Untours Cafe

By Will & Becky

After a wonderful experience with our first Untour (Alsace region in France, Spring 2005), we chose Tuscany South for our next adventure. We booked our own travel using AA frequent flyer miles opting for an extended trip. Our first destination was arranged with TheRightVacationRental, an associated Untours company.

September 7-14: Arrive Paris CDG and depart 3 hours later aboard TGV train for Rennes, in northwestern France about 190 miles southwest of Paris. We stay the night at a hotel adjacent to the train station and pick up our rental car the next day. We proceed north to Mont-Dol and a week in an apartment at the Chateau Mont-Dol. We highly recommend this destination hosted by a charming young couple. (http://www.therightvacationrental.com/prop.asp?SID=4163) Take advantage of the opportunity to book an evening meal as Yannick is an extraordinary chef with international experience. The hosts have an improving and functional grasp of English and are most willing to assist in any way. The Brittany region of France was filled with lots of exciting destinations for day trips. More info on the region is available at http://www.discoverfrance.net/France/Provinces/Brittany.shtml.

September 15-21 Departing Mont-Dol, we drive south stopping for one night at a B&B for a wonderful dinner and conversation with world sailor hosts at http://www.lemouillagevert.com/
Three nights in Les Eyzies at a B&B continues our good fortune of excellent food and delightful hosts at http://www.fermedetayac.com/. Two days drive brings us to Avignon, where we return the Renault Senic to Europcar, and board the TGV train for Nice.

September 22-26 A change of trains in Nice, sends us on our way to Alassio, Italy, and our first taste of the Italian Riviera. We stay 2 nights at Albergo Meuble Fiorenza e Banksia (http://www.alassiobedandbreakfast.it/).The rate includes a nice breakfast and the staff is very helpful. Alassio is an easy town to walk about with few American tourists. It boasts a beautiful sandy beach of pure quartz . Back to the train station, we continue on to Pisa. Each trip has to have a little something unexpected. We arrive to find the B&B had given away our room, not a pleasant thought at 6PM on a Sunday evening. Hours spent in trip preparation on the internet paid off, as a small kernel of human memory leads us to the Hotel Minerva several blocks away with a room available. (http://www.pisaonline.it/hotelminerva/ ). Crisis passed, we console ourselves with wine and pizza at Ristorante Galileo. After a quick visit to the famous leaning tower the next morning and a stroll down the shopping street Corsa Italia, we are off to Siena, one of the best-preserved medieval cities in Italy. We enjoy a stay at the Albergo Bernini (http://www.albergobernini.com/). Siena, built on 3 hills, is not for the faint of leg. The rewards of this beautiful town are worth the effort. Take time to savor the setting sun at one of the many cafes at Piazza del Campo and visit the famous Duomo. A fortuitous stop at a Siena pizzicheria for wine & pasta to go contributes greatly to the remainder of our trip. We inquire about the music playing when we enter. It is a CD (il pane, il vino e la visione) by Sergio Cammariere. We purchase one the next day and it never left the CD player in our car for the next two weeks. We purchased 3 more copies and brought them home as gifts.

September 26-October 2 We taxi to the Avis car rental office in Siena, and anxious to begin the Untours part of our trip, are off to our farm with some excellent emailed directions from Untour’s Andi Cancelliere. Our destination is La Canonica, beyond Torrineri toward San Giovanni d'Asso. Donella shows us to our apartment Diana after being treated to coffee and a snack. We unpack and do a load of laundry (6 Euros). Drying racks and clothes pins are available to hang wash outside your apartment. We explore the various TV stations available, all Italian of course. They have just as many infomercials as we do! Our welcoming basket in the apartment contains a bottle of house wine, fruit, bread, juice, milk, butter, eggs, lettuce, cheese, & meat with coffee, sugar, & salt staples. The escorted Untourists arrived later in the afternoon and all 6 apartments are filled.

