Welcome to our adventure in Castello di Gargonza!

The year 2020 will mark the nineteenth year that we have led these musical adventures around the world. Thanks to all of you who have pitched in your time, talents, and good cheer to help bring joy to our group, and to those good people from all over the world that we now call friends.

In May we will be masters of a beautifully preserved Renaissance village perched in the hills of Tuscany, twenty-five miles south of Florence. In the 1300’s Dante was exiled here and worked on The Divine Comedy.
The view of Florence from the Piazzale Michelangelo
We‘ll have special access to the Art of Florence with Justin Hess and Alicia Ponzio, two young and successful American artists who are graduates of the Florence Academy of Art.

Come and share the celebration as we join with the local people to share a week of banquets, merrymaking, music and camaraderie in one of the most beautiful places on the earth.

Please read on to view our detailed plans.

An Overview

Our 2020 trip will return us to our favorite place in the world, the hills of Tuscany and the Castle of Gargonza. Some of you will remember the Castello. We spent a wonderful week there in 2009, rehearsing scenes and creating the sets for the opera in Monte Carlo.

The owners of the castle, the Guicciardini family, have become good friends. They joined us as our guests when we performed our Opera in Monaco. They have taken a great interest in our upcoming tour and have introduced us to some of their favorite people and places in the surrounding Chianti countryside.
Garden area within the walls of Castello Gargonza
A typical room in the castle. About half of the rooms are suites with a living room, fireplace and kitchen.
Our goal for this trip will be to immerse ourselves in the community and lifestyle of Tuscany and the Art of Renaissance Florence. Our activities will be centered on the unique bond with the people to their land, art and culture. We find this in their pride in creating some of the world’s best wine and food, in the grace and solidity of their architecture, and in their generosity of spirit in sharing their treasures with their guests.
The exterior of the Teatro Signiorelli Built in 1854
The interior. We’ll have a public concert here on May 30
The enjoyment of music and art will be the common thread that ties our group together. And the climax of our adventure will be in the Teatro Signiorelli, the classic opera house in Cortona. We will invite local performers and local music lovers to join us in a public performance. We encourage anyone with a of love of singing to join the experience.

A Little Background on our Castle Home in the Hills of Tuscany

Sunrise from Gargonza
The Castello di Gargonza rests on foundations put down by the Etruscans. (around 800 B.C.) It was probably taken by the Romans around 300 B.C. as they consolidated their hold on the Italian peninsula. The peace of Roman times meant that there was no need for fortified castles, and for several hundred years Gargonza was the center of a grand farm, cultivating grapes, grains and olives. There are still the remains of Roman roads on the property. There has always been, and remains today, abundant game in the surrounding forests.

We can only speculate about the dark ages that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire, but by around 1100 A.D. the great families of Florence and Sienna had commenced their centuries long struggle for the control of Tuscany. This land was then, and is now, the central and most beautiful part of Italy. By 1200, new walls had been built at Gargonza, and by the 1300’s, when Dante took refuge here to avoid the lethal politics of Florence, Mass was being celebrated in the village church. This has continued uninterrupted for more than 700 years.
Looking very much as it did in the Renaissance, the Castello is now a forty-five-room village and conference center that is used every year by the National Geographic Society and Harvard University. We have taken the entire property for the week.

Count Roberto Guiciardini and his youngest son, Neri, have made the restoration of the castle their life’s work. We have become friends of the family, and they have promised to prepare a display of old paintings, photos and memorabilia of the castle for our visit. This is something that they have never done for another group. The Castle has a Bocce ball court, swimming pool, internet access, hair dryers and laundry service. They make their own wine and olive oil on the property and are very proud of the cuisine that is served by the chef and his staff.

The Art of Renaissance Florence

The sculpture gallery Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence (1382)
Our modern world was born in Italy during the fifteenth century. The works created by the artists and scientists of the Florentine Renaissance are the foundation of modern society and culture. To help guide us through some of the masterpieces of Florence, we have engaged two graduates of the Florence Academy of Art, a prestigious institution that instructs students in the styles and techniques of the old masters.
Alicia Ponzio was for several years the Academy’s director of artistic anatomy and sculpture. Both Justin and Alicia have lived for several years in Florence and are uniquely qualified to open doors to special places and to lead us to a deeper understanding of the art of Florence.
Alicia Ponzio in her studio
Four portrait busts
Justin Hess, a painter, has exhibited in Italy, London, Monaco, Norway and the United States. His work can be found in private collections around the world.
Justin Hess Still Life with Grapes and Pitcher.
Justin Hess Self Portrait

Day to Day

We will be a large group, but touring is best done with a small group. Therefore we will divide the large group into four smaller units of about 20, each with their own guide and transportation.


