Monte Isola

With several large, tourist-budding lakes only a hundred or so kilometres apart in the north of Italy, there is obviously some competition between them, in much the same way as with neighbouring city’s football teams. Being my Italian home, Garda has stolen my bias: with its diverse landscapes, micro-climate and peaceful walks, you’d be mad not to appreciate it. However, even I can’t deny the attraction of a sparsely populated mountainous island placed in the middle of a lake which is itself surrounded by highlands.

This is the case of Monte Isola, which sits on the waters of Lake Iseo. Most recently it was famed by Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s large scale art project, “The Floating Piers”, in which large, fabric floats connected the island to different sections of the mainland, allowing visitors to have the sensation of walking on water.

Although I appreciated the project for popularising this unique island, I much prefer it orange-float-free in all its simplicity – even if that means paying five euros for a return ticket on the ferry boat rather than walking to it. (Ferry boats run regularly to and from Iseo, Sulzano, and Sale Marisino. See here for full timetables).

With a population of less than 2000 people and fairly small roads, there is a common thought that only the priest and the doctor have cars on this island. Whilst not entirely accurate (there are several small trucks used for maintenance and landscaping, for example), it is true that you will see very few four wheeled vehicles. Instead, the Italian moped stereotype is exemplified here, with everyone over the driving age appearing to have a moped, and even children and toddlers being taken on them (there being little other ways of transportation).

In addition to the obvious natural attractions, the main tourist spot here is the Sanctuary of Madonna della Ceriola, which sits at 600 msl, the highest point of the island. Unfortunately there is no lazy way of getting there, so bring your comfy shoes and stamina.

There are, however, a few different routes, depending on your ability and time limit. From the port for Sulzano in Peschiere Maraglio, follow the road right and take the sharp left turn. Following this road will lead you to several different signs towards the sanctuary, the first of which appear after just a couple of hundred feet. Those with the red marker highlight the more difficult, off-road path: don’t be put off by the dangerous red colour, its doable for anyone with average fitness and some will power in my opinion. Whilst the lake and mountain views aren’t particularly more stunning on this path, the nearby landscape is far more tranquil, with the track taking you through fields and woodlands.

If you aren’t feeling up for a short hike (about two hours) however, you should opt for following the main road to the village Cure, and taking the mule tracks for the final ascent. It saves at least an hour, and you still have several astounding viewpoints.

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Other attractions include the Martinengo fortress. Unfortunately also accessible only by a fairly steep incline (its lucky I enjoy hill-walking) that starts in Sensole, this is a mediaeval structure from the 14th century, now secluded in the woodland and giving the true sensation of the ancient lordship.

The rest of the island’s attractions lay largely in its natural landscapes. To admire the lakeside, take the small, coastal road that goes from Peschiera Maraglio to Sensole. The first part of the walk will take you past all of the main shops, bars, and pizzerias, but there are also a few other stop-off points further along the road, including some well placed coastal-view benches. For a tourist spot, the bars and pizzerias aren’t hugely over priced, costing only about a euro more than the average spot. However, I would recommend taking a picnic rather than eating an average pizza. Though the pizzerias might still be lake-side views, there are so many other natural beauty areas to relax in that personally I would rather take a few sandwiches and admire the view from a window-and-waiter-free zone.

Even the travel here is relatively stress-free. Ferry boats travel from several of the lake-side towns on Lago D’Iseo (see the timetables linked in the third paragraph), and most of the surrounding cities provide public transport via bus or train to Iseo town. If you are going by car, you will have to leave it on the mainland, and if it is in season be prepared to pay a parking fee (generally 6 euros for a full day). There is no specified parking for those catching the ferry boat, but every town has a few car parks a short walking distance from the port.

Whether you are looking for an adventure, a light walk, or simply some spectacular views, Monte Isola is a must. The landscape is tremendous: standing near the edge of the island, you feel as though it is a sanctuary from the forbidding mountains looming over it, your only protection the glistening water between you. At such a small cost, this natural highlight is a must on any north-Italian tour.

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How to Learn a Language Abroad

When I hear of someone desperate to learn a language, my advice is always the same: go to that country. There is no quicker or more effective way to get the grasp of a foreign tongue than by being completely surrounded by it in your everyday life.

Of course, learning a foreign language abroad comes with its downfalls, the primary being fear and awkwardness at complete miscomprehension. But trust me when I say that it is all worth it.

