Sunday, January 13, 2008

Teaching Her Language to the World

This article is a transcript of our podcast that can be found on our podcast page.

Carolyn: I spent some time in the beautiful, historical city of Lecce, located in the heel of the Italian boot, in the region of Apulia. Here I met Mariella Capano, who teaches Italian to foreigners at the Apulia Domus School of Italian Language and Culture.

Originally from Brindisi, Mariella spent some time living in Germany and working as a translator. When a friend asked Mariella to create a lesson teaching Italian, she enjoyed it so much that she’s been teaching Italian ever since.

For Mariella, teaching her language is a way to bring the people of the world closer together.

Your students are from all over the world, right? Tell me some of the countries your students are from.

Mariella: Australia, America, Brazil, Germany, Serbia, many, many countries.

Carolyn: Mariella understands that learning a language is also learning the culture.

Mariella: Well, the differences between cultures, I think it’s the most important thing when you study a foreign language. Foreign language is not grammar, but it’s culture, it’s tradition. Teaching Italian is not only a job, but it’s also the communication of my origins.

Carolyn: Teaching her language to foreigners allows Mariella to learn the cultures of her students, as well.

Mariella: I learn everything; slang, I learn tradition. For example, what does the color violet mean?

In Italy, it represents a very bad color because it represents death, it represents bad luck. For example, if you go to the theater in a violet T-shirt, you are not allowed to go in.
But on the contrary, in Great Britain, violet is a very nice color because it is the color of the king, it represents the king. And there are so many things that you can learn from other people.

Carolyn: Mariella speaks only Italian in the classroom, immersing her students in the sounds and visual associations of the language.

Mariella: Italian in particular because it’s a very musical language and I think it’s easier to learn it, because you learn the sounds. And to learn the sounds, it’s easier than to learn than vocabulary.

Carolyn: I had the pleasure of being Mariella’s student, in a class with 4 others from different countries. Mariella always found ways to make the classroom experience more interesting. We didn’t just repeat lessons from a book, but she also taught through music, color, drawing and discussions of current events in Italy and America. Although we all struggled to express ourselves, it was a tremendous learning experience. Here, Mariella explains some her teaching techniques.

I try to use music because your mind is relaxed. To speak to the people and say to them, OK, now draw what you feel at this moment. You can see that each person draws with pastel colors, or they draw the sea, or the mountains, because the music helps your brain to work in a relaxing situation.

You have to listen to what they say, to let them explain. This is a method to let the people speak, to express themselves.

Carolyn: Mariella uses these techniques to allow the students to get more out of each class.

Mariella: If you study for 2 hours only grammar, grammar and grammar, your brain is tired and at the end of the lesson you remember only half of the lesson.

Carolyn: Mariella loves teaching her language and sharing the Southern Italian culture and history with the world.

Mariella: It’s very important to know the history because here you can see the monuments, you can see the history of human beings. The character of the people of South Italy, it’s very important to know them. When they see foreign people they try to help them. It’s not important if they don’t speak English or German, they try to speak with their hands, and to help them.

Here in south Italy, because there are so many things to see, to visit, to appreciate.

Carolyn: To learn Italian with Mariella or any of the other talented teachers at the Apulia Domus School in Lecce, check out their website

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Tuesday, January 1, 2008

A Chocolate Festival in Italy in October? Really?

This article is a transcript of our podcast that can be found on our Podcast page. Please note that this festival occurs in October of every year.

Yes, really! Imagine combining unlimited amounts of the world's most tantalizing chocolate with Italy, one of the world's finest vacation destinations...che bello!

From October 13-21st, 2007, the city of Perugia in Umbria (home of the Perugina chocolate dynasty) opens its arms to the world for its annual Chocolate Festival. The world's finest chocolatiers and the tourists who love them (that's us!) will be there to experience chocolate like never before. From scuplting to eating, from nightlife to spa treatments and children's activities, it's your own personal journey through the Chocolate Factory (apologies to Charlie and Willy Wonka). You can luxuriate in chocolate for the entire Festival, or stop in for just a day or two as you travel through Italy.

Here are just some of the Festival events:

On Sunday, October 14th, watch as five artisans carve blocks of chocolate into intricate scupltures. Be there to catch the chocolate pieces as they fly from the artist's tools!