Each group will spend two full days in Florence. Justin and Alicia will set the itineraries. We will have a couple of special surprises, but for now we can tell you that one day will be spent in the Old Town on the North side of the Arno river where we find the Town Hall (1299) with Michelangelo’s David, the Cathedral with Brunelleschi’s dome (1436), the Uffizi Galleries, and the sculptures of the Loggia dei Lanzi. Our second day will be on the south side where the Medici built the famous Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens. We will have very special lunch venues for both days.
The Dome of Brunelleschi (1436)
Michelangelo’s David, The pigeon’s friend since 1504
Pitti Palace and the Boboli Gardens


Another day will be spent in Chiusi with the Etruscans, the mysterious civilization that predated the Romans. The little museum in this ancient hill-town is one of our favorite museums in the world. It was opened in 1871 as a private museum to display the artifacts collected by the local people. To this day it has the charm of a collection assembled by amateur collectors, farmers who found magnificent treasures while cultivating their fields. We will take lunch on Lake Trasimeno.
Etruscan tomb paintings near Chiusi
Etruscan tomb paintings near Chiusi


In the last thirty years, Tuscany has been at the center of a revolution in the art and science of the cultivation and preparation of food. With its emphasis on fresh, locally grown ingredients, brilliant tastes & textures, and novel pairings of flavors with local wines, Tuscany is now one of the most important food centers in the world. We will spend a day exploring the vineyards and farms around hill-towns of Montepulciano and Pienza and we will sample the wines, cheeses, olives, olive oil, prosciutto and pastas that have made Tuscany world famous. This excusrsion will be directed by Klajdi Belag, who is the personal sommelier for George Lucas at his Tuscan Villa.
The Still Life with Wine
The Vineyards of Avignonesi, where we will sample the wines and culinary delights of Tuscany


The glory of these trips are the evening banquets and shows. Led by our music director, Brett Strader, our guests will be sharing a torch song, an aria or a reading. We will have great accompanists and instrumental players who are at home in many styles of music. The name of the game is participation, so if you have a story to share or a song to sing we want to include you. We will offer either a cocktail show before dinner, or a concert after dinner. Then we will retire to the bar for a musical afterglow that goes on into the evening. Because we have taken the whole Castello, there will be no closing time and we can sing and play to our hearts delight. The strong espresso and cappuccino coffee served in the morning is, at least for a time, a tasty substitute for sleep.
Cortona, made famous by the book Under the Tuscan Sun

The Details

Tuscan Landscape by Justin Hess


Arrival: We plan to meet in Rome on Sunday, May 24th. This means that you must depart the states on Saturday, May 23rd. You can arrive any time, day or night on the 24th and we will have a room for you at the Rome Airport Hilton. The Hilton is very convenient. It is built into the terminal itself. No need for a taxi or shuttle. It’s a good idea to get a good night’s sleep before starting in Tuscany the next morning. If you have arrived in Italy before the 24th and have your own transportation, you can either meet us at the Rome airport on the 24th or you can arrive on your own to Gargonza on the 24th or 25th. Some of us will arrive at the castle by May 21st in order to get things ready. If you’d like to come to the Castle a few days early, let us know and we will arrange it.

Departure: On Sunday, May 31, we will have buses from Gargonza to FCO. It is three hours door to door to the airport, so you should not book a flight out of Rome until the afternoon of the 31st. If you want a morning flight you should consider staying overnight at the Hilton and departing on Monday morning, June 1.

Details and Costs

A word about how busy you will be: We want the pace to be leisurely. We will offer a wide variety of things to do, but you don’t need to do everything. If you linger over breakfast and decide to stay all day at the castle, that’s fine. There are walks with incredible views, the swimming pool, and the village gardens. For those in the choir, we will schedule rehearsals to fit into the schedule. Concerning the daytime adventures, you can create your own schedule. You could choose to go into Florence every day, or you could skip Florence entirely and go into the country for culinary delights every day. We want you to do what gives you the most joy.

Weather: It’s late spring, the nicest time of the year. It could rain, of course, but other than that, it should be glorious weather.

Dress: We’ll be nicely casual all week but we will plan to be casually elegant for our night at the Opera House. It’s a large group and we have a wide comfort zone for what people choose to wear.

What’s included: All accommodations and group ground transportation while in Italy. All the tours and excursions including museum entrance fees. Transportation from FCO on May 25 and back to FCO on May 31. Breakfast, lunch and dinner each day, house wines with dinners and lunches. Great parties every night.

Not included: Round trip air from the states, and extra cocktails you sign for.

More Details and Costs: Each room or apartment is unique. All rooms and apartments include private bathrooms. Most have kitchen facilities. The upper apartments with views have steps, and those with great views have a lot of steps. Let us know if you prefer ground floor accommodations. The double occupancy cost for the week is $5,450 per person or $5,950 per person in the large suites and apartments. A single occupancy supplement is $900 for the regular apartments.

Deposit: A deposit of $500 per person will hold your place in this grand adventure. This is refundable for any reason until we ask you for a second payment in January. Insurance / Cancellations: If there is something that might prevent you from attending, we encourage you to take out trip insurance. Your deposits are fully transferable to someone who takes your place, and if you cancel for any reason we will refund all of your money if the trip is full and we can fill your spot.


Please feel free to email or call us with any questions you may have. Thank you.


(650) 444-3934
(510) 255-0094
(415) 492-1059