This post morphed into a much longer article than I planned (even longer than my typical posts) so I’ve divided it into two articles. ‘Parte uno” covers ‘Placement, classes and activities’ while ‘Parte due’ covers ‘Weekends, Accommodations, Facilities and location.’
I’m not sure how I found Michelangelo initially but I’m sure I started looking for schools in Florence after falling in love with Italy and wanting desperately to live there. I’ve attended Istituto Michelangelo (IM) twice, in 2017 and 2019, both times in their 50+ program which is excellent. In addition to language classes from 9:00 am until 1:00 pm each day, there are at least two dinners each week, one cultural activity each week, a choice of either two cooking classes or two art history classes each week and a Sunday trip to another city.
Michelangelo also offers a myriad of standard language classes combined with cooking, art history, painting and/or sculpture classes.
My experiences in 2017 and 2019 were quite different so I’ve divided each section into the events for each year.
With respect to the topics in this post, here’s what I’ve learned to look for based on my experiences both at Michelangelo and at two language schools in Spain:
How many levels? How many classes per level? How often per week? How many hours per day?
Does the school provide information on the educational background and experience of its teachers?
- Placement process
Is there a formal test? Is the school able to place the student in the appropriate classroom?
Are cultural activities included in the price? If not, how difficult or expensive is it to participate? As I’ll discuss below this factor was probably the most important for me and the reason why I attended Istituto Michelangelo twice.
Does the school respond to requests for information promptly and politely? Is the school administration helpful?
Both in 2017 and 2019, I had tons of questions and generally received helpful and polite responses within 24 hours. The only issue I had was sometimes I heard from Lapo whose title is Secretary and sometimes from the front desk staff who weren’t always consistent or friendly.
One of the students in my 2019 class said she googled ‘Best language schools in Florence’ and Michelangelo and another school were ranked the best. She, then, sent emails to each school asking why they were the best. She said she received a thoughtful thorough response from Michelangelo but just something along the lines of ‘because we are,’ from the other school.
The Learning Experience: Placement and Classes
2017: On my first morning I managed to be a few minutes late due to sleeping through my alarm. As I walked in the door Lapo (whose title is Secretary but is the administrative head of the school, I think) stopped me and asked how much Italian I knew. I said, ‘Un bicchiere di vino bianco’ and he immediately put me in the ‘beginner, beginner’ class.
There were only 9 students, including me, in the class. I wrote in my journal that ‘ I thought it would go downhill from there[meaning our introduction to the school] but our teacher is great and the class is small with nice people. Weirdly enough there are only 3 other Amerikanskis; the rest are from South America. Go figure!‘ Two of the South Americans were friends from Chile and had an apartment above mine, one was a woman from Brazil plus Graciela and Luis Maria, a couple from Argentina. We all stayed in the class for the next two weeks, with no additions or changes, which, as I found in 2019, is very unusual. The Americans included me, a woman from the San Francisco area, I think, a man from the Sacramento area and a young woman attending art school in Firenze.
The first week I continued to enjoy the classes and my classmates. I thought our teacher was great, patient and funny. Initially the South American contingent was very friendly to me, especially Graciela and Louis Maria, who seemed to think I spoke a lot more Spanish than I did. Plus I really felt like I was learning a lot.
But during week two, maybe because I was down from lack of sleep plus a bad cold, I decided our teacher didn’t like me and that she favored the South Americans who naturally caught on to Italian much more quickly.
2019: I wrote in my journal that: The first half of the morning was testing and as feared, I didn’t do well. After a lecture on the school, we had a pausa and three of us went to Caffe Finisterrae.
Then we were assigned classes and two of us newbies were placed (seemingly randomly) in an already full class. Most of the students were more advanced although not by a lot and only a few participated. At the end of class the instructor said they were starting a new class tomorrow and I would be in it. I wasn’t sure what to think of that and the next day I wrote: I got demoted. So now I’m doing passato prossimo for the 3rd time. But she’s a good teacher and I need the practice.
