If anyone made it through ‘Parte uno’ this post will cover Accommodations, Weekends and Friends, and Location and Facilities; again divided into sections for 2017 and 2019. Here’s what I’ve learned to look for with respect to Accommodations, Location and Facilities:
- Location and facilities
Is the school located in a larger city or in a smaller town? If the school is in a larger city, is it in the city center close to activities? If the school is in a smaller town, can you get there easily by train or bus? Does the school web site show the classrooms and other facilities? Do they appear to be functional?
Does the school help with accommodations? What options are available? In my section on accommodations (which most people will find way too wordy) I’ve tried to describe my experiences in a way that, hopefully, will guide the reader to make a good decision based on his/her preferences and personality.
Weekends and Friends
This aspect of language schools is a bit serendipitous; i.e. it can be good or bad depending on a lot of factors, some of them outside of your control. All the personality tests I’ve taken label me an extroverted introvert, meaning with the right set of circumstances, I can be very outgoing. But when things go wrong, I tend to withdraw.
2017: I can’t say that I made any long term friendships in 2017. For a few months I emailed back and forth with Lisa from my cooking class. She was in Firenze with her husband who was there on business. She seemed really nice and interesting plus was fluent in Italian, at least I thought so. But we didn’t have a lot in common. Her post vacation plans were to remodel their house on the Cape. Maybe that’s why she stopped responding.
But I still enjoyed my free time on weekends and after school when I didn’t have activities. Having traveled alone multiple times, it doesn’t bother me to go to restaurants and bars alone, especially in Italy.
And, as mentioned Parte uno, in 2017 I discovered Alla Sosta dei Papi, a little enoteca where I felt comfortable having a glass of wine and doing my homework.
My first full Saturday I took the #7 bus from San Marco to Fiesole and had a wonderful time on a drop dead gorgeous day. I walked around the piazza then up the hill to the park overlooking the town and the ruins and finished with a beer on the terrace at Blu Bar.
Both Sundays in 2017 were marred by rain as well as a cold that I incubated my second weekend. On my first Sunday I spent a couple of hours going through the exhibits at the Ospedale degli Innocenti (See more in my Firenze, old and new post) and having tea at their rooftop cafe.
Since my second Sunday was the the first Sunday of the month and a free day at the state museums, I went to the Bargello (Museo Nazionale del Bargello) and la Cappella di Medici, (see pictures and information in my Firenze, old and new and Florence and Fiesole, parte due posts). Unfortunately it poured almost all day and I was coming down with a cold, so I didn’t get as much out of my museums visits as I might have.
On my second Saturday I watched the Il Carro Matto procession for the first time and was totally enthralled. (See my Il Carro Matto post)
2019: I spent my first full weekend before school just wandering the city. On Saturday I decided to go to Fiesole again but got a late start. First I overslept, then I had to spend more than an hour getting groceries.
When I finally headed out to San Marco to pick up the number 7 bus it was already early afternoon. Plus once again they had changed the bus stop and route so I wasn’t sure for the first 15 minutes if I were on the right bus. I asked a guy at the stop and he said it went to Santa Maria Novella train station then Fiesole and he was right.
Even though it was a drop dead gorgeous day, I just walked up to the park, took some pictures and came back to the main piazza.
View from Fiesole and the piazza
When I realized that my favorite place in Fiesole, Blu Bar, was closed, I decided to return to the city. I was still within my 90 minutes but I bought another ticket to be safe after seeing several Amerikanskis fined 50 euros for not having tickets (something American tourists just don’t seem to get. And the bus police target anyone who looks American.) I, then, managed to get off one stop too soon and had to walk at least 6 more blocks before getting to Piazza San Marco. From there I walked to Alla Sosta dei Papi for a glass of wine as well as a bottle of their ‘house’ wine and wrote: Despite everything it feels good to be here.
(I think my ‘despite everything’ referred to my tiny apartment.)
On my first Sunday, after waiting for the rain to stop, I walked to Palazzo Strozzi. (https://www.palazzostrozzi.org/) I’d never been there before and had read that they had an interesting art exhibit. But when I finally arrived around 3:00 pm, I just sat at the café on the ground floor and had a vino. There’s seating outside the café that’s sheltered from the weather and while it wasn’t unpleasant, the cool rainy weather didn’t make for great people watching.
I was very fortunate to meet several really nice women during my two weeks at Michelangelo. The first day of school, after our placement test, several us were sitting in the ‘student lounge’ and started exchanging information about ourselves, continuing our chat at Caffe Finnesterae during ‘ la pausa.’ That group of four grew each day, as we talked after class and met more people during our activities. Unexpectedly and fortuitously, WhatsApp, which I downloaded just before coming to Italy, became a great tool for organizing lunches and dinners and other activities, since everyone was on it. Plus we all used it to share pictures. And I still hear from several people I met via the app.