Throughout the Festival, children under 12 can enjoy the Chocofarm. Here, they learn about the sourcing, making and enjoying of chocolate through special games and activities.

Wine and dine yourself silly as Perugia's restaurants create house specialites that highlight the Festival's theme. Be surprised and delighted as traditional dishes receive innovative twists of chocolate.

Nightlife throughout the Festival is truly unique. Perugia's nightclubs interweave chocolate confections along with their regular menu items. Music, dancing and strolling through the piazza will keep you busy until the wee hours.

After all this, you'll need some spa treatments, don't you think? Perugia's acclaimed Beauty Palace Spa will design a menu of treatments that allow the beauty of chocolate to penetrate and rejuvenate your skin. Cocoa butters and powders will enhance the treatments, leaving you relaxed and practically edible. Due to popular demand, it's recommended that you reserve your spa date before the Festival, but after September 1. You can contact them at

Along with the fun and frolic, the Chocolate Festival will highlight fair trade partners and developments in sustainable chocolate agriculture (chocgriculture? Sorry, I couldn't resist).

Check out the Festival's website at: and click on Eurochocolate, Perugia. However, since the site is not fully translated into English, you can contact me for more information by clicking on 'comments' below.

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A Tuscan Villa Built on a Dream

This is a transcript of the podcast appearing on our Podcast page.

Have you ever dreamed of building your own villa in Tuscany? Not only for yourself to live in, but a place where tourists would vacation from all over the world? What if your days were spent surrounded by olive trees and vineyards, making new friends, learning new languages, enjoying wonderful food and wine?

What if you didn't have a trust fund to make this dream come true, but you had to build it with your own two hands, as the money slowly came in, while you had a full time job?

That was the situation confronting my guest, Gabriele Corti. Gabriele was born and raised in the Tuscan town of Poggibonsi, not far from Castellina. He worked 6 days a week in his family's shoe store. His father, Franco, purchased the Le Buche property, which was little more than open fields and crumbling structures, with a very different idea of how that land would be used.

Gabriele, your family owned this property for many years. How did that come about?

Gabriele: My father, 20 years ago, bought about 30 hectares of land with old houses, stalls and some fields. He bought it to make a little wine, a little olive oil, to grow a garden with tomatoes and othe vegetables. In 1995-96, I built the main house for me to live in. I started construction in 1955-96 and it was finished in 1999. I moved here from Poggibonsi in July of '99.

Carolyn: When Gabriele says he built the main house, he doesn't mean that he called a contractor. It means he built it with his own two hands, while working full time in the shoe store.

During that time, Gabriele saw other villas in Tuscany that catered to tourists, and he was intrigued by the idea. At the same time, his father came to him with the idea of building 1 or 2 apartments on the property for tourists.

Gabriele, what did you think of your father's idea?

Gabriele: I thought it was a good idea, but I told him that if we left things as they were, the idea wouldn't work. Because there would be nothing for a client to do once they got here, except travel to nearby towns; it's just a house in a pretty setting. In the following years beginning in 2000, my father and I build 2 apartments with the intention of renting them to foreign tourists as well as Italians who wanted to come here for vacation.

The apartments came out very beautiful, very pleasing. But there was still a large are that remained unfinished. We didn't have the pool, we didn't have the gardens yet. We had to think things through and provide things for people to do while they were here in the apartments. We had to come up with a plan.

Carolyn: One of the most appealing things about Le Buche is that all of the construction was done by Gabriele and his father, not by hired hands. The vast majority of the building materials came from Le Buche land.

Gabriele: The construction was done personally. First, at the beginning of it all, I designed it all in my mind, how it would come out. But, it was a little impractical. And slowly, slowly, stone after stone, stone after stone, Le Buche became a reality.

From when we started this construction, I always followed the construction personally. All the while, I learned things large and small that would be useful to me in the future to make something myself. The process was very interesting.

Carolyn: Gabriele created comfortable spaces in the traditional Tuscan style, using authentic materials from the property itself. He used stones from the land to build the apartments, line the driveway and create the patio, walkways and outdoor ovens and grills. Gabriele handcrafted much of the wooden furniture, also from Le Buche trees.