If you’re considering moving abroad to improve a language, or are currently abroad and completely freaking out, here are some tips to keep your head cool and full of new foreign words.

  1. Don’t feel ashamed or embarrassed by your (mis) understanding or (mis) pronounciation. Unfortunately, it is going to be a common occurrence, so letting it get to you is not going to do great for your confidence. Do your best and try to ignore the occasional rude glances or slights for not being fluent in their language – just wait until you are and you can surprise them by responding to their remarks.
  2. Remember that the main focus is communication. This is one of the best tips my host mum gave me: when you first arrive, ignore the rules, the sentence structure, and the fluency. Your first aim should simply be to communicate what you need, whether that’s saying hi to the neighbours, buying a bus ticket or asking for directions. Figure out how to get by in your everyday life, and once you’ve got that you can develop further.
  3. Be insistent. If you are English and living in a tourist area, chances are people will look at you and immediately speak English is they can. Don’t let them! Respond in their language, even if they can speak yours fluently. You should take every opportunity to practise – and you don’t want to be seen as another ignorant English / American tourist, right?
  4. Throw yourself into it. Not necessarily at the deep end –you might not want to attend a political debate in your first few weeks. But put yourself into situations where speaking the language is a must, when there are no excuses, and you will be on such a high when you get through them.
  5. It is incredibly tiring consistently speaking and listening in another language, but try to stay focused on every word: if you drift off just for a minute, it is even harder to catch up with the meaning. In a group, concentrate on one conversation and block out the other voices, because they will only overwhelm and confuse you, leading you to lose track of every conversation.
  6. Immerse yourself in the language as much as possible, but also give yourself some breaks from it to let your mind rest and recuperate. As I said, learning a language is mentally exhausting. Whether it’s having some time to yourself watching Netflix or reading a book, or finding some friends who speak your own language, find some time where you don’t need to translate anything.
  7. Make time to study. Although learning through practise is certainly the most effective way, unfortunately our brains are not robots that automatically record everything we hear. Take a note of new or interesting words so you can check them later, and take some time to study at least the basic grammar – trust me everything will make so much more sense after.
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How to Speak to a Foreign Language Learner

I’ve been in a lot of all-Italian groups since living here, both when I barely spoke a beginner’s level of the language, up to now when I think (or hope) that I have a fairly good grasp of it. I am extremely lucky for the fact that 90% of the people I spoke to were so accommodating to my complete inability to converse. Whoever put up with me in those first few weeks, I am truly indebted to you: how dull must those conversations have been? However, it is thanks to these conversations that I ever improved. I do my best to bear this in mind when teaching English: the conversation might be slow and one-sided, but they are getting so much from it. There are also a few techniques and things I remember, especially when dealing with the frustratingly slow students, because I was that slow and frustrating in Italian at one point. So if you want to make a foreign language learner’s life a little easier, consider these points:

  • Speak slowly, but avoid being patronising. We often don’t realise how quickly we talk in our mother tongue. Though to us it may seem easy to follow, to those still adapting to the language it can be difficult to distinguish the words. Slow it down a bit and pronunciate your words. That being said, there is a clear line between speaking slowly and being downright patronising – if someone doesn’t understand the word, repeating and dragging out each syllable isn’t going to help, and you’re just going to make them uncomfortable.

  • Don’t worry if they’re quiet: they’re probably just trying to follow. People often feel guilty for not including the foreigner, and while involving them is great, it’s also totally normal that they’ll want to stay zitta and just listen for a while: following the conversation can be enough of an exercise. But…

  • Check up on them. Although you certainly shouldn’t attempt to translate everything as it happens, give them a nudge every now and then to see if they’re following, and maybe give them a quick summary (either translated or in simple terms) if they’re still looking flummoxed.

  • Speak to them directly. As I said, it’s often enough of a task simply following the conversation, especially in a large group, so finding the chance to contribute is even more difficult, let alone unnerving. I remember the frustration of understanding something, thinking of something to say, translating it… Only to realise the topic had completely moved on. Ask us some direct questions to get us involved.

  • If they’re a basic level, ask about their life. Discussions about family, work and basic hobbies are included on most beginners’ language courses, so chances are they’ve got these topics down. By asking questions based around this, you give them a chance to contribute confidently and feel like a part of the conversation. (Though if they aren’t so basic, change the topics. They have probably done them to death – I certainly have).

