Magazine article The Spectator

Umbrian Idyll

Magazine article The Spectator

Umbrian Idyll

Article excerpt

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 Florentinestyle 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. …

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