These are the two basic staples of life. There is not much else.
A friendship that endures is special. To know someone who really knows you – who knew you when you were young, and still knows you when you’re old. ‘I cannot imagine you all as young lads’, said Val. There is photographic evidence of course. We see what they looked like: long hair, moustaches in some cases, flared trousers. But we – Val, Isabelle and I – came later, and to us these youngsters are strangers. We listen to the stories about professors, chemistry experiments, cars and rock bands, home-made wet suits and break-downs on Dartmoor. Even now, they fall about with laughter as these tales are told; catapulted back to their earlier selves, a life before work, family and retirement; a life almost before life itself.
We meet up once a year. Nick, Don, Charlie and Jim – now with wives in tow – Val, Heth, Isabelle and me. Normally we host each other in our homes; this year because it’s extra special – fifty years since the men were those long-haired lads – we hire a villa at Orta, a lake the Milanese call ‘La Cenerentola’ (Cinderella) because they have long thought of it as the secretly superior sibling of Como and Maggiore.
It’s a week of feasts and friendship. Our terrace looked out over the lake, that changed seemingly by the hour. Black in the early morning light. Splashed with pinky purples as the sun rose, and early morning mists rolled back over the hills. Blue, bright and sparkling in the strong midday sun. Ice blue and smoky grey as evening pulled in. An interplay of mountains, water, light and weather. A few steps from the house, a tiny beach – more jetty than beach – gave access to the water and before-breakfast swims and kayak paddles for those who wanted it. I was happy to sit in a chair, read, and look about me. It was still and silent. Except for the occasional tourist group, who laughed and giggled their way along the lake-shore path to the small medieval town of Orta San Guilio.
We did the same, it was only a ten minute walk – to the square, to pizza and gelato, and romantic views of the isola. Once I went in the early morning when fishing boats dotted the dark waters, and the bell tower’s reflection was a shimmering smudge on the water. Cafe owners swept terraces and captains not yet attired in their navel stripes and peaked caps clambered aboard vessels, readying for the rush. At that hour the beauty was breathtaking, cobbled streets, faded elegance and outbreaks of Baroque. From Piazza Motta we walked up the Sacro Monte di Orta and followed a devotional path of frescoed chapels where life-size kitschy wooden figures told the story of Francis of Assisi. Their simplicity was beautiful and their age astounding. Frescoed disembodied hands with pointing fingers led us through tall trees and gave us gorgeous glimpses of the lake and island a hundred metres below.
One glorious sunny morning we ventured slightly further afield to Monte Mottarone. Don’s guidebook awarded it a full five stars and we felt it deserved the effort. Within half an hour we were within sight of snow capped peaks, winding our way up a twisting forest-laced road. Cows with clunky bells at their necks sauntered, and rather furtive looking men and women, baskets hooked over forearms, strode into the wooded depths in search of mushrooms. At the top we were dazzled by the sparkling waters of Lake Maggiore, which now lay at our feet, and the sight of layer upon layer of hills.
But most of our outings revolved around long lazy meals. Chatter and wine. Tales of then and now. We did a cooking lesson with Silvia Padulazzi. We ate at Taverna Antico Agnello in the almost fairy-tale-like courtyard of Villa Nigra. Frescoed walls. White tablecloths. Red wine. Dappled sunshine. Lots of laughter. Panna Cotta with a wobble; and finally a slow walk back down the hill, past the Moorish Villa Crespi back to Villa Pinin. And on our last night at the agritourismo – Cucchiaio di Legno. The food just kept coming. Nine courses, morsels of this, tastes of that. Two pasta dishes. Two meat dishes – veal and rabbit. ‘We used to tell the children it was chicken with long ears’, said Isabelle. ‘Would you like more?’ asked the serving lady, a bowl under her arm. We sighed and said we simply could not. She frowned at us – foreigners with a poor appetite, I could see her thinking. After dessert, and chocolate and coffee, we walked a final time back to our villa by the lake, shining torches on a grassy wooded path, linking arms, still laughing.
What a glorious way to celebrate fifty years of friendship.
Photo numbers 1, 2, 5, 6 and 11 by Nick Bale.
Taverna Antico Agnello at Villa Nigra. 2810 Miasino. Entry at da Via Martelli 6 http://email@example.com