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Thursday, June 3, 2004 05:40 pm

An untour alternative

“La Pergola,” one of four apartments on the Poggiarellino
Photo by Richard Brumleve

If you have ever taken a tour -- to visit the Old State Capitol, to see and smell the ethnic neighborhoods of Chicago or San Francisco, to pay homage to the sights of New York or London or Paris -- you know that it can be a wonderfully trying and totally tiring experience.

Six years ago, my wife and I toured four major cities in Europe in 14 days. We raced through London, Paris, Rome, and Athens. Along the way we saw Stonehenge, Versailles, the Isle of Capri, Pompeii, and the Parthenon. We toured on planes, trains, and ferryboats. But most of our trip was spent on buses, the over-the-road version and the big-city kind. We checked in and out of more hotel rooms in those 14 days than I care ever to repeat. If you have ever had such an experience, you will understand the torture of having to be on that bus at 9 a.m. each day. Of praying for a pit stop. Of having to endure another obligatory visit to this parfumerie or that purveyor of fine linens or clocks or chess sets that the tour guide and the bus driver just happen to know about. Perhaps worst of all is having to eat in another of those "quaint" restaurants whose staff is just dying to serve the delicacy of the region. Sure, it was, on the whole, a great experience, but there had to be a better way to travel.

This past fall, my wife, Linda, and I experienced that better way. Our return to Europe wasn't a tour, though; it was an untour. More specifically, we enjoyed an Idyll Untour.

For the past 28 years, Idyll Untours has been providing just enough support and guidance to allow folks like us to see Europe from a perspective other than the eyes of a tour guide and bus driver. Launched by Hal Tausig in Media, Pa., Idyll Untours today offers two- and four-week stays at 22 different locales in nine European countries and Vietnam. The company offers opportunities for travelers to stay in cities or in the countryside. These are near-all-inclusive trips. For a fixed price, you get round-trip airfare, transfers, a rented apartment, and on-the-ground transportation. Depending on your destination, you get a rental car or passes for trains, buses, and boats. Throughout the planning stage, you get expert and friendly advice on everything from weather to what clothes to pack.

Untours provides excellent written materials, both before your departure and after you arrive. In addition, Untour staffers are close by your apartment for advice or help should you request it. Otherwise, you are free as a bird to travel where and when and for as long as you choose.

I learned about Idyll Untours from a magazine advertisement. I mailed a form and soon received a more detailed booklet describing the various Untour destinations. The Idyll people directed me to their Web site, www.untours.com. There I found specific information about the program, including dates, prices, and availability. I was hooked. I spent many an hour planning our trip. Using the Web site's Trip Log and IdyllChat features, I wet my whistle on the published diaries of previous Untourists, asked many detailed questions, and received very helpful responses from folks who had been there and done that. For example, when our departure was just a week away, it became clear that the Cubs had a chance to move into postseason play. I asked for the advice of those who had been to the district in Italy where we were staying about where to find English-language newspapers and Internet access. Other Untourists told me exactly where the newspaper kiosk was located, with two ways to get there. I was assured that cybercafés were abundant -- that central Italy was wired. With plane tickets, an Avis voucher, and a supply of euros, Linda and I set off on Sept. 23 for our Tuscany South Untour.

Flying is no pleasure for me, but our flight from Chicago to Munich and then to Florence on Lufthansa was certainly no more painful than any other. Once we had landed, though, the pleasure began. We were met by Harriet Gussoni, Untours' charming representative in Florence. Gussoni is a transplanted Mississippian who married an Italian and raised her family in Tuscany. She made sure that our luggage was efficiently retrieved and loaded onto a waiting bus. On our ride south to the walled city of Siena, Linda and I divided our time among getting our first glimpses of the hilly countryside, scanning the introductory packet Gussoni had prepared for us, and becoming acquainted with our fellow Untourists.