The Vannetti family cooks dinner for all who want to come (20 Euros per person). It is a delicious multi-course Tuscan meal complete with wine and vin santo produced on the farm. They employ a young woman from Peru (Yngrid) who is fluent in English and the dinner is also attended by a retired professor (Claudia), native German, living in the vicinity. She acts as interpreter as each course is served so we understand what we are eating. The head of the family, Orfeo, is in the hospital. It is a wonderful way to start the Tuscan holiday. Wine, olive oil, honey, and jams are for sale at the farm store.
We awake the next morning to find a copy of the orientation folder at our door with instructions on how to get to the meeting at Fattoria Pieve a Salti outside Buonconvento. The Untours representative, Harriet Gussoni, gives an excellent presentation with extensive handouts. She is assisted by Sarah, British by birth, and current resident of Murlo. All questions being answered, we proceed to the main building for dutch treat lunch (18 Euros each). It is a good chance to meet someone from another farm and we have a delightful conversation with a couple from Iowa. Experiencing the first rain of our trip, we opt to return to our apartment to look over handouts.
Friday dawns cloudy and cool. We walk around the grounds and the many views are like a portrait coming to life. The various contrasting hues of the landscape are extraordinary. Highlight of the day is being asked to join the group of 8 from Wilmington, NC, for dinner at Mario’s in Buonconvento. It is a most entertaining evening as we sample a variety of foods and share many laughs and more than a little of the vino della casa. One couple got the Bistecca a la Fiorentina which must have been 3 inches thick. Even we Texans have to say that was one big steak! Saturday we go back to Buonconvento (http://www.abctuscany.com/siena/buonconvento/index.cfm) for the market. It is an extended affair due to weekend festival. We take a Sunday drive on the roads to Montepulciano (http://www.montepulciano.net/) and Pienza ( http://www.pienza.com/). Both destinations are well known on the tourist map and parking is at a premium. One must be grateful not to suffer car sickness when driving the roads of this region. Orfeo has come home from the hospital and grape harvest is underway at La Canonica, reminding us we are on a working farm. Monday we are off to explore nearby Montalcino (http://www.ilpalio.org/brief_montalcino.htm). Parking in the lower gravel lot with self pay meter, we hike up to town & stop at the Tourist Info office for a detailed map. Hint: restrooms are by the fortress. . Internet access is available at via Mazzini, 30 (2 Euros for 15 min). Exiting Montalcino by the back road, we visit the Abbey of Sant’Antimo near Castelnuovo dell'Abate. This historic abbey is one of the most outstanding examples of Romanesque monastic architecture in Italy.

Memories of reading Bella Tuscany just prior to our trip send us off to visit Cortona on Tuesday. It turns into quite an outing as we get “lost” and take a meandering route finally arriving near 2PM. Glad to find escalators up from the parking lot, we locate a restaurant and sit outside hearing more British, Aussie, & German accents than Italian. We returned home via Castiglione del Largo and a stop at the larger COOP there for food supplies.

October 3-9 Our second week begins with the Untours mid-stay activity, a guided tour of the Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore followed by a very nice lunch at Ristorante La Torre di Monte Oliveto. (http://www.monte-oliveto.com/ ) The tour is most informative & the Abbey gift shop has a varied selection of souvenirs. The lunch is delicious and once again we have the opportunity to visit with other Untourists. Meeting new people is always a highlight of our travels. Well done Harriet!

Thursday we are off early to return to the Abbey at Sant’Antimo to attend the Gregorian chant mass. After lunch at home, we wander the streets of Buonconvento frequenting the green grocer & other shops.
Friday is devoted to Murlo, the heart of the great Etruscan high culture that dominated central Italy from the 8th to about the 1st C BC. The former Sienese bishop’s palace in Murlo is now a small, ultra-modern museum displaying the finds from Poggio Civitate, the name given a nearby hill with an excavated Etruscan villa. DO NOT MISS THIS! http://www.murlo.info/