Our first non school get together was lunch on my first Friday. Towards the end of class that day, Gertrude, a student from Austria, left and came back crying. For some reason someone (her husband I think) had decreed that it was her last day of class. So a group of us–Gloria, Judy, Christy, Marta and I–had lunch with her in Piazza Santa Croce. We had a fun time and I was glad I could go.
Thursday or Friday of that week I asked the gang if anyone was interested in seeing Il Carro Matto (see my Il Carro Matto post) with me. I checked again Saturday morning via WhatsApp (after creating a group chat, le donne) and three of my friends agreed to meet me at 3:00 pm near Caffe Rivoire in Piazza della Signoria for the end of the parade.
I had suggested meeting at Caffe Rivoire because it’s easy to find. But it turned out to be a less than great location because the parade went on the other side of the piazza. At the very end I could just barely see the flags being tossed in the air.
il Carro Matto in Piazza della Signoria
After the parade left the piazza, Gloria came out of Rivoire and then Christy and Judy showed up. We decided to get a drink and spent almost 2 hours at one of the ‘touristy’ restaurants in Piazza della Repubblica. I ordered my glass of white house wine in Italian and the waiter asked if I were married. LoL
The next day, Sunday, there was a school tour Bologna. I had spent two and a half days in Bologna the year before and was looking forward to seeing it again. But while sitting and chatting over drinks on Saturday, I decided not to go in part because I’d had a terrifying experience trying to take what I thought was the right bus from the station to my apartment Friday night and because one of the students said the Sunday trips were forced marches. So I made plans to have dinner with another student who wasn’t going to Bologna.
That Sunday I wandered all over Firenze, first confirming that my first choice for dinner, I’cche c’e c’e, had closed permanently. I was super disappointed since I’ve been coming to I’cche c’e c’e since the first time I was in Firenze. I found the little trattoria using a book, Trattoria of Northern Italy. One of my favorite memories is sitting at a communal table and laughing hysterically at a Canadian couple who ordered a whole squid.
Then I trudged to via Turnabuoni and across the bridge to via Santo Spirito to check out Babae, a little restaurant that I’d read about in this articel https://www.cntraveler.com/story/florences-newest-outdoor-drinking-trend-is-also-its-oldest. It looked cute but it was packed. So I wandered through Piazza Santo Spirito then over to via Romana but didn’t see a likely stop for ‘una birra e panino’. So I decided to walk to Gattabuia where I’d eaten my first night in Firenze but it was closed. I remembered that L’Officina in Piazza Ferrucci had panini and when I went in, I realized they also had beer and vino.
While sitting at L’Officina, I messaged Gloria and we agreed on a small restaurant near Piazza della Signoria for dinner and also to meet in Piazza Santa Croce. We had a ‘who’s on first’ moment in the piazza, when we were standing 10 feet apart and didn’t see each other. But we had a super nice dinner; a ½ liter of vino, roast pork, potatoes, insalata, and crème caramel. Yum. I wrote that ‘it was a very fun evening; we talked about everything.’
The next day we all had lunch together at Pino’s just around the corner from school. Then Gloria and I walked to ‘La Scuola del Cuoio’ (the Firenze leather school.) You can find it behind Santa Croce.
I found it very interesting and loved the beautiful hand made goods. My sister and I came back at the end of our trip and I bought a very cool belt as a Christmas present which the staff cut to size then inscribed initials inside.
Tuesday of the second week was the last day for one of my friends, Georgia from Australia. So I tried to organize an ‘aperitivo’ in her honor at Sosta dei Papi. I had cooking class and afterwards a couple of us did homework in the ‘student lounge’ until 4:00 pm then headed out to meet the rest of the ‘gang.’ Unfortunately several of them got sidetracked with other activities so it was a small group. But we had fun dishing on everyone and everything from school (especially some of the other students) to politics.
Istituto Michelangelo offers accommodations with host families or in shared or single apartments. I didn’t even consider the ‘host family’ option after bad experiences when I attended language schools in Valencia and Sevilla Spain. While that was a long time ago, the memories stayed with me. And I talked to a couple of people who were doing the home stay and having as miserable a time as I did in Spain.
I asked about the shared apartment option before my 2017 trip but the staff discouraged me, saying I would end up with a bunch of noisy young students. But in 2019 I met a woman in my cooking class who’d been coming to IM for the past 5 years and always did the shared apartment. She said she’d never had a problem; that she’d been placed either with someone reasonably compatible or with someone who was never there.
