My last trip to Italy was to study Italian in Bergamo. I’ll backtrack: I’m a part-time student (just 3 hours per week), studying Italian at the University of Western Australia (UWA), one of Australia’s oldest and most prestigious tertiary institutions. I’m about to finish my second year toward a Diploma of Italian Studies (and I should be studying now, not blogging!). If I’d chosen to add some core Arts units, I’d be able to graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in Italian, but I already have a Bachelor of Arts, so I’m just doing the Italian major subjects. And for Australians, you can do this through HECS rather than pay upfront fees. Winning.
As part of the Diploma, we had the option to do a study exchange in Bergamo, a beautiful medieval hilltop town about an hour north-east of Milan. This is what inspired and motivated me to enrol at UWA. I travelled to Bergamo with my sister-in-law Marnie. She was the one who first enrolled at UWA and when she told me she had, I thought to myself that I just had to do it with her because I wouldn’t be able to cope listening to her talk about it for the next three years.
Corso di Italiano per Stranieri
In July, for three intensive weeks, I attended the University of Bergamo every day for 5-6 hours of class time in a course called Corso di Italiano per Stranieri. While that doesn’t sound like a lot, when every spoken word is in Italian, which requires extreme concentration to understand and learn, it’s more than enough. To say it was exhausting is an understatement, but it was also exhilarating. At the end of each day, I was mentally drained, but that didn’t stop me going out every night for an apertivo or dinner. After all, I was in Italy to fully immerse in an Italian experience, it would’ve been rude not to. Plus the apartment we were staying in was hideously small and like a sauna in the humid Bergamo summer.
It was a harsh start at uni. We had a test, a really hard test actually, on our first day. This test graded students into five levels. Marnie and I both placed in level three. There were about 20 other students in our class who came from all over the world – Holly from Leeds, Amaya from Spain, Victor from Russia, Tatiana from Brazil, Teodora from Serbia, Egita from Latvia, Natasha from England, Raquel from Portugal, Taco from Perth, just to name a few. We had a great group. Our main teacher Luisa was just gorgeous and made the classes fun with lots of group activities and games. Our other teacher Claudia was more traditional in her teaching methods, which at times made the classes feel like they were never going to end.
Extra activities organised by the University of Bergamo included Italian films on Friday evenings (no subtitles!), a choice of drama or singing (I chose drama and made my acting debut playing an Australian student in Bergamo), visit to the Accademia Carrara (magnificent art gallery), a walking tour of the historic town and a walk in the Bergamo hills (didn’t go).
The University building itself was situated just outside the ancient city walls and it was new, modern with great facilities. It also had an amazing view over the valley of Bergamo. La cafeteria was meh – il caffe (coffee, espresso lungho per favore) was fine, thank God, but the food was what you’d expect in a Uni cafe, cheap. There was no way I was going to endure substandard food, after all, I was in Italy and I wanted every meal to be memorable (for the right reasons).
Bergamo & Day Trips
Bergamo is beautiful. Perched on a hill, the narrow cobblestoned streets and stunning architecture attract lots of visitors making the Città Alta, the old town, quite touristy but no less beautiful. Città Bassa, the lower town, is where you’ll find better shopping, better value restaurants and a truer working-life Italian experience.
Our favourite go-to Cafe for breakfast – un cappuccino e un brioche (2 Euro) was Bar Perry, just down the hill from the University. We had breakfast there just about every day. The brioche or rather croissant was the best I’d ever had – crisp flakey outer and light but buttery soft inner. They also do a fantastic lunch – un panini con buffola mozzarella e pomodoro for 4 Euro and plates of pasta for 6 Euro.
For dinner, the best place we found was Dal Carlo, around the corner from our tiny sweatbox apartment. Marnie and I were charmed by the restauranteur Carlo who treated us like old friends and made a fuss that we were Australian. The food was always excellent, well priced and the atmosphere lively. Marnie loved sitting on the deck outside surrounded by beautiful Italian buildings. We didn’t discover Dal Carlo until our second week and then ate there about five or six times. We watched the World Cup final there also on their big screen.
I also loved the no-fuss Trattoria Giuliana d’Ambrosio with their handwritten photocopied menus that changed daily, sensational polenta bergamasca (polenta with buckwheat – so good), amazing buffet for contorni (salad and vegetables) and the set price for two (16 Euro) or three courses (20 Euro). We ate there twice, once on a Monday, and both times it was jam-packed. It’s nothing fancy, but a place run by an eccentric woman and like her, it’s full of character while the food was rustic and tasty local dishes.
There are loads of day trips you can do from Bergamo – we went to San Pellegrino on our first weekend and totally indulged in one of Europe’s best spas, QC Terme di San Pellegrino. Simply heavenly. It was so good in fact that our day trip turned into a weekend away when Marnie and I both refused to leave, booking a last minute hotel so we could spend more time at the spa.
We also spent a weekend in Varenna on Lake Como, and after the course had four days at Lake Iseo, a very beautiful smaller lake that attracts far more Italian tourists than western tourists. There we stayed in the plush serviced apartment hotel in the centre of town, the BorgoLago Suites – highly recommended for space, comfort, location and service. It was like a luxurious palace after our tiny Bergamo apartment.
If you’re an Italian student or a complete beginner wanting to learn Italian in Italy, I can highly recommend the Corso di Italian per Stranieri at the University of Bergamo. Era una bellissima esperienza.
- Organise your accommodation in advance and through the University – ask lots of questions including distance to University, air conditioning, bedrooms and beds. Ask for photos. We did just that – our accommodation was cheap, and if I was an 18-year-old, I probably would’ve been fine sleeping on polyester sheets in a small single bed shoved in a corner of a tiny windowless “lounge room”. Remember UWA students should pay no more than 350 euro per person – we only discovered that after we’d accepted and ended up paying about 30% more.
- Organise some day trips and get out of Bergamo – there’s so much to see! Plus it makes you feel like you’ve had a break. The uni also organises lots of extra outings.
- Find a good place to eat like Dal Carlo or Bar Perry. Become a regular and make Italian friends for richer experience.
Have you got any Bergamo suggestions? Email me!
If you’re going to Bergamo or thinking of going, feel free to message / email me with any questions.
If you don’t want to do a serious course through a university, there are plenty of other options to learn Italian in Italy. One option I love the sound of is OzItaly – a long-term placement service that matches you with a host Italian family where you spend a few (agreed number of) hours per week teaching them English in return for lodging.
If cooking is more your thing, then check out courses offered by the cutest little cooking school in Southern Italy, The Awaiting Table. They also do courses where you cycle to wineries, specialist cooking courses, olive oil making, tomato sauce making and more.