Continuing on the topic of New Year’s resolutions: one of the things that people resolve to do with the arrival of a new year is improve themselves by learning a new skill. Italy holds numerous possibilities for the traveler looking for self-improvement (and not just fitness-wise). So here are a few ideas and tours to get your imaginative juices flowing.

Culinary Travel
I’m going to paraphrase a very famous saying here: “If you give a man an Italian meal, you will feed him for today. Teach a man to cook an Italian meal, and you will feed him for a lifetime.” Indeed, eating your way through Italy is easy. But mastering the art of la cucina italiana is a gift that will keep on giving. I’ve profiled a few cooking schools on this site before, but there are a number of culinary travel packages and food-focused tour companies that you should know about.

Cooking Vacations, with headquarters in Boston, MA, and Positano, has several dozen Italy cooking and travel programs, from a 6-day program in Bologna and Emilia-Romagna (Italy’s culinary hub) to a one-week Kids Cooking Program in Positano (a great way to get the whole family involved). Cooking Vacations has women-only programs, tours that pair cooking with driving a Ferrari around Tuscany (!), and combination art and food tours.

The International Kitchen, which has been featured on The Food Network and CBS News among others, has cooking classes with both top chefs and Italian home cooks; wine-tasting experiences; and culinary walking tours that you can fit into your regular touring itineraries of Rome, Florence, Siena, or almost anywhere you happen to be.  In addition to International Kitchen’s daily a la carte programs, there are cooking vacations to 12 of Italy’s 20 regions, including the Villa d’Este Italian Cooking Holiday (Lombardy), Gourmet Sicily, and All About Umbria, a program that has been mentioned in the New York Times.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Divina Cucina, a cooking school in Florence run by cooking diva Judy Witts Francini. Even though she’s American, Judy is something of a real Renaissance woman, not only running her cooking school but writing her own cookbook and dispensing food advice and tips on her blog Over a Tuscan Stove. Judy offers one-week courses at her kitchen in Certaldo, Tuscany, and daily programs in Florence and Chianti.

Language Schools
Immersing yourself in la bella lingua is also a terrific way to organize your Italian vacation. You could just wing it by trying to speak Italian at every turn. Or, you could take a language class. Just about all the major tourist centers (Rome, Milan, Florence, Chianti, etc.) have schools or classes for tourists eager to learn Italian. So the hard part is choosing where you want to study.

For the serious student, there’s the Istituto Linguistico Mediterraneo, a school with campuses in Pisa and Viareggio and courses ranging from a one-week holiday course to intensive programs geared towards receiving Italian language certification. Centro Puccini, also based in Viareggio (on the Tuscan coast), has short- and long-term courses, including Italian classes for professionals, such as Italian for banking, law, or singing opera.

Less studious travelers may want to try some basic courses that can be easily integrated into an Italy holiday. The Dilit International House in Rome has individual and group programs for university students through the 50+ set. One of the best known schools, with campuses in Rome, as well as Florence, Siena, and Milan, is Scuola Leonardo da Vinci, which also has a blog.

Art Lessons
Combining travel with art or photography lessons is a no brainer, especially when you’re visiting a country as aesthetically pleasing as Italy. Painting, sculpture, ceramics, and photography courses are just a few of the options to engage the right side of your brain.

If you want a more urban experience, there are several programs and workshops to satisfy. The Venice School of Photography, run by British photographer Jonathan Maher, has workshops that concentrate on Creative Seeing in Venice and the Art of Street Photography. In Florence, the Accademia d’Arte has short (2-week) to long (3 year) painting courses and photography workshops. You can also try the Scuola Lorenzo de’ Medici for creative courses as diverse as art restoration and archaeology. If Rome is where you want to be, the Artist Retreat villa in Trastevere offers a handful of art courses for its guests, including painting, photography, and lace-making.

Bucolic settings are often best for getting in the artistic mood. The Abruzzi Mountain Workshop in the village of Anversa will operate eight one-week sessions in 2010, from “Reinventing the Still Life: Painting an Italian Kitchen” to Digital Photography for Artists. Meanwhile, Il Chiostro, a full-service artistic travel company with courses across the country, has jewelry making classes in Lake Garda; clay sculpture (and about a dozen other) classes at its Tuscan Renaissance Center in Chianti; and travel photography program during its Autumn Arts Festival (also in Chianti). Artist in Italy is another option in Tuscany, where artists-to-be can learn about botanical and landscape painting. Located in a gorgeous old farmhouse halfway between Rome and Florence, Artist in Italy offers several 10-day programs, and looks like a very relaxing setting in which to spend a holiday (which you can see in the video below):

Writing Italy
I don’t even want to get into the many creative writing and travel writing courses that you can take in Italy. Think I’ll save that for another post. Though, writers and film buffs may be interested to know that from from August 12-25, 2010, you can attend a screenwriting school in Spoleto (Umbria).

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Photos © The International Kitchen, majamaja, Thompson Photography

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