Gabriele: Very satisfying. From an idea that was only in my mind, into reality. Using stones from here, buying a little cement, a little iron and that was enough. So much work.

Carolyn: You'll notice the architectural details throughout the apartments; archways trimmed in hand-polished wood or brick, hand-laid tile floors and interior walls of exposed stone. The wooden beams that cross the ceilings and appear throughout the architecture are all from Le Buche trees.

Gabriele: But, when it was over, I was paid in my satisfaction for the result. It is so much more beautiful than it would have been if I had paid someone else to construct it for me. When you can do it for yourself, it's better.

We worked hard until the end of 2000, into 2001. The pool was built in 2001. Its first season was May 1, 2002. The pool is open from May 1 to October 1, weather permitting. The pool also has a small children's area, and the deep end in 2.5 meters, with a small diving board. We started renting in April of 2002 and started this new venture.

Carolyn: Guests come to Le Buche from all over the world.

Gabriele: The guests are from all over the world, Germany, France, Holland, Switzerland, America, Canada, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Finland, Norway, England, Spain, Portugal and also Italian tourists. About 95% are tourists from outside of Italy.

Carolyn: Although Le Buche is becoming established as a successful vacation spot, Gabriele still does plenty of dreaming for its future. Gabriele, would you say that Le Buch is finished now?

Gabriele: No, Le Buche will never be finished! Every year I do something new. This year I cleared an area and made a court t play bacci ball. Next year, I will design a garden for Le Stalle. Maybe I'll make a small stone walkway. Every year I do something. Every year I make something.

Carolyn: Some of Gabriele's dreams for Le Buche center around wine and olive oil.

Gabriele: You could say that the wine-making tradition was passed down to me from my father. He is from San Donato and in the fields around there he made a small vineyard. It is a passion that is very strong in our blood. I made a new vineyard three years ago. This is the first year of my production. The amount is small, but I hope it's very good.

We have the most beautiful region of Italy to make our olive oil. Oil is very important because most tourists that come here look for tranquility and good food, and oil is fundamental to good food. They also look for culture. In Tuscany, the culture of olive oil is a grand tradition.

In the future, I would like to make a small argricultural business where I can sell the products of the vineyards, wine and olive oil. It's something that's important to me. It's a lot of work and it takes some money to accomplish. I would also need more equipment, but it's something that I would do gladly, for the love of it. It's something fundamental. In the future, we'll see if this dream is realized; who knows?

Carolyn: To learn more, visit the Le Buche website. You can find the link on our Links page.

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Dipping Underground at a Tuscan Spa

This article also appears on our Italian Journal page.

Spaaaah. Just saying the word makes your shoulders relax, doesn't it? Now try Itaaaalian spaaah. Say it with me. Say it soft and it's almost like praying. So I went to the temple of my choice, Grotta Giusti Terme in the little town of Montesummano Terme, Tuscany.

In a country brimming with unique experiences, this one stands out. Its story begins over a century ago, when the Giusti family was getting rich in the mining industry. One day, digging workers discovered a cavity in the earth complete with stalactites and natural lakes. After realizing the water was thermal, the Giusti family said 'Addio' to mining and 'Ciao, Bella' to a hotel and spa. And I'm glad they did.

The underground cavity creates increasingly warmer temperatures and humidity as you progress along its different levels. The temperature at each level, however, remains constant. The levels are identified in a journey-through-the-afterlife fashion: Paradiso, Purgatorio and naturalmente, Inferno. Even Limbo is represented by a lake that keeps a constant, pleasant temperature. The cavities are well lit and there are pathways rimmed with railings for easy walking. Chairs and chaise lounges are set up at certain points along the way, inviting you to settle in where the temperature suits you best.

As I walked through the cavities, I was wearing the white terry robe and disposable slippers issued by the spa to all of their guests. I could have also wrapped my hair in a towel, but I decided to brave the elements. And of course, I had my bottle of water. The first level was Paradiso, with Limbo off to the right. It was only slightly warmer than the spa hallway. As I walked down the pathway into Purgatorio, I could feel the heat & humidity mildly increasing. Some people stop here, but I had to see what Inferno was like. I can tell you it has very little to do with Dante's version. Here, although it was very hot with very high humidity, the breathing was easy. Somehow, the air is circulating down there.