(PS: Actually I did fine on the test but didn’t do well on the in-class speaking. And to my everlasting relief I was placed in the class with some women I had just met and we became good friends.)
Unlike 2017 our class was much larger and changed significantly from week one to week two. In week one there were 4 ‘Amerikanskis,’ a British woman, an Australian woman, a Brazilian woman, a woman from Belize, a Russian couple and an Austrian woman. (I think I may have left out one or two people.) The Russians, one of the Americans and the Austrian woman left at the end of my first week and we got 4 or 5 new students the second week, two from the U.S. one from the Czech Republic and one from Argentina. They were all slightly behind the rest of us so we had to start passato prossimo again. I was somewhat critical of that in my evaluation and Lapo didn’t speak to me on my last day.
As an aside I found it odd that one of the Americans who joined us the second week had been in my 2017 class. He pretended he didn’t know me for the first two or three days. Then on Thursday said, ‘Hey Barb. Why weren’t you at dinner last night?’ Weird.
I really liked our teacher (Carla) who had been with Michelangelo since 1987. Wow!! We all laughed about how she asked so many odd questions (like ‘what do you pack first when you’re traveling?’), guessing that it was to keep herself awake then went home and drank heavily. I thought she was an excellent teacher; not only patient but able to make us laugh when acting out words and making crazy noises. But again I decided she didn’t like me and complained to my friends that she always corrected me for the slightest mistake while letting the South Americans flail around in an Italian form of Spanglish. One of my friends said it was because she thought I could learn but the South Americans were hopeless. Maybe. I learned later that the week after I left, Carla had to take a leave of absence because her mother was ill and the replacement teacher was less than great.
Dinners and ‘Aperitivi’
The 50+ group has two dinners each week that are included in the price (680 euros for two weeks in 2019, slightly less in 2017). Plus there is usually an aperitivo on Monday or Tuesday for the whole school. The latter is 8-9 euros for a drink and a buffet of appetizers. It’s usually fun and good value for the money.
2017: We started my first week with an aperitivo Monday evening. I wrote that: The 9 euro price was a bargain for everything we got–one glass of wine (or in my case prosecco) and a huge buffet of every type of appetizer. Although some of my initial impressions of people were a bit off, I had fun talking with my classmates and doing many toasts of ‘Salute!’ and ‘Cin cin.’
I didn’t write anything in my journal about an aperitivo my second week so must have skipped it.
Our first dinner was at Ristorante O’ Munaciello with a ‘concerto di musica napoletana.’ The latter was hilarious and here’s what I wrote: Having a late nightcap after a surprisingly fun evening. The South American contingent was very friendly, especially Graciela who seems to think I speak Spanish. Her husband kind of embarrassed me by saying (I think) that I shouldn’t be so shy in class. I tried to make a joke of it saying ‘forte, forte,’ which did make everyone laugh but I felt like an idiot. I had a nice talk with a woman from the U.S. who recently got her tourist guide license and is doing our Friday tour so I’ll definitely go. Our end of the table had a lot of laughs and sang Volare along to the ‘Neapolitan artiste’.
Our second dinner, Thursday the 28th, was at Ristorante Ara – a Sicilian restaurant. As with all our meals the restaurant was generous with food and wine. I don’t remember too much about the food other than there was a choice between ‘il menu di mare e di terre.’ I chose di terre because the seafood featured lots of squid which I’m not fond of. Again here’s my journal entry: 10:25pm: Ahh, having my night cap after another fun evening, with 2 glasses of wine, decent food and a grappa. Sat next to the nice woman from Boston (Lisa whom I met in cooking class) and across the table from a rather odd but nice woman (Jerry) from California. We talked about everything-books, movies, living abroad, families which I really enjoyed.
The first dinner during my second week was at Signorvinos. It was a pleasant dinner even though I was still suffering from my cold. I had a nice conversation with a woman from Denver and wish I’d written down her name and contact information. While it was enjoyable, I wrote that the new crop of students weren’t nearly as fun as the first week’s group. Dinner was followed by a concerto di musica classica alla Chiesa di Santo Stefano al Ponte. The young solo violinist was phenomenal and the church is beautiful but I left early because of my cold.
