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The Val d'Orcia is a stunningly beautiful, UNESCO-protected portion of Tuscany, where rolling countryside is carpeted in extinct volcanoes, vineyards, olive groves, cypress trees, pastoral fields and postcard-pretty towns and hamlets.
The scenery is bliss, both through the panoramic windows of our comfy tour coach and from the numerous viewpoints we're treated to on our Collette adventure.
Pienza, a quaint Renaissance town that was a summer residence for Pope Pio II, acts as our springboard for savouring the region's treasures and while the Pienza sunset will stay long in the memory, I'll also fondly remember our days venturing through this sublime countryside.
We break for a cappuccino at Bagno Vignoni, a tiny village whose central piazza is flooded with thermal water. Also flowing abundantly in the sun-kissed Val d'Orcia are fabulous wines, including Brunello, one of Tuscany's top reds. We sample that - and other smooth local tipples - during a cellar visit and lunch at a 400-year-old winery near Montalcino.
Fans of pecorino (a hard Italian cheese made from sheep's milk) are in their element at Fattoria Pianporcino, a farm run by the charming Guiseppe. As his flock roam the meadows above, Guiseppe talks us through his pecorino production, revealing a chamber packed with cheese wheels, many infused and matured with intriguing tinges, such as black pepper, chilli, walnut leaves, hay, herbs and flowers.
Perhaps the most famous vineyards in Italy are those of the Chianti region. We drive through on the way to our second Tuscan base: a restored 15th-century villa handily located for day trips to Florence, Siena and San Gimignano.
This legendary trio captivate with their majestic palazzi, gilded churches and winding cobblestone lanes lined with al fresco cafes, trattorias and hole-in-the-wall boutiques selling everything from leather gifts to gelato.
Adding to our enjoyment, knowledgeable local guides lead us on stirring strolls, sharing tales and insider tips and revealing nooks and crannies we'd otherwise miss.
What I love about this 10-day tour is that it showcases not just Tuscany, but its lesser-visited, yet equally scenic neighbour, Umbria, too. We journey to the ancient Umbrian hilltop towns, including Trevi, Orvieto and Assisi, where we marvel at the extraordinary frescoes in the cathedral built in honour of local hero St Francis.
Adding to Umbria's pleasures is the tasty food and drink served by engaging local characters. We call in at a 300-year-old olive oil farm helmed by the charismatic Carlo, who tells us all about the craft he learned from his father and grandfather, whose black-and-white photographs adorn the stone walls of the rustic pressing mill.
This whets the appetite for an included cookery demonstration at another uplifting countryside setting: a converted 12th-century abbey, in the peaceful, bucolic Nera Valley, where chef Diego teaches us the art of hand-made pasta and tiramisu.
Another day we stop for lunch at the family home of Luciana, tucked away in the hills outside the Umbrian capital Perugia. Aided by her sons, Luciana provides quite the feast, including veal ragu - "we made it yesterday so it has time to take all the flavour" - and melt-in-the-mouth pork tenderloin with carrot and onion sauce.
After dessert - zuppa inglese, an Italian twist on trifle, translated to mean "English soup" - we bid "mille grazie" (thanks very much) and arrivederci (goodbye) to our hosts, and on we venture, back out into this gloriously unspoiled slice of Italy.
Collette's 10-day Tuscan & Umbrian Countryside departs Rome with available dates to May 2025, priced from $3,599 (based on 17 March 2024 departure). See gocollette.com