Anyway, that's where I got comfortable in a lounge chair and closed my eyes. It was quiet and other-worldly. There was a sense of being closer to the core of the Earth than ever before. I considered becoming a Hobbit. After a while though, the heat got a little heavy. I slowly got up and made my way to Purgatorio, where I transitioned to cooler air in another lounge chair. After that it was on to Paradiso, but not without a stop beside Limbo's natural reflecting pool. Oddly, it did make me feel suspended in time.

Once I slowly emerged from Paradiso to the hallway of the spa, it was time for a full body massage followed by an aromatherapy facial. Although I've had such treatments before at other spas, having them after a sojourn to the underworld left me more relaxed and receptive to the benefits of the treatments. I was also very hungry. I had a leisurely lunch outside at the spa cafe. Because the spa is located in the middle of a park, it's quiet, relaxing and full of trees, grass, birds and sky.

In addition to being a distinctive day spa, you can spend days of pampering at the Grotta Giusti hotel. Enjoy the swirling thermal waters of the pool or play 18 holes of golf. You may never want to leave. A luxury hotel is attached to the spa for those who wish to prolong the ecstasy. Rumor has it that Michael Douglas has been among their guests. The treatment menu and programs are extensive and varied, from traditional Italian approaches to Ayurveda.

All in all you'll love it, whichever ring of Dante's Inferno you happen to be on.

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Learning More Than the Language

This is the transcript of the podcast appearing on our podcast page. In this interview you'll hear why, in Lecce, there's more to learning Italian than sitting in a classroom.

Carolyn: Learning a new language can be both fun and rewarding; especially if there is a fun and rewarding technique. Today's program can help you shed your old-fashioned ideas of learning a second language. Instead, travel to the heel of the Italian boot. Learn Italian in the morning and spend the afternoon sunning by the to the Roman baths, or explore the artistic center of Lecce, the city that Italians call "The Florence of the South".

It's in Lecce that you'll find the Apulia Domus School of Language and Culture. Students at Apulia Domus range from college-age to after retirement, couples or singles, from absolute beginners to those who just need to brush up on their skills.

My guest, Nella Leo, is the Director of Italian Language and Activities. Apulia Domus uses a teaching method that is unique to the teaching of Italian.

Nella Leo: Our goal is to let them learn in 2 weeks time because we take care of grammar but just in a level where the student can dedicate time to the grammar. But the first thing that the student wants to do is to have the satisfaction to say some words in Italian.

Carolyn: Some of the premiere universities in the United States have study abroad programs with Apulia Domus. For instance, Vassar, Weslyan and Wellsley were so impressed that each one moved its study abroad program from the University of Siena to Apulia Domus in Lecce. Not only do the students benefit from the curriculum at the school, but they spend time in a less-touristed region of Italy.

Nella Leo: In Lecce, you won't hear English speaking all the time, as in Siena. When American students come to Italy they normally go to Tuscany, to Rome and they never come to the south. So this is a good opportunity for them to do this with a university program. We are proud of this because if they chose us it's thanks to our way of working and thanks to the possibilities that we can give to the students once here.

Carolyn: And just what are those possibilities? You might take an excursion with a private guide and driver to beaches, monuments and ancient sites. You might take a trip to see the Trulli houses, unique to Southern Italy. Or maybe take a boat ride along the coast, or attend a local religious celebration or festa.

Nella Leo: This aspect of social activities; not all the schools do it, but for us it's very important. And we know that without this, the study holiday is not the same. I know you have to study Italian, but I know also that you are out of your country. So for us it's very important.

Carolyn: OK, so maybe you like the idea of exploring a lesser-known region of Italy, but you're still a little shaky about Italian classes? Not to worry, Apulia Domus has you covered! The school offers a variety of courses, in English, that will teach you aspects of Italian culture. Classes are offered in cooking, dance, ceramics and cartapesta, a distinctive form of sculpture using paper mache.

Nella Leo: We can also organize classes for people who don't want to learn the language but instead, learn the culture. Our staff is Italian people specializing in teaching Italian culture in a foreign language, above all, in English.