Our final group dinner was Thursday September 5th at Le Carceri. The area around the restaurant was once a convent (Le Murate) then became a prison during World War II but now has shops, restaurants and open spaces. You can read more about it at http://www.theflorentine.net/lifestyle/2013/01/le-murate/.
That day had been incredibly stressful because my sister’s flight to Florence was canceled due to bad weather in Amsterdam. Mid afternoon I received an e-mail from her that she had a confirmed reservation on an 8:00pm flight. Once I saw the flight was definitely going to leave, I decided to join the group and was so glad I did. We sat outside on the restaurant’s large patio under heat lamps and had a wonderful time. To say the wine flowed would be a mild understatement. People were constantly jumping up and giving toasts led by Federika who was in charge of our program. Here’s what I wrote in my journal plus a picture I received from a classmate: Have to say, though, that was the most fun evening since I’ve been here and for the first time this week the South American contingent was very friendly. Plus I had a nice conversation with a little guy from Munich. Go figure. And Gerardo from our class was actually nice to me.
2019: We had an aperitivo on Tuesday of my first week and I met my new friends, Georgia, Christy and Judy at school and Lapo led us, and most of the school, to a bar just south of Piazza Santa Croce. We had a great time and the appetizer buffet was very good. We had to leave around 7:00 pm to head back to school and meet the rest of the 50+ group for a concert. (see below.)
The next night we did a wine tasting at Pozzo Divino. I’d written in my journal that I wasn’t sure I could go, that I was exhausted and stuffed from cooking class. But I did go and had a fantastic time. When I got home I wrote: 10:05pm: Holy expletive! I’m drunk (ubriaca) but still having another glass of wine. Maybe, maybe I’ll sleep. But it was a super fun evening.
Our host (who also owns Pino’s around the corner from the school) first took us down to the wine cellar where we were seated at several tables. He began with a discussion about balsamic vinegar, specifically how to know if you’re buying the best. After putting a basket of bread on the table he gave us a bottle of balsamic to try. It was amazing. We, then, had a similar discussion and tasting of an excellent olive oil. We started our wine tasting with a white wine, then moved to a Chianti Classico and Super Tuscan, trying each of them with different meats and cheeses. Before tasting them the owner advised on the best years to buy, the bouquet, the legs, and so forth. The gallery below says it all in terms of how much wine we had:
Our second dinner my first week was at Ara Sud; yup the same restaurant as in 2017.
After returning to my apartment I wrote: Having a last sip of wine after a really good, fun evening. Dinner was delicious although they skimped a bit on wine. Last night and tonight I really enjoyed talking with Gloria from the Bronx. She’s a super funny legal assistant on a three month sabbatical. We tentatively agreed to go to the leather school next week.
The first dinner of my second week was at a little osteria called Demetra, just a few blocks from Piazza Santa Croce. I wrote in my journal that I loved it. They were generous with the wine and served us huge platters of meats and cheeses then two types of pasta and dessert. Plus the owner was very friendly, introducing the ‘chef’ and saying ‘voila’ every time he set a platter of food on the table. I sat next to a friend from my class but I talked a lot with a woman from San Francisco who was with the ‘reunion group’ who had attended school in Fiesole many years previously. I enjoyed it so much I took my sister here for her birthday after we returned to Firenze and it was a totally different experience–odd food, no one there but us and the chef.
The second dinner that week was at a newish restaurant called The Fishing Lab. Since my sister was arriving early afternoon, I asked if she could attend getting a flat ‘no’ from the less than friendly front desk staff. In 2017 when I made the same inquiry, I got ‘absolutely.’ I critiqued the school for that in my evaluation which apparently didn’t go over well.
As an aside an older woman, Raphaela, led our evening activities. She was always dressed to the nines and was very pleasant but nowhere near as fun as Federika.
