Academic Trips & Language Classes
A number of organizations offer intensive Italian language courses for adults in northern Italy, especially in Venice and Milan. A good budget option that attracts a variety of ages is the Venice Institute (www.istitutovenezia.com), which holds week-long courses in Venice and Trieste starting at 160€ for the week. (One of the other great values of the experience is staying at the secluded Palladian cloisters on the Giudecca for about 35€ per night for a single.) There are language courses for every ability level, and the instructors are certified in Italian as a second language.
Milan is a venue for Italian classes, because many employees of foreign countries relocate here without much of a background in the language. The International House of Milan (www.ihmilano.com) is well known in these circles, as it specializes in key sectors; for example, there is a 2-week program devoted to the language of the fashion and design industry, which costs 530€. A slightly more affordable option is the Scuola Leonardo da Vinci (www.scuolaleonardo.com), where a general 2-week course is available for 300€. It also has more specialized courses for food and gastronomy, and other subjects; prices and required fluency levels increase with specialization.
In many ways, northern Italy is the birthplace of cycling, or at least home to many of the biggest names in the industry. Bianchi, Campagnolo, De Rosa, and Pinarello are all headquartered in Lombardy or the Veneto, regions that also host the most exciting stages of the Giro d'Italia, which ends in Milan.
Organizing your own bike tour is easy if you rely on a few resources. Arm yourself with a good map and make use of the resources of the Club Alpino Italiano, 7 Via E. Fonseca Pimental, Milan 20127 (tel. 02-2614-1378; fax 02-2614-1395; www.cai.it). You can rent a bike by the week or longer at outlets in most cities.
Several operators specialize in setting up itineraries and making some of the arrangements for you or in leading fully guided tours. Ciclismo Classico ★★ (tel. 800/866-7314 in the U.S., or 781/646-3377; fax 781/641-1512; www.ciclismoclassico.com) is one of the best operators and has been leading bike and walking tours in Italy since 1988. A week-long tour of Piedmont runs about 4,500€ per person, staying at premier accommodations. April through November, the outfit runs several guided tours through the Alps, Dolomites, and Fruili, and a pair of trips out of Venice. Six- to 15-day trips usually include Italian-language and cooking lessons, along with wine tasting and cultural itineraries. Groups average 10 to 18 people, with all ages and ability levels welcome.
Experience Plus (tel. 800/685-4565 in the U.S., or 970/484-8489; www.experienceplus.com) offers both guided and self-guided biking and walking tours through northern Italy lasting 8 or 9 days.
If you don't feel the need to cover so much territory, you can appreciate even more of the countryside by walking or hiking (called trekking in Italian). Italy's resource for everything from countryside ambles to serious mountain trekking is the Club Alpino Italiano, 7 Via E. Fonseca Pimental, Milan 20127 (tel. 02-2614-1378; fax 02-2614-1395; www.cai.it).
Many outfits run walking tours in northern Italy. Besides Ciclismo Classico , you might want to try Butterfield & Robinson, 70 Bond St., Ste. 300, Toronto, ON M5B 1X3 (tel. 800/678-1147 or 416/864-1354; fax 416/864-0541; www.butterfield.com); or Country Walkers (tel. 800/464-9255 in the U.S., or 802/244-1387; www.countrywalkers.com), which has a rather refined, romantic outlook on Italy and offers several northern Italy tours, including tours in Cinque Terre and the lakes region.
For walking tours in Venice, one of the better resources is Context Travel (tel. 215/609-4888; www.contexttravel.com), which offers tours and seminars led by graduate students and other experts in their respective fields on everything from Renaissance art to ceramics to cuisine.
Food & Wine Trips
Just as it's not hard to find a cooking class in Italy (most top-flight hotels will show you how to make a classic northern Italian dish and pair it with the right wine for some extra money), nearly every organized tour will have a strong culinary component. For example, check out Discover Friuli (www.discoverfriuli.com), which combines language courses, cooking classes, and wine tours in a single program.
Wine tours in Italy are often a trade unto themselves. Most tourist boards will have a selection of guided tours of the vineyards in their province (mentioned in the individual chapters). Friuli is heavily promoting itself as a wine destination and has even unveiled a fleet of yellow Vespas (www.collioinvespa.it) as part of the promotion. These Vespas can be rented at various tour agencies in the region, such as Key Tre Viaggi (www.keytreviaggi.it), which offers a Vespa tour with a self-guided itinerary, private tours of vineyards, and a 2-night package in an agriturismo starting at 192€ per person.
There are also tour companies which concentrate solely on wine. Cellar Tours (www.cellartours.com), one of the better-known, high-end wine tour operators, will chauffer you in a Mercedes to the most prestigious vineyards in Piedmont, Friuli, and the Veneto, and put you up in five-star accommodations; their tours cost 375€ to 1,000€ per person, per day, depending on the trip. Sara Cossiga is an art historian, journalist, tour guide, and sommelier who offers wine-focused tours of Venice and the Veneto; contact Venice & Veneto Gourmet (www.venicevenetogourmet.com) for more information.
Italy's best-known cooking schools seem to be in Tuscany -- but northern Italy still has its share of cooking classes and excellent cuisine. LINGUA IT (tel. 045-597-975; www.linguait.it) is an Italian-language school in Verona which offers a course on the food and wine of the region. In Genoa, A Door to Italy (tel. 010-246-5870; www.adoortoitaly.com) offers 1-week and 2-week classes (for about 200€ per week), ranging from the basics of making pasta to preparing more elaborate Ligurian dishes.
Generally, small group classes at a local inn are more memorable culinary experiences. The Acquolina Venezia bed and breakfast (tel. 041-526-2336; www.acquolinavenezia.com) in Venice offers interesting and intimate cooking courses; take the boat out to Lido from San Marco and join Marika Seguso in her kitchen for a 4-hour course. First-timers learn how to prepare Venetian seafood dishes as well as innovative vegetable sides and classic desserts.
Some hotels also offer cooking classes. The Four Seasons (tel. 02-77088; www.fourseasons.com) in Milan recently launched its own cooking classes; half-day classes cost 90€ for guests, starting with a discussion of the daily menu with the hotel chefs and ending with a four-course lunch.
Escorted General-Interest Tours
From the priciest pampered tours to the most inexpensive bare-bones trips, you'll find no shortage of tour operators who offer tours to northern Italy. Many travelers opt for escorted tours because they let you sit back and enjoy the trip without having to drive or worry about details. They take you to the maximum number of sights in the minimum amount of time with the least amount of hassle. They're particularly convenient for people with limited mobility, and they can be a great way to make new friends. On the downside, you'll have little opportunity for serendipitous interactions with locals. While these escorted trips are hassle-free and often cost-efficient, there really is no substitute for exploring the back roads of northern Italy in small numbers, making spur-of-the-moment decisions and finding unexpected gems.
Some tour operators who offer downright cheap deals to northern Italy are Globus Escorted Tours (tel. 866/755-8581; www.globusjourneys.com), Insight Vacations (tel. 866/680-1241; www.insightvacations.com), and Trafalgar Tours (tel. 866/544-4434; www.trafalgar.com). It's hard to book your own hotels, transportation, and food for anything near the prices offered by these companies, but you likely won't stay or eat at top-notch establishments.
One higher-quality -- and more expensive -- tour operator is Go Ahead Tours (tel. 800/590-1170; www.goaheadtours.com). They offer refined trips that focus heavily on food and wine rather than just the standard tourist sites. For example, they offer an 11-day tour called "Venice, Como & the Italian Riviera."
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.