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March 22, 2004 -- Tuscany, Umbria, Rome -- the names of romantic places in Italy roll easily off the lips, as do the vowels of the language itself, evoking images of soft, rolling countryside and suntanned piazzas. Who wouldn't want to be in Italy, now that spring is there? And so we have a few samplers for you, ranging from the fantastically low-priced to the reasonably moderate.

Lowest-cost honors go to TourCrafters, the specialist in Italian tours based in Illinois with additional offices in Rome. They have a four-night package to Umbria costing just $599 in March and $829 in April, May and June with the last departure on June 10, 2004. The deal includes roundtrip airfare from New York to Rome, lodging in the four-star Relais dell'Olmo just outside Perugia, a rental car for four days, daily buffet breakfast and hotel service charges and taxes. A five-night package with the same accommodations and the car for five days costs $689 in March and $929 for the next three months. Add-on flights from Boston cost just $10, from Philadelphia or Washington, D.C.; $25 and from Chicago or Miami $120. The Relais boasts gardens and a pool, a restaurant, fitness center and 32 elegantly-furnished rooms (each with air conditioning, satellite TV, minibars, safes, internet connections, and more). It's just a mile from an 18-hole golf course, and a few minutes from the center of Perugia, as well as being not far from Assisi, Spoleto and Orvieto. Contact TourCrafters at 800/621-2259 or online at www.tourcrafters.com.

Untours, another of our favorite operators, will put you into a fully-furnished vacation rental apartment or farm house in southern Tuscany for two full weeks at a cost of just $2,249, including roundtrip air from New York or Boston, with either car rental or a rail pass for two weeks and on-site local English-speaking support. There are two dates -- April 21 and May 5, 2004. (Ground-only prices are available on request.) I experienced one of Untours' vacations in Switzerland, where I enjoyed living over a butcher shop (the owners also lived in the same building) and partaking of the experience of living like almost like a local.

Untours also has departures on the same day with stays in Alsace ($1,749), Provence ($1,919), Sintra in Portugal ($1,839), Switzerland (Ticino or the Heartland, $1,699), and Spain ($2,179), as well as a May-only trip to Salzburg ($1,769). Contact them at www.untours.com or phone 888/868-6871.

Gate 1 Travel keeps coming up with new packages, now offering five different journeys to Italy for this spring. The least expensive begins at $1,199 for a six-day/five-night escorted package to Amalfi and Rome. You stay in Sorrento for two nights and Rome for three, with a day trip to Pompeii, and visits within Rome to the Vatican Museum, Sistine Chapel, St. Peter's Square and Ancient Rome. Dinner with opera singers and a tour of illuminated Rome take up one evening, and there are optional excursions such as a full day tour from Sorrento to Capri ($64) or a walking tour of Rome's piazzas and fountains ($36). Included in the package price are roundtrip air from New York to Naples (the return is from Rome), your hotels, daily breakfast, two dinners with wine, and sightseeing. Departures from April 25, 2004.

The four other Gate 1 air and hotel packages include:

  • 7-day "Venice and Rome by Rail" from $1,259
  • 8-day Tuscany & Rome escorted tour from $1,239
  • 8-day Rome with "Pompeii & Florence" from $1,349
  • 9-day "Taste of Italy" with a seven-day cruise along the Po Valley from $2,329

A new feature on their escorted and guided tours is "Whisper Technology," a special head set for use in museums and other sites, which allows you to hear the guides' commentary from as far away as 1,500 feet. Contact them at www.gate1travel.com or by phoning 800/682-3333.

Note that for all the above packages, airport and security taxes and fees are not included. Prices are per person, double occupancy. Some restrictions may apply.