We arranged our own air transportation to Florence and arrived early. Because our flight schedules didn’t quite coordinate, we had to hang around the airport in Florence for a bit and people watch, while we waited for the other people who would be sharing our Tuscany Untour. The other Untourists belonged to a family from California, a mother, father, daughter about 11 years old and both grandmothers. They were very nice and we enjoyed sharing Tuscany with them. Florence has a rather dreary airport and it is tiny for such a big city. When our Untours representative, Harriet, arrived, we asked her about it. She said that everything in Italy is influenced by politics. There are competing international airports in Milan and Rome, but, rather than consolidate, every place wants their own airport. After our companions arrived, off we all went on a bus to get our rental cars in Siena. We got a brand new Citroen and drove to Le Chiuse, an agriturismo in Tuscany. Le Chiuse is between the towns of Buonconvento and Montalcino. It’s a vineyard/olive farm up a dirt road. It’s beautiful. The nights are blissfully quiet and so dark we could see loads of stars. They even ironed the sheets. We had a little apartment attached to the main house. It is small, but more than adequate for us. We got to eat breakfast on our own patio with a view of the vineyards. There are 2 resident cats at Le Chiuse. One is a black and white calico who was especially friendly. So friendly, in fact, that on our second night, she clawed through the screen on our bedroom window and jumped in. We like cats, but didn’t want a visit, so we threw her back outside. The next day we called Harriet and she contacted the owner. He came on Saturday and fixed the hole in the screen with duct tape. Apparently, Italians find duct tape just as useful as we do! We didn’t get any more unexpected visits. That afternoon, I heard the owner talking to the cat. The only word I recognized was “gatto” (cat), said in a very emphatic tone of voice. I have a feeling the other words he was saying are not in the tourist guidebook. He didn’t seem too happy with our friend the calico cat.
Our Untours event was a lovely lunch at Ristorante La Torre on the grounds of Abbazia di Monte Oliveto Maggiore. We got to meet two other couples who were staying at another agritourismo. We all enjoyed a wonderful meal and a tour of the Abbey. This was an event that, to me, demonstrated the true value of Untours. We thoroughly enjoyed the food, the companionship and the wonderful frescos in the abbey. Our guide was a young art student who was knowledgeable and very entertaining. She knew all kinds of background stories about the artists who did the frescos, the circumstances during the time they were being painted, and the histories of the people and the place. We probably would not have discovered such a place on our own, but it was one of the highlights of the time spent in Tuscany.
We spent a wonderful week driving around Tuscany and visiting several lovely hill towns: Pienza, Montepulciano, Asciano and some others whose names I can’t remember. We drove through the Chianti Valley and spent a day in Siena. We had a GPS, which was nice. We only got lost once. That was because we told the GPS to take us home, but the GPS was programmed with a different home than ours! We should have checked that first. Even if we had been truly lost, Tuscany is a great place to wander.
We made a day trip to Florence. We parked our car above the city at Piazzale Michelangelo. The view of the city is spectacular and the parking is free. Fortunately, we’re in fairly good shape and didn’t mind the walk into Florence. We concentrated on the “Big Three” of the city: The Uffizi, the Accademia and the Duomo. We had made reservations for the Uffizi and the Accademia. We are glad we did, as we avoided a long wait in line for tickets. It was a very warm day when we visited and, like many public buildings in Italy, the Uffizi is not air conditioned. We enjoyed the visit, but would have enjoyed it more if it had not been so hot in the galleries. The Uffizi has so much to see that it can be overwhelming. The Botticellis are beautiful. There was a special exhibit of Caravaggio that was interesting, but also disturbing. Caravaggio painted some very graphic subject matter and seeing them in a hot gallery with red walls was an experience. We must admit that we succumbed to art overload after awhile. Before this trip, I didn’t even know who St. Sebastian was, but now I’ve seen numerous pictures of him being shot with arrows. The Accademia, where Michelangelo’s David is exhibited, was our favorite. David has his own special gallery, built just for him. He looks almost like he’s breathing. I’ve seen other “great” works of art that were a bit disappointing in person, but David was worth the trip. He’s really, really beautiful.
We had thought about taking a day trip to Rome, but the hustle and bustle of Florence convinced us otherwise. We enjoyed Tuscany so much that we decided not to leave. It was nice to come back to our lovely, quiet apartment every night. This is another way that Untours has just the right combination of freedom and support. We did not have to keep to any schedule but our own.
The food everywhere was great. We visited the Saturday market in Buonconvento and bought tomatoes and basil, cheese and bread. When we ate out, everything was good. In Buonconvento we had dinner at I Poggioli. I ordered caprese as an appetizer. The cook came out from the kitchen, picked basil from a pot on the patio, and served it as the garnish. That’s fresh! Another night we ate at Da Mario, a very local place. The food there wasn’t the best I’ve ever had, but the atmosphere more than made up for it. It felt like being in an Italian movie. The whole neighborhood seemed to come and go. The mother did the cooking and she didn’t serve anything until she was good and ready. That night I had rabbit and asparagus. The rabbit was good, the asparagus somewhat overcooked, but the entertainment was great!
