BASKING RIDGE, N.J. -- A new player among small operators selling specialty travel to Italy is Tuscan Countryside Tours here.

The company focuses on the province of its name, home of lush villas, rambling vineyards and lots of tourists.

Image Tuscan Countryside Tours owner and founder Deborah Cortigiani said her company offers something a little different from the usual programs in the region. "This is the only tour program we have been able to find that is off the beaten path but you don't have to ride your bike to get to it," Cortigiani said. "We go to places that would be difficult to get to without being fluent in the language and having intimate knowledge of the surroundings," she said.

The company, which plans to operate scheduled tours and customized FITs, will offer its first trip in June. "We did a dry run this summer to see what works and what doesn't," Cortigiani said, adding that she and her husband and cofounder, Marco, will accompany the first tour.

"Once we get going, we will do several tours a year as well as individual itineraries," she said. "We have very good contacts and can do just about anything anybody wants."

It was through these contacts that Cortigiani secured accommodations at the Salvadonica in Chianti for the June departure. A 15th century farmhouse, Salvadonica is located in the hills 12 miles from Florence.

Rooms, which Cortigiani described as "comfortable and clean," feature private baths and views of the countryside. The property also has a swimming pool, tennis courts and extensive grounds, with horseback riding available nearby.

"The property is a nice respite from Florence," she said. Unlike many tours designed by Americans, Cortigiani said, her programs more closely approximate the Italian schedule.

Sightseeing is arranged for the cooler morning hours, and guests are offered transportation back to the farmhouse for the afternoon to cool off. Participants who choose to continue sightseeing will have that option, she said.

The eight-night program uses Salvadonica as a base, from which the group will visit museums, take walking tours and visit wineries and local markets.

Destinations for sightseeing include Florence, Fiesole, San Gimignano, Vinci, Mercatale, Siena and Greve. "At Salvadonica, they include wonderful full breakfasts as well as sandwiches at an additional cost," she said.

Dinners are arranged at a 13th century palace, once the home of the philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli; at a restaurant overlooking Florence, and at small inns.

A trip centered on local wines is on the drawing board for October, Cortigiani said. The June departure will coincide with the festival of San Giovanni, which participants can opt to visit.

Since Salvadonica is very small, she said, she may substitute larger accommodations for future tours as needed. Groups will be limited to 15 guests per departure.

Transportation will be in an air-conditioned small bus or large van, Cortigiani said. The company also can obtain tickets to exhibitions at the Uffizi Gallery ahead of time, she said.

Although the company is new, Cortigiani said, her background of having lived in Italy and led tours with her Florentine husband gave the company an insider's view of the area.

Packages are commissionable at 10%.

Tuscan Countryside Tours
Phone: (908) 696 0975
Fax: (908) 696-0975
E-mail: [email protected]

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