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Italy without wine? There are plenty of other tastes to savor

A lot of things changed when my husband stopped drinking, including our choice of vacation destination.

Weekends in Napa became a thing of the past. Bordeaux was no longer enticing. And Italy's wine country fell off the radar — until last summer when we were planning for a few days of touring after a meeting in Venice.

We wanted a trip that would incorporate some form of exercise, and the walking tours through the Val d'Orcia in Tuscany seemed ambitious but not intimidating.

Only one variable remained: Could a visit to some of the region's most famous wine towns be successful without the wines? There was only one way to find out.

So my husband, an oenophile whose last drink was more than 10 years ago, and I, a casual drinker with a plebeian palate, set out on a self-guided weeklong trek last year in June that would take us to nearly a dozen towns and abbeys, including the wine centers of Montalcino and Montepulciano.

We found that by focusing on hiking, history and food, both of us enjoyed the week.

Except for some steep hills, the walking was relaxing; our most difficult day was about nine miles, with an elevation gain of about 1,800 feet. With photo breaks and the occasional wrong turn, we usually walked four to six hours a day, climbing the hill to town and arriving just as the tour buses with day trippers from Florence and Siena were leaving.

Our bags were always waiting in our room, having been transferred by the tour agency, which had handled all the logistics. After a shower and a rest, we'd have the afternoon to explore the town. Each had something wonderful and wine-free to offer: a walk atop an ancient rampart (Montalcino), Pope Pius II's family mansion-turned-museum (Pienza), a soak in a mineral springs (Bagno Vignoni) and souvenir shopping (Montepulciano).

The highlight by far was the annual Festival of Barbarossa in San Quirico d'Orcia, where locals in period dress reenacted 12th century flag and archery competitions.

Still, it was through tastings of olive oils, balsamic vinegars, Tuscan cheeses and various forms of cinghiale, or wild boar, that my husband experienced the greatest sense of involvement. Just as I enjoyed sampling some of the region's Brunellos, Rossos and grappas, he relished the sensorial experience of sampling a truffle-infused balsamic and comparing the pale, young pecorino to the crumbly, yellow, aged variety.

Although we were always on Bacchus' turf, it became an inside joke rather than an intrusion.

I knew the vacation was a success the night a waiter, unable to comprehend that I might be drinking alone, insisted on pouring my half bottle of Castello Banfi Brunello for two. With a smile, my husband quietly slid the glass across the table toward me. Then he picked up his fork, reached over and stole a truffle off my plate.

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In Tuscany, eating local is an experience to remember

Food in Tuscany is more than a meal. It's a marvel. A walking tour through the region lets you appreciate that as no other tourist can.

As we passed through the thick forest from the abbey at Castlenuovo dell'Abate to the hamlet of Rocca d'Orcia, for instance, we saw wild boar hoof prints in the soft dirt, along with scattered shotgun shells from the hunters who had pursued them.

When the restaurants here tout their fresh, local ingredients, they mean it.

That night, as we dined in the small La Cisterna nel Borgo restaurant, a vegetarian side dish delighted our taste buds. It featured white cannellini beans and faro mixed with rosemary, olive oil and cinnamon. Everything was local save the cinnamon, which the chef and his wife had brought back from a vacation in Zanzibar.

It was one of those dishes that is so good, you never want it to end.

Indeed, knowing we would be walking off the calories the next day, we finished our meal, ate our dessert, then sheepishly asked if we could please have another order.

The next day we walked out of Rocca d'Orcia and through groves of olive trees that were no doubt used to make the region's famous olive oils. We then passed a few wheat fields before visiting the ruins of a 300-year-old grain mill built into the travertine cliff below the ancient village of Bagno Vignoni.

We walked past a truffle reserve on our trip from the monastery of Monte Oliveto Maggiore to Buonconvento. Although the fungus sells for thousands of dollars per pound, the locals have found efficient ways to use it in pasta sauces, balsamic vinegars and more.

We especially enjoyed tasting the balsamics, which were also flavored with figs or made into glazes with hints of pomegranate, cherries or chili peppers.

Although they aren't local to Tuscany, the balsamic vinegars were often sold in wineries, perhaps because they too are made from grapes, albeit different varieties.

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60 wines by the glass? Wine from a hose? That's Tuscany

When it comes to wine, Tuscany knows how to treat tourists.

Consider the Bottega del Nobile restaurant in Montepulciano, which offers as many as 60 wines by the glass, or the ultramodern Cantina di Montalcino winery, where customers can fill jugs with house wine using gas-pump-like hoses.

The Cantina was one of several tasting opportunities we passed the day we walked from Buonconvento to Montalcino. Because one of us is a non-drinker, we hadn't planned to stop but headed to the famous Caparzo Winery to refill our water bottles in the midday heat.

We lingered in the air conditioning, eavesdropping on a trio from San Francisco as they recorded sampling notes, then tagging along on a brief estate tour.

Back in the winery's store, it seemed rude not to try a taste, and before I knew it, I had bought a half-case of its award-winning Brunello to be sent home. I later discovered that once I factored in shipping, I could have bought the wine for the same price in the United States.

The purchase out of my system, we found it easy to forgo other wineries as we walked each day past vineyards planted with rows of Sangiovese grapes, though we occasionally stopped to admire the blooming rose bushes that serve as a barometer for the grapes' health.

