CHAPTER XXVII

Two important events in our lives occurred in the course of those two happy decades. One was sheer delight and most fortunate in every way, the other was only fortunate at the outset and then very much the reverse; it was one of the great mistakes that one unconsciously drifts into at some time or other; in our case I may call it the only great mistake we ever made.

It had its origin in the conviction which gradually grew upon us that Monte Carlo was getting too big for its boots. It was growing and growing in size and in importance far beyond what we had expected of it when we decided to make our winter home in what was then an earthly paradise, the favoured child of Nature, all sunshine and beauty and, above all, peace. Houses upon houses, flats, hotels, villas were being constructed and piled one upon the other; and soon whenever one's eye wandered in search of those lovely views it used to delight in, the groves of grey-green olives, the sunlight glinting through the lace-work of palm trees, the glimpses of the blue Mediterranean, and the mountains of Italy far away, it was met by hideous white and glaring buildings, scattered all over the purple hills and blocking out those fairy-like visas that one only remembered now as one does a dream.

Monte Carlo was getting big and bloated; it bulged out in every direction like a great ogre that was devouring more than it could swallow and threatened to burst its sides. It reminded me of that nursery tale of La Fontaine: the frog that desired to be as big as the bull (La Grenouille qui voulut se faire aussi grosse que le Boeuf). He puffed himself out and puffed and puffed, frequently asking the opinion of his friends whether he was getting anywhere near the realization of his ambition: "M'y voici donc?" he would ask (Have I got there now?). "Point du tout," was the reply. So he went on puffing and puffing himself out until he burst. Well! Monte Carlo, figuratively speaking, was like that frog. It wanted to be as big as . . . I don't know what, but the boundaries of the Principality could not be expanded seeing that there was the territory of France to the west and to the north, of Italy to the east, and the Mediterranean to the south, so that was that.

And still the ogre went on gormandizing. The number of American and English visitors who desired to find a permanent home in the 'earthly paradise' where there were no fogs and no taxes, was increasing year by year and every building was snapped up even before it was completed, whilst hotels, also increasing in size and numbers were full to overflowing. At first this trek to the Riviera was confined to the winter months; but presently, when Monte Carlo laid itself out for a summer season with a wonderful summer Casino and Country Club, with tennis courts galore, swimming-pool, and speed-boats, there were only two months left in the year--July and August--when peace and freedom from social duties which we had hoped to find permanently here, came for that brief while like a beneficent dispensation. Two months, and they were two out of the five or six which we always liked to spend among our friends in England. The rest of the time, with so many dear kind friends who came here season after season as visitors to avoid the English winters, we soon found ourselves so full of engagements that we literally got the wind up, feeling that work was bound to suffer a set-back from so much interruption and distraction.

Did our love for Monte Carlo and for our happy winter home which we had adored and perfected until it was the real representation of its name, Villa Bijou--the Jewel--actually begin to waver when we saw the place of our dreams turned into a huge rabbit-warren, I cannot say. Certain it is that we began to long for some place where we would be more completely shut out from that social world which we neither of us cared for, and which seemed to be drawing us away, with its multifarious tentacles, from the simple life which we loved.

As luck would have it we had a few years before this made the acquaintance of a very charming English resident of Mentone, Mrs. Cochrane, who had a second and very beautiful home in Italy. On one occasion she asked us to come and spend a few days there with her, and we accepted joyfully. Rezzola--such was its name--was revealed to us as a dream of a place. Built on the hills that overlook the Gulf of Spezia, it commands a view of the most beautiful vista on God's earth, with the white-streaked Carrara mountains way out to the left and the little town of Lerici, with its mediæval tower, where Shelley had lived and suffered, of Spezzia, backed by the spurs of the Apennines with the old fishing town of San Torenzo at their base. And then there were the gardens of Rezzola, down the side of the hill, a-glow when we first saw it with the munificent Eglantine rose running riot over terraces and balustrades, the Judas trees flaunting their crimson blooms between sober grey olive trees and the shiny green of graceful waving palms, and around the lawns violets and crocuses and Poet's Narcissi, giving out as it were--with their gentleness and their humility in the midst of so much gorgeous vegetation--something that spoke to one of England. It really was enchanting.

During that first visit to Rezzola we got to know Italy and the Italians better than we had ever known them before, when we wandered through the country more or less as tourists; that is to say, we got to know the Italian people as they were then, after Mussolini had restored order among the turbulent communistic elements who were getting the upper hand in the country by continuous unprovoked strikes, malicious destruction of private property, damage to industrial plant, and frequent banditism, often amounting to murder. Yes! looking back on that period in Italian contemporary history, one could not help acknowledging that Mussolini and Fascism in its infancy were, during those first years, the salvation of Italy. And I think we all remember how the vast majority of thinking English men and women--men especially, and hard-baked Tories--so often gave utterance to the pious wish: "Oh! why has not England got a Mussolini?"

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It was at Rezzola that we consolidated, as it were, our friendship with that fine English sailor and scientist, Admiral Reginald Bacon, a friendship which I am proud to say will, please God, endure to the end of my life.

And then one day we heard that Admiral Bacon had bought a piece of land adjoining Rezzola and was building a villa destined to be his and his family's winter home in the future. Like ourselves, he was longing for winter sunshine, for the peace and quiet of this beautiful part of the world. He couldn't bear Monte Carlo and was not enamoured with any part of France. The villa which he built and called 'Primazzina' was not beautiful, but it was roomy and comfortable, the garden could be made beautiful and the view over Lerici, its Bay, and its ancient tower, over Carrara and the Apennines was just as lovely as the one from Rezzola.

And so we pondered over all these things while we wandered through the gardens of Rezzola and the thought of all the quietude that reigned over this happy part of the world, gradually took on the shape of a desire to abandon the turbulence and worldly turmoil of bloated Monte Carlo for this abode of peace. A piece of land--which for some unknown reason was called 'La Padula' (i.e. The Marsh)--adjoining Admiral Bacon's 'Primazzina', was for sale. We bought it and in our turn built a delightful little Italian villa on the mountainside in the heart of olive woods which, in the spring, were carpeted with Roman hyacinths and Poet's Narcissi. There was a great dearth of house accommodation at this time in Italy, and Mussolini had decreed that every house completed before 1927 would be free of all taxes for twenty-five years. That finally decided us, as we had heard very disquieting rumours about taxation on landed estate in Italy. As it was, we did not spend much money on the building, and the design of the villa was so charming, its situation so unique, and its accommodation so convenient that one felt there would never be any difficulty in letting it for so many months in the year. With our passion for gardening we soon transformed the forest of stunted olives into a lovely garden with tiled paths leading down the hillside to an avenue of many-coloured hydrangea and standard oleander trees. We still had a quantity of furniture left over from Snowfield and warehoused in London; we sent for it; it came over by sea as far as Genoa in a coal-boat, and the transport in that way cost very little. Anyway, we had transformed a wilderness of stunted olives into a place of beauty, just as we had transformed an inverted match-box in Monte Carlo into an architectural jewel, and an ugly suburban house in Snowfield into a stately Queen Anne house. Somehow we felt that we had done our best to enrich the world with those three works of genuine art, works that would abide long after we ourselves will have passed away.

I don't think we ever seriously thought of selling the Villa Bijou, even though the value of the house and land had increased enormously since we originally settled down in Monte Carlo. Anyway, we put off final decision as to that--oh! how thankful we were later on that we did--and in the meanwhile we spent two autumn and two spring months in 'La Padula' and two winter ones in Monte Carlo, and the rest of our time in England.

©Blakeney Manor, 2001