Firm scoots clients around Tuscany

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RADDA IN CHIANTI, Italy -- Heads turned and jaws dropped when we zoomed by.

And what a sight we were, as we caressed the curved backroads of Tuscany's countryside, 16 of us on identical, fire-engine-red Vespa motorinos, or scooters, all wearing matching helmets.

We came here to sightsee -- but ended up drawing a lot of attention ourselves -- as part of Italy by Vespa's seven-night tour through Chianti, which passed massive vineyards, olive groves and villas.

Our mornings and afternoons were spent at castles, wineries and sheep farms; in charming medieval towns such as Siena and San Gimignano; and attending Tuscan-style cooking lessons.

But getting there was more than half of the fun: We covered about 300 miles in seven days at speeds of up to 36 mph. The excursions varied in length, the longest being 62 miles roundtrip.

I don't mind admitting that I chickened out when it came to driving; I opted to ride on the back of a scooter with our tour guide.

I was glad I did. The experience of riding, rather than operating a scooter for the first time, enabled me to relax and enjoy the scenery. Participants have the choice of going solo, with a partner or with a guide.

We spent our nights at the Palazzo Leopoldo, a restored, 18th century, four-star hotel that merits its own trip.

After breakfast each morning, we straddled our scooters for the day's journey. One outing was to the cooking school of Sonia Zacchei, who taught us how to prepare pomodoro bruschetta, chickpea soup with croutons, cauliflower molds and bow-tie pasta. If you didn't cook, you didn't eat.

Afterward, we rode to Felsina, an 800-year-old winery, for a tasting.

The next day, we traveled for 90 minutes to Siena, where we had a guided tour to one of its 17 contrada museums, which are seldom open to the public, and a police escort to the duomo, or cathedral.

Stan and Patsy Gallery founded Colorado-based Italy by Vespa two years ago, and the company offers six trips each in the spring and fall. Timing-wise, it hasn't had the best luck, with two complete seasons canceled, first due to 9/11 and then to the Iraq war.

Despite terrorism fears and the sluggish U.S. economy, three tours took place this fall and two full seasons are scheduled for 2004: May 2 to June 13 and Aug. 29 to Oct. 10.

Groups are limited to 16 participants, and clients should know how to ride -- if they're proficient on bicycles, scooters shouldn't pose any problems.

The tour has attracted all ages, according to the Gallerys. One couple even brought their 7-year-old son, who rode with his father.

Packages cost between $3,895 and $4,945 per person, double, land only. Single supplements are available. Italy by Vespa pays 10% commission to travel agents and can customize tours for groups of 15 or more.

For more information, contact Steen Lundberg at (866) 297-7725 or [email protected], or visit www.italybyvespa.com.

To contact the reporter who wrote this story, send e-mail to [email protected] .

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