In Siena, we signed our contract with Avis and got our first look at our wheels for the next two weeks. We had drawn an Opal Corsa, a four-cylinder four-door with a hatchback. Once in the car, we discovered a wonder: The odometer read just six kilometers. We were driving a brand-new car!

Once we were all loaded, our landlady, Anna Ginotti, and her husband, Ludovico, led us convoy-style another 40 kilometers south to Poggiarellino, their farm, which is located between the small towns of Buonconvento and Montalcino. The Ginottis grow olives and the sangiovese grapes from which they produce the world-famous Brunello di Montalcino. Anna maintains four apartments at Poggiarellino. Idyll Untours contracts with her for these from April through October each year. Anna showed us to our apartment, La Pergola. True to the name, our front door was shaded by a pergola on which grew several grape plants. These shaded our terrace and its table and chairs. The apartment itself was charming: a fully functioning kitchen with a dining area, living room, full bath, and tiled and dome-ceilinged bedroom. Anna, being the perfect hostess as well as landlady, had provided a welcoming present of fresh fruit, prosciutto, bread, and a bottle of very young ruby-red wine. She made sure that we understood how the appliances worked and assured us that she and Ludovico were available if we needed any assistance or had any questions.

So began our two weeks of "untouring" southern Tuscany. Over the next 14 days, we wined and we dined. We slept in when we felt like it. We drove when and where we chose. We visited all of the tourist destinations and so many more hill towns and villages that were not to be found on any map.

The Apennines are the spine of Italy. The western slopes of these mountains bump and run to the shores of the Tyrrenian Sea. In these hills and valleys are the historically and artistically famous cities of Florence, Siena, Peruggia, and Assisi. Many other smaller towns and villages seem to appear on the crest of every other hill. These towns and cities have been shaped by the Roman legions, Renaissance princes, and World War II. Nearly every town has an ancient wall or fortification that kept the bad guys out. The influence of the Etruscans, the popes, and the Medicis can be seen everywhere. What made our trip and our form of touring the jewel that it was? We could discover all these wonders at our own pace. We could drive and park and walk as we pleased. We didn't have to wait for anyone else. If we wanted to pop into a ceramics shop, trattoria, church, monastery, or museum, we could do it on our own schedule. And when we became tired (oh, those hill towns are set on some pretty steep slopes), we simply jumped in our little car and headed back to the farm and our cozy apartment. And if we didn't get enough of one place, we could always go back. That's what we did with Siena.

Before leaving for Tuscany, we had arranged (through IdyllChat) to take a cooking class with several other Untourists in Siena. On the appointed day, we met on Il Campo, the central plaza of Siena, and were escorted to the studio of our chef/hostess, Elizabetta. Under her guidance, we made tagliatelle with ragu, eggplant parmigiana, and cantucci (hard almond cookies). We then consumed our feast with bottles of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and a Chianti riserva. With a visit to Siena's Duomo, or cathedral, as a side trip, we were exhausted. But we hadn't had enough of Siena. So later in the week we drove the 45 minutes back to this glorious city to feast on more of its wonders. Because I had taught at Sacred Heart-Griffin for several years with the Dominican sisters and friars, I was particularly interested in visiting the Dominican shrines in Siena. And so we visited the home of St. Catherine of Siena and the mother church of San Domenico.

One of our best memories is of a communal meal we took with the villagers of Buonconvento during the Sagra della Valdarabia. Tuscans have a feast (sagra) for everything, it seems, so if you are lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time -- and not on a bus hurrying to your next stop -- you get to feast, too. The neighborhoods (quartieri) of this little town celebrate every year with a huge dinner served at trestle tables in the side streets of the village. Everyone comes -- and so did we. Imagine the Sacred Heart-Griffin mostaccioli dinner, if you've ever been, in five courses with two bottles of rosso on every table, served under the stars. That's only a hint as to what this feast was like.

For more information about Idyll Untours, see the Web site, www.untours.com, or call 888-868-6871.

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