Reviewed by Thomas Terry (June 2013)
Visiting Tuscany with Russ & Elke as our guides and companions was a thoroughly delightful travel adventure that I would recommend to anyone. Here are some of my favorite memories of our trip:
- I love traveling with a small groups, have taken several excursions with groups of no more than 16. Our group size on this trip (5 travelers and our 2 guides) was even better - it quickly felt like being on a family holiday. We could all fit comfortably in one van. We could all fit comfortably at one dining table, in our rented villa or at restaurants. We enjoyed each others company and developed a very comfortable rapport.
- I loved the experience of unpacking just once, staying in one central location and taking day trips, so much easier than packing and moving frequently! The villa we stayed in had lots of room, so we could seek out an isolated chair if we wanted to read alone for an hour, or sit together around a fire on a cool and rainy evening.
- Russ did all the driving, with masterful competence and nerves of steel (this is Italy!) Considering all the windy, curvy, hilly roads there are in Tuscany, it was a great relief to know that we could just relax and not have to worry. Between GPS and maps, Russ and Elke got us there.
- Russ and Elke know Tuscany well, and they put together a varied and well paced selection of daily activities for us. Some days we would visit one or more famous city or town, such as Florence, Sienna, San Gimignano; other days they would take us to some special places they had found in their travels, such as a favorite winery tour & tasting, a cheese farm that served lunch with produce from the farm, a fabulous hilltop restaurant with an extraordinary view. We visited an extraordinary animated butcher’s shop in Panzano, where you are handed a glass of wine and bruschetta as you walk in the door, then went upstairs to the butchery’s outdoor tables for lunch.
- For our Florence visits, we took a 30-minute train ride, allowing quick entry into the heart of the city with no traffic or parking issues. Russ & Elke had pre-purchased reservations for the Academia Gallery and the Uffizi Gallery on our two respective days in town, so we bypassed the long lines. Russ & Elke would give us a map, walk with us to the gallery, get us our tickets, and then we’d agree on a place and time to meet late in the day, so we could explore on our own. On our last day in Florence, one of our group members wanted to go shopping for a bracelet in the Ponte Vecchio area, and the rest of us wanted to find the area where leather shops and stalls were located. We had limited time by this point, so Elke guided the jewelry excursion and Russ took the leather shoppers to an incredible leather mecca.
- Russ and Elke are both connoisseurs of good food and wine, one of Tuscany’s great attractions, and they did their best to educate our palates to this cuisine, with restaurants where they had prearranged some wonderful feasts, in the occasional meals they cooked for us at our villa, and in one amazing restaurant in Sienna set in an Etruscan cellar where we were “on our own” (i.e., we paid for our own food), and where all discovered the glories of truffles. We drank many wonderful wines from the Chianti classico region.
- Thinking back over the trip, I’m so pleased that I had this chance to explore and appreciate Tuscany so thoroughly. I went to places such as Lucca, Greve in Chianti, Pienza, and Montepulciano, and others that I’d never heard of but now appreciate. I know what a “Tuscan hill town” looks like. I saw some great art, great churches and buildings. I took over 800 photos. I ate some truly extraordinary meals and sampled many fine wines. I made some good friends. Our pace was relaxed, our lodgings very comfortable, and our sleep undisturbed. Russ and Elke organized this adventure carefully and thoroughly, and when the occasional glitch developed, they dealt with it quickly and smoothly. Thanks for a wonderful adventure, well worth the expense!