About fifteen years ago I went to Italy with a couple of friends for a winter week. We stayed first in Verona, a beautiful city, where we drank wine, window-shopped – and I had to be helped down from the arena! I have no head for heights but often forget this and climb up somewhere only to freeze when I turn round to go back down. Hurrah for Janine on that occasion. The weather was glorious: cold (it was January in northern Italy after all) but bright and clear and sunny. I loved it. Having discovered how cheaply we could travel by train, we went to Innsbruck for a day, somewhere I had always wanted to visit in the winter. It was spectacular although, sadly, Italian trains let us down on the way back and caused Sara some problems. From Verona, we went to Venice and I much preferred it in the winter. And then we took the train to Milan where we stayed for a couple of nights.
And I realised that I was in Mabel Esther Allan country. Obviously it was Drina territory but, more significantly, I was just across the border from Lugano, Locarno and Bellinzona. The Vine Clad Hill was an early Mabel Esther Allan book for me and I couldn’t miss the opportunity to see something of the setting. However, my head was all over the place at that point in time (my Mum had died a few weeks previously) and I made pretty bad decisions about my travel.
The Vine Clad Hill, published in 1956, is still one of my favourite Mabel Esther Allan novels. The heroine is Philippa Wynyard who goes to Switzerland with Aunt Millicent (really the wife of a cousin somehow removed) to help look after her children, Tilda, Gay and Gordon. Uncle Richard is working temporarily in Lugano but, much to his wife’s disgust, has rented a flat for the family in nearby Bellinzona. Clemency, the oldest daughter, is staying with an old schoolfriend near Locarno and drops in and out of the story. So, we have the setting.
I still find the story pretty engaging. Philippa has just left school and is heading for Cambridge in the autumn. She’s a fairly average eighteen year old and comes from a warm and strong family. Millicent is snobbish and insular in direct contrast to her husband. The twins are mischievous and lively and spoilt while Tilda is all out of sorts. Her older sister is beautiful, clever and popular, everything Tilda feels she is not. But none of the characters is without redeeming features. The book is driven by character development and interaction rather than plot and is not startlingly original. But it’s well told and I think the slight element of romance is handled more believably than in some of Mabel’s novels.
However, when I think of the book, what comes to mind is the sunshine and warmth of Bellinzona, the descriptions of lakes Lugano and Maggiore and the views from hilltops as well as shopping in Milan and coffee culture in Lugano. And the trains. You know how much I love a train journey and I still haven’t got over the thrill of boarding a train in one country and arriving in another. I’ve been known to stand in Innsbruck station, for example, just reading the departures board! And this part of Switzerland is just as alluring for that reason.
So I made my way to the station in Milan and took a train to Lugano, which duly paused at the border so that passports could be checked (a delight!) and then carried on. I got off in Lugano although I could have stayed on the same train and ended up in Bellinzona. Why? I don’t really know. I exhausted the possibilities of Lugano on an overcast January day quite quickly and considered taking a later train on to Bellinzona but still didn’t do that. Looking back, I think I had no ability to process information or make simple decisions at that point in my life. Now, I regret not going and hope that one day I’ll be able to rectify that lack of decision.
[Illustrations by TR Freeman from my 1st edition of the book.]