  • Don’t mistake zoning out for disinterest or rudeness. Learning another language is tiring! I have never been so tired as on my first few nights out with Italian groups. It doesn’t matter how much you have studied: nothing prepares you for being so submerged by a language. Unlike your mother tongue, you cannot let your mind relax for even a second or you will lose track of the conversation. You are constantly focused. Eventually, of course, tiredness will take you, usually just a few seconds before someone asks for your input, making you seem completely ungrateful for the invite. Please don’t hate them for taking a break. And last but most importantly…

  • Be welcoming. Luckily for me, the English always seem fairly welcome in other countries, no matter how ignorant we are. However for many other nationalities there is the age old “If you come here you should know the language.” Have you ever learnt a language fluently without staying in that country? If you say yes, you’re lying. Studying and practising with other foreigners is not the same and will never completely prepare you. So please, no prejudice remarks that will make them uncomfortable. Make them feel welcome, and the relaxing atmosphere will probably see them speaking much more confidently.

Of course, learning a language is 99% down to the individual. Though the environment, teacher and social groups certainly help, at the end of the day there’s only one person who can conquer the confusion. My next article will be some tips for the language learner abroad. 

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Santa Lucia

Ask any child from the Veneto or Lombardy region what their favourite night of the year is, and it won’t be their birthday, nor Halloween, nor even Christmas Eve, but the night before Santa Lucia. This Christian martyr holds all the excitement of Father Christmas, without the huge commercialisation.

The tradition originates in Sicily, the birthplace of this Saint who stood for Catholicism during the Diocletianic Persecution. Her fame has also spread to Scandinavia, where they celebrate with a religious feast on the 13th December. In Northern Italy, however, her tale has evolved into that of a gift-giver. Though Italians will likely disagree, there are several parallels to Father Christmas:

  • She brings presents only to good children, and gives coal to those who are bad.
  • In the weeks beforehand, children write her a letter explaining how good they have been, and what presents they would like.
  • She has a “magical” aspect that allows her to visit all the children in one night.
  • Children must go to bed early the eve before her arrival.

However, there are also a couple of elements which highlight just how unique the Santa Lucia tradition is. For instance, although children cannot look at Santa Lucia as with Santa Clause, it is not for spoiling the magic or showing they are naughty for not sleeping, but because Santa Lucia will throw ashes in their eyes, blinding them like herself. Not so much like the jolly red man now, is she? In fact, the three year old I look after needed some reassurance that she really was a “nice lady”, despite the whole ash-throwing thing. On the 12th December she was bursting with excitement, but also genuine fear at accidentally seeing Santa Lucia.

There are at least a couple of weeks lead up to the day, with all the adults asking how good the children have been, and several towns having Santa Lucia and her donkey visit the central piazza for the children to come and see them. There is no sitting on her lap and asking for presents, however. As the three year old bluntly told me when I asked, “Did she say hello to you?” – “Of course not, Sarah. She can’t see, she’s bliiiiind. She carries her eyes on a plate.” Ah, okay then. My mistake.

When she does appear in these small festivals, she is always fully disguised in long gowns and hooded cloaks to hide even her face. Research suggests that she is also accompanied by an escort, Castaldo, however whether this tradition is fading, or present only in certain areas, I am unsure: in the Brescia region of Lombardy, he was never referred to.

As well as the occasional appearance in local festivals, Santa Lucia is also known to check up on children in the preceding days to December 13th. No one is allowed to see her of course – do you want ashes in your eyes? – but she announces her presence by ringing her bells, at which point any child in the vicinity promptly loses all sense of self. Depending on their behaviour, Santa Lucia will leave either sweets or coal, usually just outside the door. She must be a fan of sweets, as she also often uses them as a trail to the main presents on December 13th.

Now, to ruin the magic. Just as it is the parents who are responsible for Santa’s stocking in Britain, it is the mother who is responsible for creating the magic of Santa Lucia, and sometimes also the grandmother. Although children generally grow out of the fantasy by about ten years old, mothers often still give their children – even adult children – a gift for the day, just not on such a grand scale. They buy the gifts, make the sweet trails, and discreetly ring the bells when “she” arrives. So as with most things in Italy, it is all thanks to the mother.

