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Guest: Tuscany
Sipping Vino and Savoring Vistas
In Tuscany

Story by Fyllis Hockman
Photos by Victor Block

andering the hilly, narrow cobblestone streets in our home base of Montalcino, Italy, a Medieval city of interlocking passageways, steps and alleyways curving around and through and behind and beyond the main square, I reminded myself I was walking through history spanning eight hundred years.

Stopping for lunch, I ordered a glass of the house wine. A bottle arrived at the table. When I protested, I was told to drink what I wanted and I would be charged accordingly. Not a bad system, I thought.

Later, sipping more wine – this is Italy, after all -- on our apartment balcony overlooking the vineyards from whose grapes it was made, we debated whether to eat in or go out for another Florentine steak. The fact that our apartment was housed in a structure dating back to the 13th century on a farm boasting one of the best-known vineyards in Italy was a bonus.

a vineyard in Tuscany
One of many Tuscany vineyards

Welcome to UNTOUR, a wonderful well-kept secret that may change your concept of travel forever. Idyll, Ltd.'s UNTOUR program offers tourists a unique opportunity to not be tourists. It flies participants to one or more cities in almost a dozen European countries, inundates them with information and puts them up in apartments for two-to-four weeks to live like the locals.

It's a way to get to know a destination in a manner that would never happen on a conventional tour. It's ideal for those who have the time and interest to explore their surroundings at leisure and in depth. And they provide the wherewithal to do it: rental cars or bus and rail passes are part of the package.

narrow street flanked by medieval buildings, a typical hill town in Tuscany
Narrow passageways in many a medieval hill town

Those who joined my husband, Victor, and me on the Southern Tuscany adventure were intrepid travelers who wanted to focus on the destination, not the details. Cathy Gerdes, a veteran Untourist from Durham, NC explained: “We love the philosophy of Untours. They help you make all the arrangements, give you the inside scoop on what to do, and then leave you on your own to explore and discover.”

We were learning about our neighborhood, but on our terms. Rise early or sleep in. Sightsee or stroll around town. Cook in or eat out. And whatever the choice, we returned to our apartment, a much roomier and warmer ambiance than any hotel would provide.

The town of steps, turns and backalleys that initially seemed daunting to navigate soon became negotiable. We mastered shortcuts to the center of town; got to know local vendors, and began to feel secure enough to risk getting lost on purpose. The sense of pride I felt when giving some harried American tourists directions was bordering on smug.

Each day brought a new adventure, often beginning with a visit to any one of several nearby “hill towns,” which indeed come by their name honestly. One day, it was the Renaissance city of Pienza, known for its harmony of ambience and structure, a town the word charming was invented for. Another day, San Gimignano, claiming more intact towers than any other hill town – 13, 14 or 15, depending upon the not-so-reliable source material. Or tiny Murlo, town of 17, which more resembled a movie set of a 13th century village than the reality of it. And then there was historic Volterra, flaunting evidence of Etruscan, Roman, Medieval and Renaissance influences.

an archway to the small Etruscan town of Murlo, Tuscany
The Etruscan town of Murlo, boasting all of 17 residents

A visit to Abbadia San Salvatore introduced us to an 8th century Abbey whose write-up talks about it being newly renovated. Those recent restorations? They took place in the 15th century. This sense of time warp is ever present. The present and past -- long-ago past -- coexist harmoniously as one can travel back and forth through multiple centuries within a couple of hours of doing day-to-day errands

Whatever the village, be sure to walk off the main square to see where the people really live. Perusing 13th-century corridors an arms-length wide, flanked on both sides by two-to-three story stone apartments, we eavesdropped on venues teeming with life. The back streets appear even more historic and colorful than the already enthralling but more touristy central piazza. Admittedly, the local folks are probably not as impressed as I am at the origin of their lifestyles.

Every town has its church dating from the 1200s, museum celebrating its art, its de rigueur duomo, fortress and possibly Etruscan tomb. I rarely went into any of them. I’m not proud of this, and I don’t recommend it. I’m a travel writer after all, and this is sacrilege, but for me, the wonder of traveling is to be found wandering the streets, and in Tuscany especially, stopping at every café for a Cappuccino or scoop of gelato.

various flavors of gelato at a Tuscany café
Daily mid-afternoon indulgence

Check out the wide, heavy wooden apartment doors with their ornate designs and fanciful brass knockers -- to me, almost as appealing as the many works of art within the cathedrals and museums. Look through ubiquitous archways overlooking the red tile roofs of the towns below for yet another photo op demanding to be taken.

