1.”Tell us a little bit about your most recent Untour.”
We’re not typical Untourists because our last tour was our seventh consecutive visit to South Tuscany. Being in a familiar place, we didn’t feel compelled to visit every museum, inspect every basilica, and hike up the main street of every hill town listed in the guide books, but we did cover some ground because we enjoy motoring over the Tuscan hills and torturing the locals with our inclination to obey the speed limit. And we visited some places bypassed in past tours, a day trip to Orvieto with Italian friends being a standout in that regard.
Orvieto is a pretty town perched high on a flat-topped hill and dominated by the very handsome Duomo, a cathedral with a glittering mosaic façade and an interior lit by radiant stained glass windows, less cavernous than Santa Maria del Fiori in Florence and not as dark and cluttered as Santa Maria Assunta in Siena. It’s also notable for a chapel covered with spectacular frescoes by Lucca Signorelli.
The compulsion to spend every waking moment sightseeing has, for us, yielded to an appreciation of less active pleasures: sitting under the pergola outside our apartment with a good book; watching the grapes grow, or more accurately, watching our hard working hosts, Anna and Ludovico Ginotti, cultivate their 11,000 vines; and wrestling, over a late afternoon glass of the Ginotti’s house wine, with the difficult choice of where to have dinner. Driving up the hill to Montalcino and walking its steep streets affords good exercise and nearby Buonconvento offers convenient shopping and an ample variety of simple, but good, family owned restaurants.
Of the two towns Montalcino is the more picturesque and fashionable (and expensive) but we tend to regard the flat, more blue collar, Buonconvento as our ‘hood.’ Other Untours locations have beckoned in recent years, but we’ve ended up returning to Tuscany South because it suits us: a destination sufficiently foreign to make us feel we’ve been somewhere different (no Walmarts or Targets) but a welcoming place where we no longer face a steep learning curve, which at our age is a comfort. Also, we’ve mastered enough Italian to feel not completely oblivious to what’s going on around us, and taken the trouble to learn something of the region itself.
2. “What is your favorite Untours memory?”
It’s hard to choose, but a musical sendoff on our last night in Italy stands out. It wasn’t in southern Tuscany, but in Florence, where we spent a few days before catching a plane home. Some of the pleasures of an eveningstroll about that town are musical: the excellent jazz trio energetically jamming by the Piazza della Republica; the flute virtuoso trilling in front of the Uffizi; the Polish guitarist performing for a rapt audience on the Ponte Vecchio. That night, while crossing the Piazza della Signoria we were drawn to the Loggia by the sound of a small wind band, perched up next to Benvenuto Cellini’s “Perseus,” playing the “Brindisi” from the first act of “La Traviata.” They were, as it turned out, doing a sound check for a free concert performance of that opera scheduled to begin at 9:00 PM. The program did begin around 9:30, not the opera but long speeches about victims of a Mafia bombing on that site in 1993 which the concert was to commemorate. By the time the Fiesole Philharmonic and cast of singers were in place and the lady conductor gave the downbeat it was well after 10. The performers were of a high caliber, the acoustics were excellent, and our only regret was that we had to leave after the second act in order to get a few hours sleep before the next morning’s dash to the airport. The Piazza della Signoria is a grand, historic space on any occasion but Verdi on an evening in spring made it a truly magical place to be in.
3. “How is taking an Untour different from other ways of travelling?”
The basic elements, renting an apartment, booking a car rental, etc. can be easily enough accomplished on the internet these days, but you don’t really know what you’re getting into. Our experience has been that going on an Untour eliminates that element of, sometimes unpleasant, surprise. Information provided by the home office is excellent. The accommodations are not luxurious but pretty much match the level of comfort most of us are used to. Our hosts have enjoyed long-established relationships with Untours and combine with the Untours on-site rep to address your needs and make you feel welcome. And our fellow Untourists have proven to be generally congenial and often share our interests and expectations.
4. “If you could describe an Untour in just three words, what would they be?”
Affordable. Encompassing. Friendly.
Note: Thanks to Untours Cafe members Rose Weinheimer and Joseph Wood for use of their pictures.