In Brescia, where I live, Santa Lucia truly is a beloved tradition, so much so that Santa Clause is almost non-existent. Though some families are lucky enough to receive gifts from both, the majority see Santa Lucia as the gift-giver for Italy, and Santa Clause as that of other countries. The sad thing for me, however, was that Christmas itself is consequently not such a grand occasion. They have decorations and a family meal, however the day holds little excitement for children, who have already had all the excitement they could ask for a couple of weeks before. Can you imagine a day dedicated simply to a family meal as a child? It wouldn’t seem so thrilling.

However, I will always appreciate how pure the Santa Lucia tradition is in comparison to the big red-suited man. There are children’s songs, promoted toys, and sweets on offer; yet it largely escapes commercialisation, retaining its folk and religious origins. No one, for instance, knows what Santa Lucia looks like beneath her cloaks, so there can be no dolls or figurines of her. She has no sponsors, no huge publicity, and yet every child in Lombardy and Veneto knows her name.

For me, Santa Clause will always be my preferred gift-giver, in the same way I will always be English: it is embedded in my cultural upbringing. But I suppose, whilst in Italy, I can enjoy the best of both worlds – just as long as my own mother continues making me a stocking.

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English vs Italian Breakfast 

​While Italy is worldwide renowned for its dishes, the full English breakfast is arguably a competitor for food fame. So which nation wins when it comes to coaxing us out of bed? Let’s start where I started; England.

Any English mother will tell you that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, so it is unsurprising that the best loved morning dish is the calorific feast of a good ole’ fry up. Bacon, sausage, eggs, baked beans, mushrooms, toast, hash browns, black pudding, and – if you want a healthy addition – tomato. Just thinking about it makes the stomach rumble and the blood pressure scream. Of course, as good as it is for a hangover remedy or a lazy weekend, it isn’t an everyday thing (or else we might be beating America in obesity levels).

Generally the English have a slightly lighter start to the day, with their preferred cereal, toast, or – if they still fancy a treat – a bacon or sausage sandwich, or eggs on toast. Still all plenty filling meals to see one through to lunchtime.

So how does the Italian breakfast compare? Well, its certainly a change from the meat and bread focused plates of its northern friends. Instead it takes a sweeter focus. The non dieters enjoy brioche, biscuits or even all out chocolate cake, while those more health conscious opt for crackers with marmalade or yogurt. Although cereals are sold in all supermarkets, the lack of brands and the high price is evidence that they’re more a tourist commodity. Toast is also off the menu, with loaves of sliced bread being half the height (I still don’t understand the reason for this), and toasters not existing as a common kitchen appliance (the “toast” you see on lunch menus is actually the favoured ham and cheese toastie of the Welsh – done in an Italian style, obviously). As for the meat part: well, any fellow bacon fans will be very disappointed. Pancetta is delicious, but it just doesn’t give the same crispy, salty satisfaction as bacon. However, if you’re lucky, there’ll be an Italian nonna or mamma to bake a cake specifically for breakfast: often appearing like the British sponge cake, the butter is substituted for milk, and yogurt or fruit are added to make a slightly healthier but still tasty start to the day.

Drinks wise, both cultures are fairly similar – Italians are obviously dependent on their espresso, and the English also need a caffeine boost via a tea or long coffee. For those who somehow create their own energy, fruit juice is the way to go in both cases.

But which one comes out best in terms of morning motivation? Well I’ll be honest, when I first moved to Italy I was ready and willing to denounce my homeland as soon as I breakfasted here – cake, for breakfast! I could hear my mum tutting, and judgy colleagues thinking I had hit a low point. But here, it was completely normal and even encouraged.

That said, the novelty soon wears off. Maybe it’s because I had twenty two years of savoury breakfasts behind me, but I soon found myself craving something a little less sugary and a little more meal-like. The lighter Italian options, such as a few plain biscuits, rarely see me through to midday like a bowl of bran would. And although I’ll never say no to a chocolate brioche, if I’m breakfasting alone I’ll often pay the extra euro for some cereaI.

It’s just a shame a bacon sarnie is off the menu.

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Padenghe Castle 

 

Looking over the small lake-side town, this mediaeval castle is one of the highlights of Padenghe-sul-Garda and the surrounding area.

Constructed at the end of the ninth century on a Roman fort, the original outer stone walls still remain, along with three of the four towers. Part of the drawbridge also still stands, though a cobbled pathway now replaces it as the entrance through the arched gateway.



