Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Toying with an Affair by the Lake; TRAVEL

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Toying with an Affair by the Lake; TRAVEL

Article excerpt

Byline: MAX HASTINGS

The Italian lakes are a Mecca for British tourists in search of time-warped romance

A CENTURY ago, the Italian lakes occupied an important place in British middleclass life and literature. By their shores, betwixt the snow-capped mountains and mellow blue water, disappointed spinsters eked out lonely existences.

Successful novelists mined a rich seam of experience.

Upmarket homosexuals lived in quiet dignity, nursing hopes of a change in the law at home. Dowagers - often played in movies by Fabia Drake or Maggie Smith - tyrannised echoing, half-empty hotel dining rooms out of season.

Today the British are still there in huge numbers. We wander the streets of Sirmione and Bellagio, immediately distinguishable by our red faces and holiday expressions of innocent bewilderment. I suggested to a friend who owns a house beside Como, that the lakes seem a more plausible destination for wives than mistresses.

She laughed heartily and corrected me. "One is always noticing people in hotel dining rooms who are with other people they're not supposed to be with, and pretending not to have seen them," she observed. A veritable tribe of adulterers streams out from Milan every weekend.

The lakes appeal especially to the British, perhaps, because they enjoy the manicured mountain communities normally associated with neighbouring Switzerland, but inhabited by cheerful Italians rather than dour Swiss looking as if they expect another war crimes investigation team at any minute. The Italians deserve their reputations as the best holiday hosts and most dangerous drivers in Europe.

Every lakeside boasts rows of friendly, not overpriced cafes and restaurants. Each resort is perfectly set off by a background of cypresses and clusters of urns stuffed with geraniums that pass for gardening in Italy, though there are some magnificent show gardens, too.

WE flew to Verona and spent our first two nights in the Palace Villa Cortine Hotel, at the tip of the Sirmione peninsula on Lake Garda. A tastefully designed addition to a big Edwardian neoclassical mansion, it boasts an outstanding kitchen. Our dinners were as good as I have eaten in Italy.

The gardens were in need of some TLC - no Englishman can see a swath of daisy-clad grass without yearning to mow it - and in early May it was a disappointment to find the pool glittering invitingly, but unheated and icy.

Breakfast on the balcony made up for it, and I shall always remember it as the place where I saw my first bona fide, paid-up toy boy. He was an extraordinarily pretty young man, dining with a woman of a certain age, who seemed to have been put together with parts left over from other people.

My wife remarked unkindly that it was no good my looking jealous of the two groping, because even in my younger days I would never have made it in that boy's line of business. …

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