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Could there be a school that teaches only English and cooking? Not likely. So, having Googled "Italian Language Schools," I was startled to learn that in Italy, most private academies that teach Italian to foreigners also teach them cooking.

Narrowing the search to Siena, a city about the size of Flagstaff, I found three options and settled on a school named after a poet -- Scuola (School) Dante Alighieri.

That is how it came to be that every morning for two weeks in March, my sister-in-law, Nadia Natali, and I found ourselves wending our way up Via Tommaso Pendola to a 17th century building where she would disappear into the kitchen to learn the secrets of Tuscan cuisine. Upstairs, I wrestled with Italian subjunctive tenses.

Both of us worked alongside five other students. At the end of the morning session, 1:30 p.m., weary from the struggle but proud to have understood the melodious Italian of instructor Silvia Rossi (if not necessarily the subtleties of subjunctive), I returned down the narrow stone street to our apartment decorated with an ancient faded fresco on the living room wall.

In the meantime, Nadia was enjoying a banquet of delicacies prepared in her cooking class among new friends.

Sonia di Centa is founder, director and sometimes chef and English translator at Scuola Dante Alighieri. She tells me that "Italian cooking is simplicity -- simplicity, created by farmers -- and that is the hardest thing to get across to people."

Maybe she forgets she is talking to just an American. Pasta made by hand, "ravioli burro e salvia (sage), and mousse di ciococolato con Amaretti" do not strike me as simple. But I suppose one doesn't bring potential chefs to Italy to teach them to grill a burger with fries.

On some afternoons and weekends, the school offers activities: films, discussions of local culture, wine tasting and tours of nearby picturesque Tuscan villages. Florence is a short drive. And then there is Siena itself.

A MEDIEVAL CITY

I had dismissed cliché comments that "Siena is a beautiful, medieval city." That's Italy. But it turns out Siena is more so, a perfect movie set for the Middle Ages. Cathedrals dominate the skylines of Italy, but Siena's Duomo is dramatically striped with serpentine green.

This is probably the most architecturally consistent city I have seen. Walk along residential streets, always narrow, no sidewalks, and you will see iron rings along the walls to tie up your horse. Above them are holders for torches that once lit the night.

These narrow streets and four- to seven-story buildings that line them mean that the apartments within receive little light. It's no wonder that ours is decorated Matisse-like in orange, red and gold, making it cheerful anyway.

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After our afternoon explorations of local shops, churches, festivals or gardens, we would join the Sienese. They come out of their apartments to gather in the central piazza, "Il Campo," an enormous shallow bowl, to sit on the brick pavement and feel the warmth of the Tuscan sun. Overlooking the piazza is an impressive city hall, with tall bell/clock tower and turrets, very Middle Ages.

IN ONE PLACE

With our low dollar, Italy is not a bargain. That being the case, in my view, it is more worthwhile to spend one or two weeks in one place rather than trying to "do" a number of grand cities. My intensive Italian course for two weeks was about $600. It would be about half that for one week.

Nadia's course was more expensive, as it included ingredients and the delight of dining on them once prepared. Our very cute two-bedroom apartment cost around $1,100 for the two weeks. There are less expensive living arrangements available. If interested, check out www.scuoladantealighieri.com. Click on Siena.

Leaving Siena, we met an American woman who had just spent two weeks at a similar academy called Leonardo DaVinci. She was as pleased with her experience as we were with ours. Those who long to see the more famous cities might prefer to attend an academy in Rome or Florence.

There seem to be hundreds of cozy, good restaurants in Siena. Around $25 buys a full Italian meal with wine. Our favorite turned out to be Cice's on Via S. Pietro, not far from the school. With a low brick barrel vault ceiling, even Cice's reminds us of the era into which we have slipped for two charming weeks.

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