Carolyn: For accomodations, you can stay at the school itself or one of the nearby hotels or B&Bs. You can check out the Apulia Domus website at and click on "Apulia".

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Spending Quality Time in Lecce

This article also appears on our Italian Journal page.

The landscape of Lecce is mostly flat and dry, dotted with cactus plants taller than the average Italian. This can be a jolt to the system if you expect all of Italy to look like Tuscany; it doesn't. Although a small country, Italy offers a wide variety of landscape. Due to the drier southern climate, you won't see expanses of lush greenery, but it has other charms. Herbs grow wild along the sides of the road. If you're cooking, it's fun to pull over and pick fresh rosemary to add to your lunch or dinner. Luckily, there's an oasis of greenery in Lecce's public park.

It's a large space filled with palm trees, gardens, benches and a majestic gazebo with a gleaming, tiled dome. Open every day until sunset, it's where everyone brings kids, dogs and books to wile away the afternoon. Outside of the park, the houses and modern buildings tend to be low with flat roofs (except in the historic center, described below). This creates somewhat of a "barracks" feel as you look around.

Lecce is located just about dead center of the heel of the Italian boot; a peninsula within a peninsula. Consequently, there is easy access to beaches on the eastern coast of the heel (Adriatic Sea) and the western coast of the heel (Ionian Sea). On any given day, you can choose your coast depending upon which way the wind is blowing. I'm not kidding. When the wind is blowing due east, go to the Adriatic. When it blows to the west, go to the Ionian coast. When you have so much sandy, clear beachfront at your disposal, you can afford to be picky. The arid landscape changes dramatically as you head out of town toward the beaches. Believe me, what this area might lack in verdant hillsides it makes up for in stunning seascapes. The land gives way to a seemingly endless expanse of crystal blue sky and sea. You can reach a nearby beach, Torre di Chianca, by bus from several stops in Lecce. In August, the height of tourist season, this beach is full of playful people and structures brimming with food, cafes, changing rooms, rafts and various water toys. However, if you go off-season (I was there in October), you'll only hear the sound of the waves and seabirds. The structures remain on the beach, but they are empty and brightly painted in a style heavy with Greek and Arab influences. The sand is soft and the water is clean, clear and warm, even in October.

The historic center of Lecce (centro storico) is why the town is called The Florence of the South. Filled with churches constructed in Baroque style, it's easy to lose yourself and your way in the labyrinth of narrow streets. Eventually you'll reach the Piazza del Duomo, the architectural centerpiece of town. Splendid in daylight, it's especially beguiling at night. Indirect lighting installed throughout the Piazza illuminates the statuary, creating an ethereal atmosphere. Lecce is all about walking, and this is a great place to catch your breath.

The historic center is also the place to go for entertainment. Restaurants, bars, movie theaters and gelato abound. A great place for a light meal or tasty snack is Sybarite, whose doors open onto the Piazza del Duomo. It's open all day and well into the night. The atmosphere is casual, the service is friendly and the food, delicious and imaginative.

Another "don't miss" is Liberrima located at Corte dei Cicala, 1. Although it calls itself a bookstore, it is so much more. In addition to multi-language books ranging from the classics to art and travel, it offers books on tape, videos, DVDs and music CDs. I especially like the local music selection that lets me hear musicians and styles that are hard to find elsewhere. Just outside the front door is the Liberrima Cafe, where umbrelled tables lend a party atmosphere to the piazza. Films are sometimes shown against one wall of the piazza, so you can sip your drink and laugh along with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, to name a few.

After you've eaten your fill, bought some books and seen a silent film, what to do next? Like so many other Italian cities, in Lecce you can walk out of anyplace directly onto an excavation of subterranean Roman structures. Now that's entertainment.

The historic center has great shopping. In addition to Italian clothes, shoes and artwork, you can find African and Indonesian jewelry and furniture. A famous local craft is Cartapesta. This is a centuries-old technique of fashioning lifelike figures out of straw and paper mache. The figures are then painted so skillfully that they seem to be carved out of stone. The artisans in Lecce excel in religious and nativity statues, many of them life-size.

