy, so mangia!  Another student returns to Il Sasso so that he can live with his Italian homestay famiglia (family) each year.

I attended Il Sasso during the Easter holiday, so on Pasquita (Easter Monday) classes were cancelled. I thought I’d take a walk, but Gabriella had other ideas. She told me she wanted to take me in her car to a nearby town, Città della Pieve, for a festival. At least, I thought that’s what she was saying. I heard la macchina (car) and la festa, (festival) and filled in the blanks. Yes, off we went, where we walked arm-in-arm as Italian women do, drank caffè, il vino, and sampled arancini (Sicilian rice balls). Glorious!

And then came the day of the tears. You know that experience: the gulping, can’t quite catch your breath kind. This was all because of an indirect object pronoun lesson. During my second week there were only two of us in the group and my classmate was a quick study. She finished the written exercise before I even figured out the directions on the paper. I could tell what was going to happen...I tried to stuff it down...and then it erupted. Loud, wracking sobs. Roberta kindly helped me through my crisis. When class ended at 12:30 that day, I was immensely relieved. (With only two students in a class, Il Sasso offers three hours of instruction.) Two afternoon private lessons with Sara restored my confidence. 

All too soon, l’ultimo giorno (the last day) arrived. I graduated from first grade and was awarded a certificate as proof, which I accepted with pride. Like many life-long learners, I plan to return to Il Sasso, a testament to a school well-run and students well-satisfied.

My dream became my reality. Sogni d’oro a te (Sweet dreams to you)!

Cultural Immersion Opportunities near Montepulciano, Italy

Apartment: La Loggia, Radicofani—500-year old stone farmhouse apartment. Live in the beautiful Val d'Orcia, along the Via Francigena, an ancient pilgrimage route, which ran from Canterbury to Rome.

Cycling: Close to Montepulciano is Pienza, known for pecorino (sheep) cheese and honey. You will also find a locally owned bike touring company, a member of Sustainable Travel International. 

Festivals: When you’re in Tuscany, whether it’s truffles, fried rice cakes, or flowers, there’s always a reason for a festival.

Historic Seasonal Events: 
Palio di Siena: Every July 2 and August 16, ten of the 17 contrade (neighborhoods) of Siena compete in a bareback horseback ride that dates from the 14th century. 

Mille Miglia: The thousand-mile car race (now a timed rally)  takes place each May. Beginning and ending in Brescia, Italy, nearly 400 auto d’epoca (classic cars) from the era of 1927-1957 traverse Italy, including driving through Radicofani and Buonconvento, near Montepulciano.

Bravia della Botti: On the last Sunday in August the eight contrade (neighborhoods) of Montepulciano compete in a barrel-rolling contest up hills and through streets across the finish line at the Duomo. Each barrel weighs 85 kilos.  http://www.discovertuscany.com/blog/events/montepulciano-bravio-delle-botti-28/

Markets: What better way to immerse yourself in the everyday life of villagers while supporting local contadini (farmers) than to spend time in local markets. Il Sasso takes students to the Thursday market in Montepulciano as part of class time.

Music: The medieval city of Siena provides inspiration for music and cultural immersion for The Luci Toscane Music and Cultural Arts Festival each summer. Artistic director Diana Marie Iorio is a member of the Il Bruco contrade of Siena.

Spa: With Mount Amiata supplying acqua di termali (heated thermal water), an afternoon of spa is just the right prescription for relaxation following a morning of Italian classes.  Fonteverde in San Casciano dei Bagni is close to Montepulciano. You will also find outdoor free hot springs nearby in Bagno Vignoni.

Walking tour: Follow the footsteps of ancestors and smell the air. Walk the ancient roads and paths of Tuscany among olive groves, vineyards, and medieval villages. You’ll long remember the essence of this place.

Wine and culture tours: Il Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is the world-renowned red wine produced in the local vineyards. If you have a car, check out this website for a self-guided wine tour

Tuscan Wine Tours offers customized day trips highlighting the wines of the area. Request Franco Faddo as your guide.

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