Città di Castello, Umbria
A few years before the end of the 19th century, King Leopold of Belgium summoned his favourite banker, Baron Lambert, for an intimate chat over lunch. ‘My dream is to have a little place in the sun,’ said the monarch to the banker. ‘Somewhere down south, where everyone runs around without clothes on so I can relax a bit.’ ‘I understand and will see what I can do,’ said the loyal baron, and then they proceeded to talk about more pressing matters.
The little place in the sun turned out to be called Congo, a piece of real estate much larger than Europe and, I believe, 800 times the size of Belgium. Baron Lambert lent the moolah to Leopold, the king went shopping, and, well, you know the rest. Oh, yes, I almost forgot. The baron also bought a tiny plot next to that of the king, 800,000 hectares, or a couple of million acres give or take a few thousand. The Congo declared its independence back in 1960, and soon after Patrice Lumumba, its George Washington, so to speak, was murdered. The Lambert family’s stake was nationalised, but they were asked to return after a while when the locals realised what benevolent landlords they had been. ‘Merci, but no merci,’ was the answer. ‘We like to keep our heads, if you don’t mind.’ The lender’s grandson, the present baron, Philippe, is a very old friend of mine and is kind enough to advise me in his spare time how not to end up like a minor British royal, having to sing for my supper in front of vulgar nouveaux riches.
Some of you may remember the terrible tragedy which a monster by the name of Vincent Meyer caused the Lambert family, which resulted in the death of Philippine Lambert, arguably the most beautiful young girl I have ever come across. I have written about this case time and again, as has the Telegraph and the Sunday Times, because justice never took its course. But I won’t this time, as this was the most joyous of occasions, the birthday celebrations for Marion, Baroness Lambert, Philippe’s wife. We were 21 guests, invited for four days to test our endurance as to how much we could eat, drink, dance, hike, ride, swim, cycle, visit ancient churches and take in the culture. Not that we needed diversion. Just the place where the house party took place was worth the trip.
It’s a stunning, 18th-century Florentine-style villa, Palazzo Terranova, situated on a green hillside in the northern tip of Umbria, on the Tuscan border. The house is an architectural jewel, with the intimacy of a private family home with its eight bedrooms decorated in the timeless elegance of Palladian tradition. My room, the Bellini, had 20-foot ceilings with painted beams, a large fireplace, and looked out to a breathtaking landscape of hills and valleys of olive woodlands, terraced lawns and gardens. In the four days and nights I was there, I could not get enough of a somewhat prosaic pursuit, looking out of the window.
But it was Marion and Philippe’s friends who made the difference. They always do, by the way. The people, that is. No matter how fantastic the venue, if the guests are low-lifes, you might as well pack it in. Especially today, when low-lifes are extremely rich and show off their ill-gotten gains by giving parties covered by Hello!. Needless to say, none of us were Hello! material. No footballers, no retailers, no rock royalty. No celebs. If you closed your eyes and listened to the badinage it could have been prewar, without the prejudice. And I mean the first one, the one that did the dynasties in. There were German and Italian nobles, a Polish prince and princess, some very young and beautiful girls who were friends of Henri Lambert, Philippe and Marion’s son, and yours truly, alas, the worst behaved but suddenly very popular when someone pushed me into the swimming pool while fully clothed and saying goodbye to my hosts. (I deserved it.)
Two of the guests were museum curators and had a field day telling the rest of us dummies all about the medieval surrounding towns, Cortona, Gubbio, Assisi and Perugia. I learned all about the Etruscans, visited pinacoteche and churches, but mostly I got drunk. The place and my fellow guests were too splendid not to. One must always try to improve no matter how perfect one feels. Drink will do that in a jiffy. Incidentally, the food was so good and light, I lost weight after four days of debauch. The Lamberts should run a fat farm instead of a bank.
The sad part, of course, is that it’s all over. The last time I went to a four-day party was back in 1963, at Edmond de Rothschild’s blast in Megève. (A cousin of Philippe Lambert, incidentally.) But back then we were too many, including celebs, and I was 26 years old and unable to take in the culture. Thank God, for that. Megève has as much culture as Gstaad. This time, a mature 71, I made my way around Umbria like Bernard Berenson, or Harold Acton, looking, judging, praising and disapproving. And if you believe that, you obviously are in the state I was in all last weekend.