The best designer shopping by far is just outside the historic center at Piazza Mazzini. Max Mara, Missoni and Valle Verde are at your disposal, just to name a few. The Piazza is also home to a small park with an imposing white stone fountain in the center. Perched throughout the fountain's structure are whimsical, impish figures that peek at you from under the streams of water and seem to be having great fun. At night the fountain is lit with a golden glow, adding a new dimension to its architecture.

As expected, Saturday night is party night in Lecce. Around midnight, everyone drives into the historic center, creating bumper to bumper traffic seldom seen outside of New York City. Eventually, everyone arrives and miraculously finds parking. Then it's off on foot to the bar of your choice. We chose Route 66, a noisy, crowded place with music videos playing from multiple screens, but no dancing. It's a place to sit, smoke, drink and speak loudly to the person next to you.

After the bar, there's always a party going on at somebody's apartment. That's a great opportunity to hear someone sing, watch someone else learn how to juggle, and try to find the bathroom. When you've had enough, what to do? Luckily, the answer lies at Leopardi, open 24 hours serving coffee, liquor and pastry. This place is very popular (especially around 3:00 a.m.) and there's always a line to get in. We wait patiently and our reward is cappuccino and flaky delights amid the music and neon. Even as we leave about an hour later, the line outside is just as long and the place is just as lively as when we arrived. It makes you wonder if anyone ever sleeps in this town on a Saturday night.

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Italian Language School in Lecce - Brush Up on Your Italian While You Lounge at the Beach

This article also appears on our Italian Journal page.

Wouldn't it be great to be able to brush up on your Italian language skills for a few hours and spend the rest of the day sunning at the beach? Or drive to the nearby Roman baths, ancient towers and breathtaking seascapes? Or walking among the ancient churches in the city dubbed 'The Florence of the South'? I had the chance to do just that at the Apulia Domus school in Lecce.

Apulia Domus was the first school in Lecce to offer Italian courses to non-Italians. The premise is simple: small classes offer individualized attention with lively, well-trained instructors and a staff that bends over backward to accommodate you. The result is real progress in Italian no matter your level of skill.
As a student, you have some choices for accomodations. You can stay in student housing (my choice), which means you can stay in a single or double room with a shared or private bathroom (make your preference clear when you make your arrangements). The kitchen, dining and TV area are shared with the other students in your section. There's a clothes washer (which really comes in handy) but no dryer. Thankfully, almost every day was sunny so hanging the clothes outside on the line was pretty easy. The room prices are inexpensive and there are not many creature comforts. The beds are comfortable but the rooms are Spartan by American standards. On the other hand, you won't be spending a lot of time in your room.

If you prefer cushier arrangements, there are private apartments available on the campus. You can also arrange your own housing in the center of town at a hotel or bed or breakfast, or ask the school to arrange it for you.

A typical day started with making breakfast in my dorm and a visit to Giardino Ristorante. It's a little cafe in front of the school that serves wonderful pastries and light lunch food. They bake small batches throughout the day so everything is fresh, whether you arrive at 8:00 or 10:30 in the morning. It's a popular and busy place, but they focus on the individual customer. After about 2 days, the barman started brewing my cappuccino as he saw me enter the cafe, and served it with my preference of one packet of cane sugar. I usually also enjoyed cornetti con crema , which were always warm from the oven. The flaky crust was the perfect complement to the velvety cream. If it weren't for class starting, I could have eaten them all morning.

Class started around 10:00 and lasted for 3 hours. The first day we each took a proficiency test to determine our level of comfort with Italian. We were then placed in the appropriate class level. My class had a total of 4 students representing England, Germany, Austria and the US. During my stay, I was lucky enough to experience the teaching styles of 2 instructors. Like all of the teaching staff at Apulia Domus, they are native Italian speakers fluent in English. They kept our interest through a combination of conversation, writing, reading and debating current events. They are attuned not only to the formal rules of grammar but to current changes in Italian and its dialects. Like every language, Italian evolves. Some of the expressions and rules that I learned 5 years ago are obsolete. We left the course ready to speak Italian in a modern, conversational style.

