Quenching that Italian desire

I hope you can help my neighbour and me. We are having a love affair with Italy. We were there last year and want to visit again next year. We went on a bus tour to see what parts we liked best. We loved Umbria and Tuscany especially. This is the area where we want to stay next time. Our problem is in finding the right type of accommodation. What we want is to spend three to four weeks staying in one or two small villages and have some involvement with the local community. We would love to do cooking classes as well. We want to meet other people, so an apartment is not the answer.

We also want to be able to walk to the local markets, cafes and so on, so a farm-stay is not ideal. We like a little bit of comfort, so do not want to stay with a family.

- M. Atkyns, Bundanoon

Sounds like a fun recipe but the "small villages" item on your wish-list troubles me.

Small villages might have great character but chances are you won't find bustling markets nor a wide choice of dining options and certainly not cooking classes. Unless you are prepared to insert yourself behind the wheel and experience chaos, anarchy and terror on Italian roads, an albergo (small hotel) in a provincial city might be a better bet.

In Umbria, the cities of Perugia, Spoleto, Gubbio, Bevagna and Todi are all likely candidates. In Tuscany, try Montepulciano, gorgeous Arezzo, Siena and Lucca.

Look for accommodation on the websites of Bella Umbria (bellaumbria.net) and Tuscany (tuscany.net).