We continue the day driving west joining the road from Siena to Grosetto, south to Civitella Paganico before turning back east. The route reveals drastic changes in scenery with forested hillsides and deep gorges. We drive toward Monte Amiata and return to Montalcino and home. Arrangements have been made for this night of October 5, to dine together again hosted by our farm family, the Vannetti’s. Once again we enjoy a delicious meal “prepared from the heart” as Serenella says. Orfeo plays his accordion and dancing ensues. The evening is all of what we came to Tuscany to experience!
Saturday, we stay close to home and enjoy a splurge bottle of Brunello di Montalcino (a “young” one is all we can afford) and pasta ala Becky. Sunday, we take a trial run to Chiusi to locate the Avis office for returning the car on Wednesday. The directions faxed to us by Harriet are right on the mark. We are Untourists and this is our UnMichelin day trying to find the grey roads less frequented by tour buses. This evening we join Yngrid & Claudia for dinner at a small restaurant in Chiusure http://www.ilpozzodichiusure.it/Osteria%20inglese.htm Monday we say goodbye to the “Wilmington 8” who are off to Florence. We head north of Siena to explore the Chianti region. It is a beautiful day and we enjoy lunch at Greve in Chianti in the triangular Piazza Matteotti lined with porticoes. This principal town in the region is named for the river which runs through it. http://www.greve-in-chianti.com/
On Tuesday we say goodbye to the other two couples (from TN & MI) at La Canonica. We are the last.
We venture no further than the COOP in Torrineri, repack our bags, and clean the apartment. We drop by the office to give Diana a small gift we brought from TX to thank her for the wonderful hospitality. No English is needed as her smile imparts everything..We stroll at sunset as we try to imprint the view in our memory. Where did two weeks go??

October 10-12 Determined to spend every possible minute at La Canonica, we walk out the door at 8AM. We say our last goodbyes and head to Chiusi. The nice gentleman at the Avis office drives us to the train station. While waiting for the train to Rome we met fellow TX Untourists we did not get a chance to talk to during our stay. We all agree it was a wonderful vacation.
We arrive at Roma Termini and purchase tickets for Leonardo Express train to airport the next morning. A 15 min walk brings us to Hotel Montreal (http://www.hotelmontrealrome.com/ ). It is beginning to rain but we are off by city bus to explore region around the Spanish Steps. We shop in the underground at the train station and enjoy our last meal in Italy at Le 2 Colonne near the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. Thursday morning the rain has cleared and we are off to the airport.
Milking every frequent flyer mile possible out of this trip, we await our Aer Lingus flight (partner of AA) to Dublin. Spending the night at an airport hotel, we bus to town & enjoy fish and chips with a pint of Guinness at a Dublin pub. Friday, Oct 12, finds us back at the Dublin airport, off to Chicago, and safely deposited back in TX by nightfall.
We have readjusted to Central time zone and settled back into our daily routine. Our money bank has shrunk but our memory bank is overflowing. Now I am waiting to see if any “failure to control speed” tickets show up on my credit card statement…or perhaps Italians do not issue tickets for going too slow!

Note: Will is legally blind which influences some of our choices of activities. This was my most challenging experience to be driver, navigator, and sightseer! We recommend taking advantage of the Pecorino cheese tour & hike to the Etruscan ruins if offered.

General Observations and Recommendations:
-Pack light -I know everyone “says it”, but do it.
-Learn a few basic words & phrases in Italian (http://www.bbc.co.uk/languages/italian/) Look for the handy laminated foldout called Italian A Language Map
-I do not have GPS but do take a basic car compass. Getting “lost” is part of the fun. In Tuscany, all roads wind, all roads have breathtaking views, all roads have drivers able to sense they can pass no matter how close to the next curve, and all roads lead to interesting destinations.
-The Michelin map provided corresponds to the Guide, but I recommend the Rough Guide Tuscany 1:200,000 for ease of reading. I purchased mine at bookshop in Siena.
-Look for elevators at train stations to change track locations if stairs are a problem or you have heavy luggage
-Two weeks is not too long at one place, it is just a nice beginning
-Untours staff are the best!

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