Driving through the Tuscan countryside, almost every bend produces another WOW moment -- perhaps not the more dramatic views of, say, a New Zealand, but instead a more tranquil beauty. Picture this: an incredibly vast expanse of rolling hills, a patchwork quilt of vineyards, olive trees and wheat fields dipping into valleys and clinging to hillsides, with colors of green and brown and reddish gold depending upon the season and the crop, accentuated by stately, slender Cypress trees standing guard along long driveways leading up to stone villas.

Looking out across the valleys, you recognize there’s something different about the light – it seems richer, more intense. A young artist we met who was painting her way through Tuscany characterized it as “luminescent.” Ah yes, I thought, that’s it.

driveway to a stone villa lined by cypress trees, Tuscany
Entranceway to many stone villas

Grant & Patricia Wood from Mississauga, Canada, on their third Southern Tuscany trip reinforced the concept: “We fell in love with the simplicity, the community, the people, the views, the light. We left our hearts here so we had to come back. It feels like we’ve come home.”

Though Vic’s eyes were beginning to glaze over at the thought of another medieval town, I was still entranced by the narrow streets, steep hills and back alleys. Yet we broke up our days with hiking in nearby national parks, meandering through local outdoor markets, checking out a Cock Festival that had been held in a close-by hamlet for over 700 years and doing errands such as laundry, email and shopping for quiet dinners at home.

But mostly we dined on pasta, cheeses and pizzas at the many tavernas in our neighborhood, every table sporting the ubiquitous bottle of wine. Even at lunch! Not a usual practice back home. One of our favorite hangouts was Taverna dei Barbi, an old stone tavern on the grounds of the vineyard where we lived. Sitting among the eerie granite-covered archways and columns, I felt like I was in a very sophisticated, warm, welcoming……dungeon.

Offered a menu in English or Italian, I so wished I could have said “Italiano, per favore” and meant it. But I had only learned just enough Italian to get into trouble. I could ask some basic questions but didn't have a prayer of understanding the answers. Still, it found us "il banyo" (bathroom) and "la stazione" (train station) and, of course, a multitude of gelato flavors.

The Taverna’s sausages and salami come from their resident pigs; the cheeses from their sheep; the veggies from the garden and, of course, the wine from their vineyards. Most restaurants at home are not quite that self-sustaining. I was glad I hadn’t taken a tour earlier and gotten to know any of the local inhabitants by name.

wines and cheeses in a 12th-century farmhouse, Tuscany
Wines and cheeses made at our 12th-century farmhouse

Ours days were filled with a meshing of hills and happenstance, vistas and vino, walled cities and watch towers; a chance meeting at a museum, church, fortress or, better yet, a wine tasting. After all, this is what Tuscany is famous for, and wine bars are as omnipresent on street corners here as Starbucks are in the States.

Perhaps, that's the essence of the Untour experience. There's something more special about discovering such treasures on your own than being herded there as part of a group, according to a pre-determined time schedule that dictates how long you can spend looking before it hurries you through because the bus is leaving to go to the next stop.

It was so much nicer just to pick up some roasted chicken, wave to shopkeepers we had befriended and return home to sit on our porch, sip yet another glass of wine and savor our most recent exploits. For more information, contact UNTOURS at 888-868-6871 or visit their website at www.untours.com.

(Posted 12-12- 2010)



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Let Fyllis know what you think about her traveling adventure.

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Feedback for Gullah Culture

I think a lot of the plantation enslaved Africans began with a variety of African languages and little contact with English speakers. Even today some of the speech patterns of modern descents of the enslaved hold onto this language or some of the patterns even after being away from the area for generations. That's what we heard in N Carolina.

-- Barbara, Mill Creek, WA

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Thank you for your extensive and accurate story of a remarkable, resilient culture!

-- Marlene O'Bryant-Seabrook, Ph.D. – Charleston, SC

And Marlene – thank you so very much for your comment. Nothing makes a writer feel better than hearing something like that!!!