One of the most unique attractions tourists find in Padenghe castle is through this gateway: several rows of quaint, terraced houses, all intricately decorated with flowered windowsills and individually crafted house signs, as though taken from a film set. The ambience also matches that of an abandoned film set: it is curious how tranquil the place feels considering the apparent number of inhabitants, yet it also seems likely that several houses profit from their castello address by turning into B and Bs when the season strikes – something to take note of if you’re looking for a place to stay in this area.

As well as admiring the outside of complete strangers houses, the inside of the castle also offers a walk up the castle walls by the front tower, allowing an almost birdseye view that stretches from Padenghe to the opposing towns on the East side of the lake. Unfortunately, this particular section has recently been under construction, blocking visitors’ access. But there’s no need for disappointment – the views just outside the entrance alone make the trip worth it.

Speaking of trips, why not make this into a day – or at least an afternoon – one? If you are staying in one of the nearby villages, leave the car behind and take the scenic route. Moniga and Desenzano are just a couple of kilometres either side of Padenghe, and there are several countryside, woodland, and lake-view paths connecting them. The easiest to follow is the cycle path – signposted in brown, it goes from Desenzano to Salò, passing through enough woodland and fields to make it an adventure, and enough inhabited areas to reassure you that you’re not entirely lost. Be prepared for a few inclines – the castle is looking over the town, after all.

If the weather is not in your favour, however, or you left your walking boots behind, parking is conveniently located at the castle entrance. Just follow the signs for “castello” from Padenghe centre, and take ten steps from your car to see the view of your week / month (depending on how long you’re staying and what else you’re seeing on Lake Garda – you may have understood there’s a fair few breathtaking sights in the area). 

For being both free and convenient, with the possibility of a quick stop or an afternoon trip, there is very little to fault with Padenghe castle. Bring your camera and relax on the perfectly placed benches outside the entrance to watch over just one example of the exquisite Garda Lake landscape. 

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Manerba Rocca

​If you are staying on the southwest side of Lake Garda and looking for a light walk with a viewpoint, the Rocca of Manerba should be high on your list. Although a steep incline up to the first cliff, which holds the mediaeval and Roman ruins, your panting will last only a few minutes before you are greeted by the iconic (though honestly unsightly) metal cross that marks the peak.

There’s a car park at the immediate start of the official path: it is impossible to miss, and parking there saves you the incline of the roads leading up from Manerba centre. Of course, if your legs and stamina are up for it, feel free to get some more exercise, as these roads also provide some spectacular sights of the lake.

Though the highest point is by the noted eyesore of a cross, a walk around the fortress ruins that surround it will take you to a steep decline of a path which leads to the outer cliff, bordering the lake.

The views are largely the same, but with a slight zoom. However, despite the way it appears from the peak, the walk is fairly short – fifteen minutes to half an hour, depending on your fitness level and ankle strength (remember the “steep” decline? This is not a pushchair friendly path). Flat topped like the first hill, there are less ruins and more grass covered spots to allow for a perfect picnic area (seriously, bring a picnic. It was my biggest regret arriving there without one). You could easily pass an afternoon here, especially on out of season days when the tourists are few, as it is the perfect relaxation spot watching the surrounding mountains and listening to the waves tumble against the rocks below.

If watching the water is tempting you to go for a dip, the wooded area you pass through to reach the outer cliff also crosses paths that lead to the beach. As with all Lake Garda beaches, bring water-friendly shoes. Manerba’s coast is blessed with finer pebbles, but unless you have hobbit-like feet it’s still not going to be a pleasant paddle with bare feet.

So far I have focused largely on the natural beauty: my personal attraction to the Rocca. However, it should be noted that the motivation of many tourists is related to the huge amount of history to be found here. The subject of several archeological excavations, especially in the second half of the twentieth century, the site can be dated to the Copper Age and even Mesolithic settlements, as well as the clear evidence of the Mediaeval and Roman era found in the ruins today. There are several signs along the route to inform you of the findings of these archeological studies, and if you are looking for more information there is also a museum dedicated to this as well as the natural environment. All of the information is available in English, both on the signs and in the museum.

With an intriguing history of destruction and rebuilding, a brief but satisfying walk, and arguably one of the best views you’ll get south of the lake without climbing a mountain, the Rocca of Manerba has a lot to offer in natural and historical beauty. Although not often on the essential to-do lists for Lake Garda, if you happen to be nearby it would be a loss not to see it.

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