The school also sponsors day trips to surrounding areas such as Bari, Santa Maria di Leuca, Gallipoli and Otranto. One afternoon is set aside for a guided tour of the historic center of Lecce. One evening, staff and students had dinner together at a local restaurant. This place was originally a convent, built deep into a forest long ago to be undetected by enemy invaders. They serve the kind of meals you read about and salivate over but don't know if you can actually eat. Plates continuously circulate the table filled with succulent antipasti, mouth-watering pasta dishes, meat and fish creations, vegetables, homemade bread and wine. All followed by luscious desserts, coffee, grappa and vin santo. The entire process is hours long. And oh yes, you can eat it all.

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The Maremma Region of Tuscany - Ansedonia

This article also appears on our Italian Journal page.

Directly across the harbor from Porto Ercole lies Ansedonia, an almost sleepy little town with some of the best beachfront in Tuscany. Rather than the rocks and pebbles that greet you on so many northern Italian beaches, Ansedonia offers soft, velvety sand and invites you to dig in your toes. Ansedonia is where some of the wealthiest families in Italy have their summer retreats (like the Agnellis, for instance).

The water is warm and clear and, when the breezes are right, the perfect liquid highway for windsurfers. Many of the locals are ardent wind surfers, and even if it's not your idea of fun, watching them is hypnotic. There's something about the silhouette of a triangular sail gliding silently across the water, powered only by the breeze and guided by a solitary human being that relaxes the mind and opens the heart.

Because it's a seaside town, most people own a raft or a motor boat. Hitch a ride with someone and get the experience of a lifetime. This area of the Tyrrhenian Sea is characterized by jagged stone formations jutting out of the water. Depending on the size of the rock, some areas are fit for cliff diving, while others are home to luxurious retreats of the wealthy. It's easy to feel envious, but as you skim the water's surface in your little craft remember that you're enjoying the same sun, surf and scenery for a fraction of the cost!

On the beach you can rent a lounge or umbrella or bring your own. Conveniently, there are bathrooms and small huts where you can change your clothes. Water aerobics are popular, and an above-ground pool stands on the sand just for this purpose. Classes are given regularly, with the instructor shouting encouragement from a wooden platform outside of the pool. However you choose to spend your day at the beach, be sure you stay long enough to watch the breathtaking sunset. It's surprising how many people leave before this natural wonder begins. Don't be one of them. Stay and watch one of the best shows around.

One of my most memorable experiences in Ansedonia was when my Italian host instructed me to find small clams at the beach and bring them home for that night's dinner. He was planning a special dish and the clams were essential. He told me to sit at the water's edge and run my outstretched fingers just under the wet sand. There I would find the small, nickel-sized clams for our repast. I had a paper cup of water nearby, and I put the clams immediately into the cup. I was to fill the cup three quarters of the way with clams and be sure to keep all of them covered with water at all times. If any of them were uncovered, they would open too early in the process, ruining the taste. 'Don't let them open' was my mantra. I walked home with the cup of clams, making sure the water didn't spill out of the cup, exposing the precious cargo to air. When I arrived at the villa, the clams were rinsed and added to homemade angel hair pasta, olive oil and garlic. The heat from the pasta opened the clams and their flavor infused the dish. It was heaven.

You don't always have to eat at home, though. A tasty restaurant on the beach called Al Cartello offers specialties for lunch and dinner. Fresh seafood, pasta and locally grown vegetables are served up from the deceptively small kitchen. Lighter fare is also available, such as varieties of pizza, along with beverages and gelato. Al Cartello is constructed as a large hut with a thatched roof, wood floors and windows without glass or screens. You can eat inside and watch soccer on the T.V., or eat outdoors at one of the many umbrelled tables. At night, it's especially nice to settle in at one of these outdoor tables. Torches blaze all around in the sand and small candles grace the tables. The gentle, steady sound of the surf in the darkness sets the perfect mood.

During my visit, Al Cartello hosted several private parties, with 'private' being a rather loose idea. One night, friends threw a birthday party and it seemed the whole town was there. The food was served buffet-style and live music played. We danced on the sand until we were hungry, and then ate and danced some more. At some point, everyone jumped into the water for a moonlight swim. The sky was full of stars and we watched in wonder as a few of them shot across the sky, leaving streaks of light behind them.

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The Maremma Region of Tuscany - Porto Ercole, Orbetello and Porto Santo Stefano

This article also appears on our Italian Journal page.