We sped through an exhibit (now over) on the history of wine at the Piccolomini Palace museum in Pienza, finding it interesting that wine in the area dates to the Etruscans in the 8th century B.C.

In Montepulciano, a town synonymous with wine, we escaped a downpour by popping into the Contucci cellar. The musty aroma from the aging casks was wonderful and the stacks of barrels impressive, but I sampled the Vino Nobile and didn't love it.

We popped into one wine store, not for the alcohol but to ogle the high-tech sampling system and gawk at the price tags on some of the wines costing thousands of dollars. We declined a tasting; my husband explained that he no longer drinks.

"I no longer drink either," the proprietor said earnestly. "No more than two or three glasses a night."

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Walking in Tuscany: On your own or with tour company help

Although we chose a self-guided walking tour through Tuscany, other travelers we met were hiking alone or on guided tours.

Those with an escort could still go at their own pace, assured they wouldn't make a wrong turn but still being treated to history and geography lessons.

The independent travelers had help finding their route: the distinctive red-and-white trail markers set up by the Italian Alpine Club. Also well marked with wooden signs were parts of the Via Francigena, an ancient pilgrim route that starts in Canterbury, England, and runs through France to Rome.

The handful of other travelers we met mostly came from Britain and the Continent, though we did meet a father-son duo from Kentucky.

Although we were self-guided, we didn't lack for attention. Our tour company booked our hotels and transfers and moved our luggage. It supplied printed turn-by-turn directions that included distances, elevation profiles and suggestions for where to have lunch and find bathrooms.

We were also given handouts with the history and sightseeing highlights for each town.

The company provided a cellphone for emergencies, which I came close to using the day the directions fell out of my pocket. We found them by retracing our steps, but after that, I photographed each day's instructions as a backup.

We never did need to call for help.

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If you go

THE BEST WAY TO FLORENCE, ITALY

From LAX, Alitalia, Air France, Lufthansa, KLM and Delta offer connecting service (change of planes) to Florence. Restricted round-trip fares from $1,145 to $1,661, including taxes and fees.

Those traveling deeper into Tuscany can take a 90-minute train or express bus from Florence to Siena. Bus information and schedules in English: www.sitabus.it/en. Train information in English: www.fsitaliane.it/homepage_en.html

Car travel from Florence to Siena takes about 45 minutes, while Rome to Siena is two hours. Traffic is limited inside many of the walled towns, so parking is problematic.

The best times to visit Tuscany are May, September and October, when there are fewer tourists and the weather is cooler for walking.

TELEPHONES

To call the numbers below from the U.S. dial 011 (the international dialing code), 39 (the country code for Italy) and the local number.

WHERE TO STAY

Our tour operator offered a choice of three levels of hotels, and we opted for the middle. Here's where we stayed:

Agriturismo Pieve a Salti, 53022 Buonconvento; 0577-807244, www.pieveasalti.it/english/index.html. This hotel is popular with families because it has a lovely swimming pool with a spectacular view. Our meal in the dining room was less impressive. Rates from $120 for two people.

Hotel Vecchia Oliviera, Porta Cerbaia, 1 Angolo Via Landi, Montalcino; 0577-846028, www.vecchiaoliviera.com. A quaint hotel built along the city walls; the terrace offers spectacular views. Doubles from $130.

Hotel Corsignano, 11 Via della Madonnina, Pienza; 0578-748501, www.hotelcorsignano.it/?lang=en. Located outside the walls of Pienza, this modern hotel is clean, quiet and comfortable. Rooms from $120 for two.

Palazzo del Capitano, 18 Via Poliziano, San Quirico d'Orcia; 0577-899028, www.palazzodelcapitano.com/en/index.html. An elegant hotel in a 15th century mansion, with a garden, spa, afternoon tea and huge breakfasts. Doubles from $185.

WHERE TO EAT

Most restaurants add a coperto, or cover charge, of a few dollars per person to the bill. It's not a bread fee and is distinct from any service charge.

Porcellum, 6 Plazza delle Sorgenti, Bagno Vignoni; 0577-887032, www.osteriaporcellum.it. A wonderful lunch option next to the historic pool where the Medicis took their cures. Cheese, meat, vegetables, fruit and wine. Lunch entrees about $15.

Re di Macchia, 21 Via Saloni, Montalcino; 0577-846116. Tuscan specialties and local wines served in a cozy restaurant. Friendly staff. Entrees about $10.

La Bottega del Nobile, 95 Via di Gracciano Nel Corso, Montepulciano; 0578-757016, www.vinonobile.eu. This former wine shop expanded into a restaurant, offering 60 wines by the glass, 300 by the bottle and passable food. It's more intimate at a table in the basement cave. Entrees $15-$20.

La Taverna del Pecorino, Commerciale Pasquetti; 1 Via Condotti, Pienza; 0578-749412, www.tavernadelpecorino.it. A cheese shop filled with tasty delights and a proprietor who encourages you to taste first. Perfect for picnic lunches. Prices vary.

La Cisterna nel Borgo, 37 Via Borgo Maestro, Rocca d'Orcia; 0577-887280, www.cisternanelborgo.com. The restaurant sits on the main plaza adjacent to a historic cistern in a town once visited by Joan of Arc. Entrees $10-$15.

TO LEARN MORE

Our trip was arranged by Girosole: Italian Walking Tours, 1745 Niagara St., Denver; (720) 989-9732 or (888) 889-9454, www.girosole.com

For more information, go to www.turismo.intoscana.it/site/en/

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