Fyllis

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Nice story thanks, however there are also Gullah speak in southern Belize and Honduras coast to Trujillo, been all over both thanks.

-- Michael Johnson – Myrtle Beach, SC

Hi Michael,

Thank you so much for your comment. However, I think what you're referring to in the Belize/Honduras region is more accurately characterized as the Garifuna culture and language, which somewhat parallels the Gullah. If you'd like more information about that, please read my November 2011 story in travelingboy.com about the Garifuna.

Fyllis

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Toooooooo cooooooool Now I want to go to Florida!!!!

-- Kathy Marianelli – Columbia, Maryland

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Feedback for Ha Long Bay in Vietnam

I'm a Vietnamese and I can't help but went through all of your pictures. They are beautiful, both the couples and the natural sceneries. Vietnam is such a beautiful place, I love it. I have been to Ha Long Bay once, in fact, I have been too all places that you took pictures of. I love your pictures and certainly will comeback for more. Thank you for these wonderful images of Vietnam and its people.

-- Quyen

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Feedback for Family Magic in Orlando

Great article!!! Makes me want to go back and experience it ALL all over again.

-- Ariane – Chicago

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Feedback for Mohonk

I love your signature and the writing (in "Mohonk: Sumptuous Old-World Flavor Tastefully Wrapped in Casual Elegance")... but the place is a bit expensive... more like the Romney types! Is Vic a "photographer" or does he just take pretty good pictures?

-- John Strauss – Campton Hills, IL

Hi John,

Thanks so much for your kind comments. Much appreciated! Yes, I do know Mohonk is expensive -- as is true for so many of the fine resorts -- but it is a historical structure that has been in operation for so many years and offers so many activity options for the whole family without nickel and diming the guest, that for those who can afford it, it actually is somewhat of a bargain.

And no, Vic is not a "real" photographer as much as he is a travel writer in his own right, but sometimes, as he says, he does get lucky.

Again, thanks for your feedback.

Fyllis

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Feedback for the Road to Hana

We enjoyed seeing the Road to Hana from a helicopter! After you get to Hana you've still got to make the return journey. Thanks but no thanks!

-- Betsy Tuel – Rosendale, NY

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Feedback for Dominican Republic

Thank you, Fyllis, for this engaging tour. For years I thought the Dominican Republic was all-tourists, all-the-time. You just made me want to go there! (those waterfall adventures look like great fun)

-- Richard F. – Saugerties

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Feedback for Traveling the Canadian Rockies

We (our family) also took The Rocky Mountaineer (gold leaf) in early June 2011. Great memories! Great food! Great service! I am sorry to hear about this labor dispute, as clearly, the attendants were a HUGE part of the experience. They felt like friends by the end of the trip. Good luck to all employees!

-- Susie – Hana

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Hi Fyllis,

I am one of the locked out onboard attendants. I enjoyed reading your lovely writing based on the trip you took with the level of service that was delivered until June 22, 2011. It is misleading to share this review at this time. Many current guests are dismayed when they experience the low level of service which does not live up to what this blog post boasts. The company is not even responding to the complaints of their guests who have paid top dollar, and are now consistently ignored when they write to ask for a refund. If you do not believe me, go to Trip Advisor and read the recent reviews. There are a few good ones, and they are almost all from pre-lock out dates. Many of those are from complimentary trips and the company seems to be pressuring them to post positive reviews. If you are unaware of what is happening, please consider visiting a site which has many news stories and letters of support from guests and local politicians.

--- City: onboard – Vancouver

Can I ask when this article was written? One of the managers onboard would have been travelling on it for more than 6 years by now...last I heard Shauna was in Edmonton.

--- tnoakes – Edmonton, Alberta

Dear Whomever --

I am so very sorry to hear about the lockout and the bad feelings that have been engendered between management and employees. It was not a situation I knew anything about and realize the timing of my article indeed was unfortunate.

What I wrote about was based totally on my personal experience and only reflects my trip at that time. Please accept my apologies for the difficulties current and former employees are now experiencing and the apparent disparate levels of service experienced by me and more recent guests. It was not something I had any knowledge of.

Fyllis, TravelingBoy



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