2017: So in 2017 I chose the single apartment option, which as I recall was around 600 euros for two weeks. You have to pay a deposit of about 150 euros up front, then pay the balance after you begin your classes, in cash only. Plus you don’t get to check in to the apartment until late Sunday afternoon before your first class. Since I came in on Friday I spent two miserable nights at a hotel IM recommended. I ended up in a tiny single room where the street noise and mosquitoes kept me awake all night.
The Sunday before my first class, it poured most of the afternoon and after getting into my apartment I wrote: I managed to wrangle my bags to the school, getting there a little early. I rang the bell and luckily a guy let me in and put my bags in a room, then took me up to the office. It was about 15 minutes before the secretary (?) arrived. (I found out later his name is Lapo and I’m still not sure of his position.) He was über unfriendly and at first seemed to be indicating I had to take myself to the apartment. When I protested, he said the maintenance guy would meet me. Then, just as I was leaving, two women arrived (from Chile as I found out later) who are staying in the same building. So he had me show them the way.
I’m on piano primo and while the layout, especially the kitchen, is funky, it’s light and airy and quiet so far. The biggest hassles are that only one light in the LR (living room) works and there’s only one towel. Right now though, I’m just so happy to be out of that nasty hole I could dance.
The apartment was on Piazza Salvemini about 5 minutes from the school and about five minutes from the Duomo.
(And calling it a piazza is a stretch; it’s basically an open area at the intersection of several streets.) But it was both close to the school and close to a small supermarket where I bought yogurt, cheese, salami, bread, soup, wine, water, coffee, filters, cream and paper towels for 24€ which helped my budget. I noted later that evening that the piazza was fairly noisy. Mama Mia! I had no idea.
Here’s what I wrote in my journal: Monday 9/24/17: 4:15pm: Have run out of words to describe how tired I am. Last night was as bad if not worse than the previous two. The traffic noise and yelling and screaming kept me awake ‘til at least midnight, then some very loud people woke me at 3:00am. I finally went back to sleep then woke to more screaming at 8:20am. Either my alarm didn’t go off or I slept through it. I scrambled through a shower, threw on some clothes and got to the school about a minute late.
And the noise levels never got better for the next two weeks except for a couple of nights when it rained. Plus early on I started waking up covered in mosquito bites. Like many older buildings in Firenze there were no screens on the windows. It kept getting worse and I think it was the Tuesday of my second week, when I woke up with my face swollen from bites. When I talked to Federika who was in charge of our evening activities, she just told me to get a mosquito zapper and some cortisone lotion at the farmacia. Both of those helped immensely but I was pissed I had to pay for the zapper and I wasn’t told about the mosquitoes before I rented.
2019: Given my experiences with noise and mosquitoes in 2017, I started looking for an apartment through HomeAway right after making my reservation with the school. I met several students in 2017 who rented through VRBO or another online company but they had come with friends and could split the rent and I wasn’t sure I could afford an apartment on my own.
Cost and distance were the two major factors for me, the latter because of the evening activities. In June 2019 I stumbled on a small studio listed on HomeAway. The map showed the apartment as being close to the Arno, just below Piazzale Michelangelo which seemed like a perfect location.
So I paid my deposit then realized the HomeAway map was incorrect; the apartment was much further away, slightly northwest of Piazza Ferrucci which is just across Ponte San Niccolo. I immediately contacted the owner, Chiara, who swore that the apartment was only 15 minutes from the school, which is on via Ghibellina. Not true. It was 25-30 minutes, a misery on rainy days. I not only put in 12-15,000 steps on Fitbit every day, I had to forgo a couple of activities because of the long walk.
In addition to the distance to school and the centro in general, the closest grocery store was about a mile and a half west, close to the Ponte Vecchio. Lugging heavy groceries home was not fun. Plus there wasn’t a ‘lavandaria’ close by. While there was a small washing machine in the apartment, like many apartments in Italy, there was no dryer. So after nearly 36 hours on the drying rack, I had to take some clothes to school with me and dry them after school at the ‘lavandaria’ next door. Despite those issues, I did like the San Niccolo neighborhood.
On my first afternoon I took an extremely steep ‘trail’ just around the corner from the apartment up to Piazzale Michelangelo. Over the last few years it’s become something of a tradition to walk up to the piazza after first arriving in Firenze, partly to get past jet lag, but mostly because the view always makes me feel like I’m home. Usually I take the steps from via del Monte alle Croci and here’s a gallery that shows that route and the views.