What can we say about the wine in Tuscany? Is there any bad wine? I don’t think so! We drank plenty every place we went. I know, now, why I hadn’t been to Italy before. I wasn’t ready for it. I had to evolve into a red wine drinker. Italian reds are smooth and delicious. We brought back 2 bottles. One has already been shared with friends. The other we are saving, but I don’t think we will have the willpower to keep it too long. We also brought back a bottle of olive oil made from olives grown on the farm where we stayed. I will ration that to make it last.
After a week in Tuscany we drove to Naples for the second half of our trip – The Amalfi Coast. We had to turn in the GPS before we left Tuscany, so Jim drove and I navigated the old fashioned way -- with a map. We were paranoid about missing the turn that would by-pass Rome. We followed the signs for Napoli and did OK. The only stop we made on the trip from Tuscany to Naples was in Orvieto to see the beautiful cathedral. Our trip to Naples, was otherwise uneventful until we had to find the Avis rental car office at the airport. That took 2 passes on the roundabout before we found the correct turn. Sergio, our driver, met us and took us to Amalfi. Untours does not encourage their guests to drive on the Amalfi Coast. They provide bus passes. That is a smart decision. The road on the Amalfi Coast is winding, narrow and terrifying! One side goes straight up a mountain, the other side is a cliff down to the sea. With a car, the driver would never see anything and the passenger would probably have a heart attack Buses are definitely the way to go. Italian drivers seem to take it in stride. They pass on curves and in tunnels, speeding when they can. Most people drive a tiny car and, if it has any age, there are dents somewhere. Parking is out of the question. I was glad to take the bus. I don’t know what the pay scale is for bus drivers in Italy, but surely the ones who drive the Amalfi coast road are at the top!
In Amalfi, we met our Untours representative, Rosa. She showed us to our apartment in Atrani, a little town next to Amalfi. The apartment is sunny and modern. It has a big terrace overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. We would have had a wonderful vacation if we did nothing but sit on the terrace and watch Italy pass by! The view is spectacular. The apartment is high enough from the street that the noise of nearly constant traffic is no problem. Most days there were yachts and sailboats anchored in the cove. Of course, we didn’t just sit on our lovely terrace. We made good use of our bus pass. We went to Ravello, Scala and Paestum. Rosa helped us arrange a trip to Pompeii with a tour company. We could have done it on our own using public transportation, but it was much more convenient to sign up for a tour. It was raining the day we visited Pompeii, but the trip was enjoyable, if a bit rushed. There wasn’t much time to wander around the ruins on our own. We also climbed to the top of Mount Vesuvius.
For us, the best part of the Amalfi Untour was the Walk of the Gods. Rosa connected us with a guide, Eduardo Palermo. We went on the hike with another couple, from Washington, DC. Eduardo picked us up on Sunday morning and drove us to the village of Agerola. We all had an espresso in the village coffee shop and set out on the Walk of the Gods trail. The scenery was spectacular. The trail follows the ridges of the mountains above the sea, beginning in Agerola and ending in Nocelle, a village above Positano. At every turn there is one stunning scene after another. Eduardo was a fun and very knowledgeable about the area. He had arranged for lunch half-way through the walk, at an abandoned farm house now used by hikers and campers. The lunch was, hands down, the best meal we had in Italy. It was prepared by a farmer named Salvatore and his family. They had grown most of the produce and even made the grilled sausages from their own pig! We had mozzarella with fresh tomatoes and olives, potatoes and onions fried in olive oil, smoked cheese and a dish made from hard bread, soaked in water and mixed with tomatoes, olive oil and herbs. For desert we had prosciutto with the sweetest melon I have ever eaten. Accompanying all this were pitchers of wine, made by Salvatore. We ended the meal with an aperitif made from the fennel that grows wild in the mountains above the Amalfi Coast. We finished the hike in Positano, just in time to watch Italy playing one of its World Cup games. We liked watching the Italians, watching the soccer match. The whole town was huddled around TVs in bars and cafes. Italy tied the game. They played again on the last day we were in Italy, but they lost. We’re glad we left before that happened. I’m sure it was a sad day.
We had a great time. Our Untours hostesses, Harriet and Rosa, made sure our trip was enjoyable and hassle-free. There were lots of other things we did and saw and ate, but it would take a long time to list them all. This was the second time I have taken an Untour, and I suspect it won’t be the last. Since we did not make it to Rome or Venice, we have two good reasons to come back!