Private guide in Tuscany

My husband and I spent a week in Tuscany with our family group in June ’03. One feature of our stay was a guided tour of parts of the Chianti wine region not normally visited by tourists.

We used the services of an independent tour guide, Dario Castagna (phone 011-039-0337-706-958 or e-mail, who is based in Siena. I had read favorable comments about him in the “Travel Talk” forum of Fodor’s website. The tour he gave us was outstanding.

Born in Great Britain to Italian parents and having returned to Siena in his youth, Dario is now in his early forties. He spoke excellent English and kept up a constant informative narrative during our tour, covering Etruscan history, wine making, architectural restrictions on home building in Chianti, the Siena-Firenze rivalry and, most of all, the Siena palio.

Dario is heavly involved with his contrada, the Caterpillar, and was in the midst of preparations for the mid-July palio. Apparently, the palio is more than just a horse race; it is a series of festivities and processions involving all of the 17 contradas of Siena. Although the Caterpillar was not selected to race in the July event, they still participated in all of the activities.

A second palio is held in mid-August, and Dario later e-mailed us that not only was the Caterpillar selected to race, their horse won and celebrations would last until October!

Dario’s touring vehicle was a 6-passenger Fiat van (thankfully, air-conditioned), so we broke our family group of 11 into two groups for tours. Dario picked us up at our villa at 8:30 a.m. The itinerary was the same on both days. We visited the Cecci winery (a large operation capable of bottling 30,000 bottles per hour) and, in Chianti, Caparsa di Radda, a small, prize-winning organic winery (operated by a friend of Dario’s and with a capacity of only 30,000 bottles a year).

The latter had excellent wines. I purchased a bottle each of the ’97 and ’99 Chianti Riserva, which we drank on our last night at the villa, and both were outstanding. Unfortunately, the winery does not export to the U.S.

We also visited an extensive Etruscan tomb dating back to the seventh century B.C. and which Dario helped excavate; the Brolio castle, which is still occupied by the Ricasoli family, and two small Chianti hill towns, Vertine and Volpaia, which have changed little over the centuries.

Our tour finished with a multicourse Tuscan lunch at La Bottega di Volpaia, which Dario referred to as Mama Gina’s Osteria (Piazza della Torre, 2, La Volpaia, Radda in Chianti, Tuscany, Italy; phone/fax 0577 738-001) — closed Tuesday. We ate on an outside terrace shaded by maple trees and overlooking the Chianti hills and vineyards. The food was typical rustic Tuscan.

The courses included crostini (with aioli mayonnaise, garlic and tomatoes), chicken liver pate, spinach-and-ricotta ravioli, panzanella (a Tuscan bread dish), ribollita soup, veal involtini, stewed rabbit (cooked with wine, tomato, garlic, rosemary and whole juniper berries), a spinach side dish and tiramisu. The meal was included in our tour price, but the cost was €23.50 (near $27) per person.

Lunch took over two hours, and we all were completely sated at the end. We had our fill of good Chianti wine as well.

We returned to the villa around 5 p.m., and Dario stayed on for about an hour answering our questions about Tuscany, Italians’ reactions to the Iraq war, etc. It was a very pleasant ending to a great day.

We highly recommend this tour for anyone visiting Tuscany. Because our family group had to be split into two tours, Dario gave us a discounted price. The cost for the two day-long tours, including a hefty tip, was $800, and he took a personal check drawn on our U.S. bank.

Woodland Hills, CA