Off the coast of southern Tuscany a magnificent rock formation juts skyward out of the sea. Known as Monte Argentario, this beachfront haven has long been a popular summer destination for Romans and Tuscans alike. This region includes Porto Ercole, Orbetello, Porto Santo Stefano and, across the harbor on the mainland, Ansedonia.

The town of Porto Ercole is surrounded by what's left of a mighty stone fortress. Much of the wall facing the Tyrrhenian Sea remains sufficiently intact so that an intrepid soul can walk its length while standing tall above the ocean. The wall is narrow and uneven but if you're up to the challenge, it's worth it. But please, watch your step. The sea is so beautiful and the palm trees so grand, you can forget to look where you're going!

Porto Ercole boasts several boating marinas and has long been a sailors' town. It is home to no less than three forts, the most interesting of which is Fort Stella. Named for its shape, it was built in the form of a star. One of its courtyards is a hexagon. Obviously, the architect loved geometry.

After facing down the dangers of the fortress wall, go just outside the walls on the other side of town and grab yourself a luscious gelato. Several kiosks are located at the edge of a park serving sweets and espresso. You can sit at one of the small tables set up near the street or stroll through the park with your gelato in hand. During the summer, these little cafes continue serving well into the night, so you can indulge yourself on the way home from a movie, dancing or a local concert.

The nearby town of Orbetello is surrounded by lagoons and awash in sea air. It attracts young, active tourists making the most of their holidays. At the same time, the past is very much alive. While sitting in an outdoor cafe enjoying a glass of wine, we heard the usual late afternoon noises; cell phones ringing, animated conversations, music from the radio playing inside the bar. Gradually, we became aware of other, less expected sounds. We heard the heavy notes of a tuba, the semi-regular crash of cymbals, and the beat of a bass drum. Trumpets joined in, and notes from a clarinet whirled and danced above it all. The sounds grew louder as the band drew closer, a marching band of old men wending its way through the stone streets into the main piazza. The men arranged themselves in a loose concert formation and played like they were playing for a king. We were never clear on what they were celebrating, but it didn't matter. It was an honor just to be there. A fragile tradition reaching out from the old world into the new millennium, refusing to go without a fight.

On the other side of Monte Argentario lies Porto Santo Stefano. It's a little more chic and high priced, with more of an elite resort feeling. Sure, it has great views and shimmering water, but what does it have that's truly one of a kind? La Stregha del Mare. Located on a two lane road full of hairpin turns without any streetlights, this is a dance club with a difference. La Strega del Mare calls itself a Glamour Club, and it's not kidding. Open from July to September, it attracts locals and tourists alike, including the jet set crowd. You never know who will be standing next to you, vying for the bartender's attention.

House music lovers can dance the night away in the multi-leveled disco as DJs spin the latest tracks. While you dance, look up through the open ceiling and out toward the water, into the night sky. This is great way to dance and hear the current hits on the European charts. Depending upon which night you go, they also feature live band performances.

If you'd like a more sophisticated atmosphere, just go upstairs and make a few turns to find yourself in the piano bar. Sip a drink at a candlelit table and listen to the piano player sing contemporary and standard hits in Italian, English and other languages. It's quiet enough to have a conversation with a partner (maybe someone you just met in the disco?) and good enough to just listen and enjoy. If the impulse strikes, this is the place to dance your best ballroom.

While in Argentario, I was lucky enough to see Dee Dee Bridgewater perform in a park on a makeshift stage. We sat in bleachers that had been erected for the occasion. Although not very comfortable (think: high school football), we soon forgot all about that as Dee Dee began to serenade us. She sang her trademark jazz songbook in English, as were virtually all of her comments between songs. Her Italian-speaking audience loved every minute of it. They responded to the talent, emotion and musicality rather than needing to understand every word. Dee Dee's sprinkling of Italian phrases throughout the performance was enough for the crowd to erupt in wild appreciation.

The hours slipped past, the night grew darker and the music sweeter. As I looked to my right, I saw a glowing full moon shining down on the deep blue, undulating sea. For a second, I wished I'd brought my camera, but I realized that no photo could have done the moment justice. The colors were impossible to capture, the sky too expansive, the music too joyous, the surrounding conversation too animated, to have ever been frozen in a frame.

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