There are usually one or two cultural activities each week for the 50+ group, including concerts, museum tours and city walking tours.
2017: The first week there was a tour of the Accademia. It was fairly expensive and since I’d already been there twice, I decided not to go. (I was glad I didn’t go when the other students said they got to the Accademia late and the tour guide wasn’t very good.)
On Friday of my first week, the woman I met at the Neapolitan restaurant (Linda) gave a tour of the Santa Croce neighborhood. Our group met at school and then walked to Piazza Santa Croce. Since our group included ‘students’ from the U.S., Switzerland, Germany and South America, Linda spoke Italian which I didn’t always understand. Still the walk (la passeggiata) was interesting. In Piazza Santa Croce Linda gave us some of the history of the cathedral plus told us about the 1966 floods, showing us the signs on the walls of various buildings marking the height of the flood. The water level was above the shops in the piazza. (When I returned to Firenze in late October 2019, I visited Santa Croce and there was a special exhibit about the flood. I’ve included a picture in the gallery below.)
Piazza Santa Croce
Piazza Santa Croce
From there we walked towards Piazza della Signoria, wandering the narrow streets off via dei Greci where there was once a Roman arena. We came back to Piazza Santa Croce where, for some reason, Linda decided to give us the history of prostitution during the Renaissance, pointing out signs on walls in side streets prohibiting prostitutes. She also showed us places where there used to be small doors which when opened contained bottles of wine. (And in the past year, some of those ‘windows’ have reopened. See the article at https://www.cntraveler.com/story/florences-newest-outdoor-drinking-trend-is-also-its-oldest.)
We continued north from the piazza, crossing via Ghibellina to Piazza dei Ciompi. I had walked past the piazza several times but was unaware of its history, particularly the arches on the north side (seen at this link http://www.florence-on-line.com/piazzas/piazza-dei-ciompi.html) The arches, Loggia del Pesce by Giorgio Vasari, were originally in Piazza della Republicca, but were moved during the reunification of Italy. Ciompi means wool carders and for many years the piazza was home to a popular flea market. For reasons I didn’t fully understand, the flea market was removed a few years ago.
From the piazza we continued along via Pietrapiana to Borgo la Croce and then to Mercato San Ambrogio. This is a phenomenal market with every type of fruit and vegetable at the outside stalls, and every possible food item inside. My niece and I came here in 2016 with our cooking class instructor to buy ingredients for our meal. I didn’t get a picture of the mercato this year but here’s one from that 2016 cooking class.
After the mercato, Linda started taking the group back towards the school. Since we were just 2-3 blocks from my new favorite wine bar, Alla Sosta dei Papi, I ditched and went to Sosta for wine and crostini.
I didn’t see Linda again which I regret. I wanted to apologize for leaving early plus I had enjoyed talking with her. She had spent years studying Italian, plus history and art, and I was impressed with her journey.
During week two, there was also a tour of Ospedale degli Innocenti. Again, since I’d gone there my first Sunday in Florence, I decided not to go. But you can read about it in my Florence and Fiesole, parte due post.
The other cultural event was a concert at Chiesa di Santo Stefano after dinner at Signor Vino’s. The young violinist was phenomenal but I left early because of my cold.
2019: In 2019 we started the week with a concert on Tuesday night after the aperitivo. After meeting the rest of the group at the school, we walked to a building across the street from Orsanmichele for a concert at Sala Mazzoni, Societa Dantesca; an excellent octet of winds and horns performing several selections from Mozart. Three of my friends from class and I left at intermission. I was concerned about a long walk to my apartment and the others said they were tired from a long day.
The Sala was lovely and I got a picture of the frescoes on the ceiling.
Our second cultural activity was a guided tour of Palazzo Medici. My sister and I visited in 2010 and I was thrilled to come back.
We had a choice of doing the tour in Italian and English. I opted for English and was glad I did. We had a phenomenal guide, a youngish guy who’d been studying art and art history for quite a few years.
