19 AUGUST 1989, Page 40

High life

Title fight


he Palace Hotel in Lucerne overlooks the lake and is the type of place I wouldn't mind spending the rest of my life in. It is a turn-of-the-century rococo building with vast rooms, impeccable service and a wine cellar that the Sun King would envy. Most of the staff are Portuguese, although it's run by Swiss Germans. It is expensive 500 Swiss francs for a large double on the lake side — but as the wise man said when a beautiful hooker told him her price for a night, 'Au diable l'avarice.'

The waterhole at sunset, then? A few drinks, a few laughs?' I drove to Lucerne on my way to Siena from Geneva, a most delightful trip, made even more pleasant by the knowledge that hundreds of thousands of my fellow crea- tures were sweating in airports waiting to become sardines. There is a broad and very fast motorway that takes one straight from Geneva via Lausanne and Berne on to Lucerne and then straight to Lugano. From there it is all autoroute down to Siena and home.

In Lugano I stopped to visit Villa Favor- ita, the house of Baron Thyssen of Big Bertha fame. Heini Thyssen is an OK chap, but the Swiss are rather off him at the moment. The reason is simple. His collection of priceless paintings has gone to Spain rather than remain in the country that gave his family shelter when the Thyssens needed it in the closing days of the second world war.

Needless to say, the dispute between Herr Baron and la Confederation Helveti- que was over — what else — moolah. Herr Baron insisted the Swiss pay him 11 million francs to cover expenses for a new home for his paintings. The Swiss, however, were outraged. Having to pay out rather than collect is as alien to the Swiss psyche as, say, it is for an English aristo to pick up the bill for a foreigner. So, Herr Baron took his Old Masters to Spain, a land where everyone except bullfighters, bulls and picadors have titles, and where the rain falls mainly on the plain. Poor old England had also tried to lure him, but it wasn't even close, what with English titles nowa- days being a standing joke. I say this because les mauvaises langues have it that the King of Spain promised to make Heini a duke, and more important, his wife a duchess. Being a simple Greek boy, I wouldn't know for sure about such matters, but my spies tell me that Tita Thyssen, who has seen worse days than the present ones, wasn't exactly put off by the idea. Les m.l. even pretend to know the name of the dukedom — Hermosa. It is a pretty title, no pun intended.

After seeing what was left of the collec- tion it was on to Milan, and then a quick three-hour drive to Florence for dinner. In the Piazza della Repubblica, which was full of young people looking for action, the only graffito I noticed was a single word — Verdi — spraypainted on a large wall (it must have been Liverpool fans).

My house in Sovicille has a new swim- ming pool thanks to the efforts of my friend Lord Lambton, who has also instal- led a new tennis court on his property. Otherwise, all is quiet, except that I'm a year older. Being in mourning I had no orchestra this year, and very few house guests. As I write this the Palio is about to start, but I will not attend. I find the whole thing too cruel for the horses, who, unlike humans, have no choice but to partake. Mark Getty, of oily fame, is as always very excited about winning it, but to me winning the Palio means either being the horse that

Comes across first, or at least the jockey who rides it. The owner sitting safely in the stands does not a winner make, at least not where I come from.