Sipping Vino and Savoring Vistas
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
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,
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.
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 passageways in many a medieval hill
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
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.
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. Im not proud of
this, and I dont recommend it. Im 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.
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
Looking out across the valleys, you recognize theres
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, thats it.
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 weve come home.
Though Vics 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,
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 Tavernas 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 hadnt taken a
tour earlier and gotten to know any of the local inhabitants by name.
Wines and cheeses made at our 12th-century
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.