The Palazzo is quite severe on the outside and when you walk in the main entrance, you enter a courtyard that is 2-3 stories high with statues of Orpheus and Cosimo the Elder commissioned to Michelozzo.
We stood in the loggia for 15-20 minutes while our guide explained the history of the Palazzo, originally owned by the Medicis, which served as their family residence until they were forced out and sold the Palazzo to the Riccardi family.
From the courtyard we took the stairs to the next level and entered the Magi Chapel. I don’t remember seeing the chapel when I visited in 2010 but it is stunning. I probably wouldn’t have appreciated it as much without our guide. He told us to stand in the center of the chapel and then moving from left to right follow the procession of the Magi which covers all the walls of the chapel starting from a mountain top and ending before the Madonna.
From the chapel we walked into a large room that was almost empty but for a beautiful painting of the Madonna with Child, one of the late works of Filippo Lippi. It was painted on a curved piece of wood that draws the eye immediately to the Christ child.
What was really strange, though, is that we didn’t see a room that I distinctly remember from 2010; where the floor ‘reflects’ the ceiling. When I asked about the ‘reflecting room’ our guide said it was in the library which made no sense. I’ve uploaded a brochure I received in 2010 which shows the ‘reflecting’ floor and ceiling. Palazzo Medici Riccardi
Palazzo Medici Riccardi 2019
Palazzo Medici Riccardi 2019
You can see more pictures of the palazzo in my Museums, monuments and interesting sights post.
The first cultural event of week two was a concert at the Anglican church in the Oltrarno, after dinner at Demetra. I skipped this one thinking it would be a very late and long walk to my apartment. I wish now that I had gone. The students who attended called it ‘Opera’s Greatest Hits’ and said it was great.
On my last Friday we were supposed to have a tour of Santa Croce. Santa Croce is one of my favorite churches in Firenze. Since my sister had arrived on Thursday, I thought it would be a great way for her to meet all my friends. I skipped out of school Friday morning at the ‘pausa’ and my sister and I and another student had coffee at Caffe Finnisterae. Then she and I wandered the city until early afternoon.
I wrote in my journal that: Everyone met in the ‘coffee’ room and I introduced Sue to le donne. After the non-students had paid, it was ‘Ooops, S. Croce is closed, we’re doing il museo Bardini.’ So Marta, Gloria, Joe and his wife left to a flurry of hugs and kisses. It was another 15 minutes trying to get organized and leave the school, then our guide started yapping outside the museum and no one could hear him, so another 15-20 minutes trying to change channels. Christy came up and said she’d lost the will to live which cracked us up. We waited another 5 minutes then left.
We did a slow walk back to my apartment looking for a place to have a prosecco, then gave up and went to L’Officina getting 5 euro wines. But at least they let us sit outside. About then I started getting messages from Gloria and Christy saying ‘miss you molto.’
I opted for cooking class over Art History class both years. Initially it was because after 4 hours of language lessons my brain was fried and cooking and eating sounded more fun than having more stuffed in my brain. But my classmates who did the Art History class, really enjoyed it and at least once a week they did a walking tour where the instructor took them to a museum or interesting architectural site.
And I loved the cooking class. I met more people and had fabulous food. In 2017 there were two instructors so we had smaller classes but in 2019 all the classes were taught by Augustino (my 2017 instructor also) and were a bit crowded. Augustino hands out a list of ingredients at each class and then demonstrates how to make the main meal and the dessert. He teaches mainly in Italian but switches to English once in a while. And best of all we get to eat the food. To say our lunches were convivial would be a mild understatement. Lots of wine and plenty of food. I wrote in my journal that I wasn’t sure if I could eat any dinner after our huge lunches.
2017: I wrote in my journal: The cooking class was wonderful even though the other students are advanced and pretty much just spoke Italian with each other. A nice woman from Boston (Lisa) translated every so often, though. We had the best pasta ever, alla Calabrese, and a torta al cioccolata. I ate so much that I’m ready to pass out.
