Despite the unrelenting heat this summer has thrust upon us, I am confident that come July our weather complaints will be of a different sentiment – in which case I have a quiet recommendation to make.
Are you looking for a way to escape another melancholy Melbourne winter over semester break? Wouldn’t mind fast-tracking your undergraduate degree with a couple of effortless arts units? Fancy a fine glass of wine at next to no cost? Then I suggest that you do not ignore the emails in your student inbox advertising winter semester at Monash University’s Prato Campus.
Although I was gallivanting about Europe on study intermission last year, I happened to be passing through Italy at the time when a cohort of fellow students and staff were flying over to spend their Australian winter basking in Tuscan sunshine. I decided to pop by, say hi and rack up a couple of credit points. I do not regret it.
Prato is a very old Italian town, lazing just twenty minutes outside the beautiful city of Florence. Although it is technically the second largest city in Tuscany, it feels very small. Away from the bedlam of regular tourist attractions, Prato is rich in traditional Italian lifestyle. Early mornings, late nights, and afternoon siestas structure a full cultural experience – and an entirely indulgent one at that.
The university itself, though essentially just one building, is quite a sight. The Monash Prato Centre occupies the Palazzo Vaj, and 18th century palace on Via Pugliesi, in the town’s historical centre. Certain parts of the building are believed to be even older, as 15th century frescoes have been discovered on one of the Palazzo’s outer walls.
Classes are run in English (unless of course you choose to take the Beginners Italian course), but it would be to your advantage to learn a few basic phrases before you go – just to appease the locals.
In terms of cost, I’d be lying if I said it were cheap. A return flight to Rome will set you back somewhere around $2000. However, Monash facilitates heavy accommodation subsidies, and offers very generous Overseas Student Help Loans to see you through. In the short-term at least I think I actually made a profit by being there – and what’s another couple of grand on that pesky HECS debt, anyway?
It’s only a two-week stay – barely enough to taste what could be the most idyllic student lifestyle on the planet – but most students manage to do a bit of travelling around before or after the program. Many also choose to precede the Prato term with a two-week tour of Gallipoli, another unit in itself. I cannot personally comment on this program, but I heard nothing but raving reviews and amusing anecdotes from those who did attend.
While the term ‘intensive study’ might inspire an almighty groan, strolling the sunbathed maze of streets each morning, perhaps stopping for an espresso and a croissant with the locals, and heading to class for a leisurely few hours is hardly a gruelling experience. Regardless of which hotel you choose to stay at, the university building is never more than a short saunter away.
Time between and after classes is entirely yours to spend sampling every gelataria and pizzeria in town, and letting your hair down on after-dark excursions to Florence. During the weekend that falls between the two weeks of classes, neighbouring Italian cities are at your liberty for a three-day vacation. Rome, Pisa, Venice, Verona and Cinque Terra are popular choices. Personally, having covered all of the major tourist destinations already, I chose to head south to Perugia for the annual Umbria Jazz Festival – which, if the dates coincide again, I can highly recommend.
As long as you leave a bit of time free to bang out an essay or two during the fortnight, there isn’t a single problem that could possibly puncture your paradise in Prato. And you’ll come back with a nice tan to show off to all your shivering pale friends at home.
By the time this article goes to print, the initial information session for the 2013 Gallipoli/Prato program will have passed – but my final promise to you is that the staff members who organise the trip are flawlessly delightful and will gladly help send you on your way.
So what are you waiting for? Ciao, amici!