As part of that tradition, I’ve usually stopped at a little wine bar called Fuori Porta on via del Monte. I was disappointed in the quality of the food in 2017 and haven’t gone back since then, but it does have great people watching and a pretty view of Porta San Miniato.
Piazza Poggio was very close to my apartment and I walked through it and past Porta San Niccolo multiple times. And when my sister arrived, we walked up the steps from the piazza to some rose gardens where we had beautiful views out over Firenze.
Porta San Niccolo and Piazza Poggio
While the long walks and inconvenience were annoying, the major problem was lack of communication and responsiveness.
Somehow I missed the fact that Chiara spoke only Italian but it should have been obvious from her answers to my questions before I rented my apartment plus the time it took to respond. About a week before my departure I sent Chiara a message through HomeAway to confirm my arrival. When I hadn’t heard back from her after two days, I called HomeAway. Within hours I received an email sent via her husband’s account and then a message on WhatsApp. The email said ‘I respond to your first request for information because you haven’t received my email yet:’ That should have been a major clue, especially when the messages got ever weirder.
In any event I told her when I was arriving, that I would text when I got into the Firenze airport and that I still planned to take the tram from the airport to the train station and a cab from the station to the apartment, which she said would cost about 13 euros.
But nothing went as planned. Here’s what I wrote after I finally got to the apartment: We got in on time and I sent a message to Chiara while waiting for my luggage, getting no response. After getting to Santa Maria Novella, I drug my cases up to the station where I found a massive line for the taxis. Naturally I got a German (expletive) who drove me all over BFE running up the bill to 18 euros.
There was no sign of Chiara and my phone wouldn’t work. So I threw myself on the mercy of an artist a few doors down. He called Chiara who eventually came down. If I weren’t already annoyed, finding that she lives upstairs and speaks almost no English had things going sideways in a hurry. We finally sorted things out and agreed that I’d send her my questions via Whatsapp.
(And WhatsApp was not only a great way to keep in touch with my friends from school, it was a lifesaver with Chiara.)
We went back and forth the first two days over getting an electrical outlet to work, whether I needed to buy more coffee and whether I could borrow an umbrella. I wrote in my journal: She always looks like a beaten dog after our exchanges. I don’t know why I can’t make myself understood.
After those first two days I had very little contact with her. When I asked for another blanket, her husband brought it down.
The final issue was noise. Being so far off the beaten track I didn’t think that would be an issue. And when she first showed me the apartment she kept saying, ‘tranquillo, tranquillo.’ But the window in the living room/bed room looked out on the neighbor’s patio plus there was a large balcony from an apartment right behind my building. Saturday night I fell asleep fairly easily but woke up to loud voices coming from just outside my apartment. It took me 2-3 hours to get back to sleep.
Then Sunday night I once again woke after only an hour and couldn’t figure out why at first. But then I heard the same loud voices as Saturday. This time I got up and yelled, Silenzio, and it quieted down. But then I lay there til 3:00 am reading off and on.
I also had some minor issues with the wifi not working but despite the problems, some of the other women from school who were staying in Piazza Salvemini mentioned le zanzare (mosquitoes) and noise and I felt better. Plus there’s a little pizzeria, Gattabuia, around the corner that I really liked. I ate there my first night and then brought my sister the evening she arrived in Firenze. Also L’Officina, a little bar in Piazza Ferrucci, was great for a cappuccino and brioche or a glass of wine and a panino.
Location and Facilities
I originally wrote about Michelangelo in my Florence and Fiesole, parte due, saying that ‘the school itself is located on Via Ghibellina; a warren of confusing rooms in an ancient building close to Piazza Santa Croce and a short walk to Piazza dell Duomo.’ (I’ve now deleted that section from my earlier post.) The administrative offices, student ‘lounge’ and classrooms themselves are two flights up and scattered around various hallways, so not conducive to those with mobility issues.
The classrooms I’ve been in consisted of several tables pushed together, surrounded by chairs with whiteboards on the walls. Some rooms have windows looking out over via Ghibellina but most are interior.
Here’s a photo of my 2017 classroom.
If you’re someone who learns best through technology, Michelangelo is probably not for you. My classes in both 2017 and 2019 used a small paperback book of lessons which both teachers supplemented with worksheets.
The Take Away
As I wrote in ‘Parte uno’ 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 good.
I tend to be a glass half empty sort of person and kept expecting the worst. But hopefully I also learned that a bad bus ride, or a cold, is not the end of the world. One friend 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.
In addition to those lessons it’s always important to research local activities, events and interesting sights before you go so that if you have a day on your own you can make the most of it.