During my two weeks at Michelangelo we also made: rice timbales (timballo di riso alla siciliana), a ricotta mousse with berries, a chocolate carrot cake (torta di carote e cioccolato), gnocchi (gnocchetti ricotta al pomodoro e pesto) and a pannacotta type dessert made with yoghurt and a berry sauce (yoghurt alla maniera della panna cotta con salsa di frutti di bosco).
Here’s a picture that one of my classmates took of her cooking class.
2019: Our first lunch was delish–riso al forno alla Norma e cannelloni (baked rice in the manner of pasta alla Norma plus cannelloni.) The latter are really tricky to make and even Augustino struggled a bit. The first batch came out really crispy and he had to start over.
During my second cooking class we made pasta di Sardinia and a pannacotta type dessert made with yoghurt and a berry sauce (yoghurt alla maniera della panna cotta con salsa di frutti di bosco) that we made in 2017.
During week two we made lasagne plus tiramisu. Then in our last cooking class, Augustino made a pasta with three types of Roman sauces and a ‘crostata’ which was like a cheesecake. The three sauces were: putanesca, calcio e pepe and carbonara. He told us that Romans created carbonara sauce after the Allies liberated Rome and the soldiers handed out their ‘meal kits’ with powdered eggs and bacon.
Cooking class 2019
Cooking class 2019
Both years I came home with lots of good recipes but so far I’ve only tried the lasagne we made in 2019.
The one thing that Istituto Michelangelo doesn’t do quite so well is the Sunday tour out of town. I was super excited for the tours which can be almost any place from the Cinque Terre to Assisi, either by train or bus. But I ended up not going both years.
2017: The weekend trip in 2017 was to Siena. I started coming down with a cold that day plus it was rainy and chilly. From what other students said, it was something of a forced march. Having been to Siena four times, I know it is a city that needs lots of time to wander and enjoy. I’ve written a post on Siena (Siena to St. Gimignano)and here’s one of my favorite galleries. (One of my friends said the 2019 trip to Siena was a repeat of 2017; tromping through the rain for hours.)
2019: The Sunday tour in 2019 was to Bologna. I initially planned to go even though I spent two days in Bologna in 2018. I started having second thoughts when I found out I had to be at SMN train station at 7:40 am. Yikes!! My apartment was a long ways from the station and I couldn’t find any buses that went there directly.
Then some students who’d been at the school for several weeks started talking about the previous trips saying some grumpy guy does the tour and refuses to let you have any free time, not even for lunch. Plus the tour is in Italian which half the students don’t understand. So I decided to skip it and was very glad. The students who went said they put 15-17,000 steps on their Fitbits. Bologna is a relatively small city so that definitely gives new meaning to forced march. Not my idea of fun.
I’ve written about Bologna in my Forty Eight Hours in Bologna post and definitely recommend a visit but like Siena, it deserves a more relaxed approach. One of the highlights of our 2018 visit was a long lunch at Salumeria Simoni which is not to be missed.
A week or two after I had left school a friend said they went to San Gimignano and it was great, largely because Lapo was the guide and he let them do what they wanted.
I’m not sure why the school can’t figure this one out.
Overall I learned (or more accurately re-learned) that you have to put yourself out there if you’re going to have a successful solo trip. If I hadn’t asked to join some of the other students that first Monday morning, as we waited for our ‘intro’ to Michelangelo, my experience wouldn’t have been nearly as great.
I tend to be a glass half empty sort of person and need to stop expecting the worst. But hopefully I also learned that a bad bus ride, or a cold, is not the end of the world. Georgia locked herself out of her apartment and it took 80 euros and almost 24 hours for her to get back in and she took it all in stride. And another friend got pick pocketed but didn’t let it ruin her trip.
So I’m considering a language class in Sicily next year, partly to see an area of Italy I’ve not seen before plus hoping to go back either to the Puglia or southern Tuscany after the class. Before I sign up though hopefully I’ll use my ‘takeaway’ from my experiences.