Thursday 8 September 2016

Nero D'Avola: Sainsbury's Again

This week's style icon: Bruce Chatwin

It had taken me three days to cross the white plains which lay at the end of the distant Carpathians. A drover carried me the last miles to the door of the old ducal palace. Rooks cawed incessantly and a dung fire sent up a wavering line of blue smoke.

'It is far from your land,' said the drover. 'Perhaps he will not be in.'

The Dukedom of Vrigişti has its origins in the thirteenth century, when the Crusaders annexed an area of land in the name of Honorius III, creating a sovereign principality which lasted three hundred years before being absorbed into the Ottoman Empire and reduced in status to a Dukedom. The eleventh Duke of Vrigişti, the man I hoped to visit, was sixty-five years old and had no heirs.

'Perhaps not,' I said.

The drover removed his hat at the palace gate. A kumquat seller joined us, pushing his two-wheeled barrow with the familiar, loping, gait of a Hutsul. A metal bell, shaped like a mendicant's bowl, hung beside a rusting crucifix. I rang it and an old woman, her face as lined as a dry river-bed, came to admit me.

The kumquat seller followed me into the courtyard. There, fig trees grew and two men sat in the shade, playing dominoes. The building was formed in the style of the old palace at Artukulu; its shutters were closed and faded. The air smelled of dust and smoke and figs. The woman led me up a worn flight of stairs to a piano nobile.

'He is tired,' she said. 'But he will see you.'

I found myself in a great, empty room, its cracked stone floor inlaid with Topaz. An elderly man was in the centre of the room, reclining on a velvet cushion. A bulbul began to call outside. The walls were lined with pier-glasses and Iznik tiles. At last, the man looked up at me.

'It is kind of you to come. I am very poor company, that you should come so far. Would you care for wine? We may drink it within the palace walls. Please, sit.'

I thanked him and sat, cross-legged, on the floor. He turned and produced two glasses and a bottle of red wine from within a jadeite box. A plate of figs was brought in by the old woman.

'Since the Communists, it has been difficult.' The Duke's voice was soft and musical. 'Winston Churchill told my father once in Tangier that they would leave, one day, but that when they left, nothing would remain.' He unscrewed the cap from the bottle. 'I can only offer you this. It is a wine from Italy. I remember being driven along the corniche to Ventimiglia, before the War. It is a Nero D'Avola.'

He told me that once, he left the palace to travel. His brother, to curry favour with the ruling elite, had stripped the palace of all its possessions, including a table which once belonged to the Princesse Eugénie and a Chinese sarcophagus from the Tang Dynasty. He gave them to the local Party Secretary. Torches burned through the night as the building was ransacked. On the Duke's return, the people of the village made him a bed of fig wood to sleep on. Later, some of the items were returned, including the jadeite box.

'They say this is the WInemakers' Selection. But who are the Winemakers? Once, I drank a wine called Taste the Difference. I could not taste the difference.'

Outside, the kumquat seller had joined the two men playing dominoes.

'Is there anyone else in the palace?' I asked. He said, no, there were only him and the old lady and the men playing dominoes. The palace had sixty-six rooms, some with shreds of damask still clinging to the walls, but most of the rooms were uninhabitable. The villagers came in to work, but their own lives were hard.

Later, I went to the village, where I found a room overlooking a grove of lemon trees. A dog scratched at a verbena bush. I read a book about Konstantin Melnikov. A storm was gathering and I went to play cards at the local inn.

I said, 'The Duke is very poor.'

One of the card players said, 'He is not a duke. He is a farmer. The Duke died two years ago. But he is a good man. When he dies, we will carry his body through the streets of the village and carve a fine headstone.'

The first drops of rain began to fall.


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