The Blairs are here, I'm here, but Italy only wants Lady D

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The Independent Online
Italy in August. The Blairs are up the road in San Gimignano and everywhere you go there are English tourists. You meet them in Borgo Sansepolcro and Urbino, on what we old hands call the Piero trail - Piero della Francesca, that is - reading the bits from the guidebooks about the "enigmatic" composition of his Flagellation (the subject for discussion being "what are those three blokes doing in the foreground?").

You also come across them in the supermarket, filling trolleys with olives and pecorino cheese and sun-dried tomatoes, and discussing the superior quality of Italian sausages. Even in the little hilltop town above Lake Trasimeno where you turn up for a concert of Baroque music, that third of the audience not related to the orchestra and the soloists turns out to be, judging by the accents, from Hampstead and its environs.

In the forbidding medieval fortress-city of Perugia, bookstalls sell a range of English newspapers and the clothes shops are a magnet for British visitors, eager to snap up sale bargains from Dolce e Gabbana and Armani. This is Chianti-shire in full swing and it's all too easy, if you've been coming here for a long time as I have, to be rather sniffy about it.

Until, that is, you visit English friends in a nearby village and realise, as you swap stories about the Fra Angelicos in Cortona, that you're just as much a part of the English-in-Italy experience as anyone else. Especially when someone admires the dress you're wearing and you have to admit it's a little Moschino number which you just happened to spot after an idyllic lunch in a town on the lake. But, but, but, you find yourself protesting silently, I started coming here long before it became fashionable with New Labour.

Notwithstanding the above, I flew to Italy on the same day as the Blairs and was able to follow their arrival in a blow-by-blow account in the Italian newspapers. La Repubblica got very excited about someone it called "Mamma Cherie", making Mrs Blair sound like a New Orleans blues singer, and describing verbatim her flamboyant greeting to Flavia Prodi, wife of the Italian prime minister: "Ciao," she apparently said. The paper enthused about Tony Blair's informal style, which it called "il politically casual del premier", and recorded Mrs Blair's response to an invitation to climb a tower in Bologna. "Oh, noo," she exclaimed, momentarily acquiring a Scottish accent.

After visiting a museum, the university and some shops the two women - collectively known as "le first lady" - joined their families for lunch at a table for 10 in the Ristorante Diana in Bologna. Thanks to Repubblica, I know exactly what they ate: mortadella and tagliatelle, roast meat, mushrooms and truffles. The only discordant note was the wine, two types of fizzy wine including Lambrusco. Lambrusco?

It seemed clear, after such a promising start, that the Blairs had moved straight into the superstar league and I waited impatiently for this week's editions of the news magazines, Gente and Grand Hotel and Oggi, to appear with the pictures and full itinerary. In vain, however: the mags are still obsessed with the aftermath of the Versace murder and the comings and goings of the perennially interesting "Lady D", as the Princess of Wales tends to be known in Italy.

The only reference to Tony Blair came in a news report in Oggi about the possible marriage of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles, a subject which also took up the best part of a page in Repubblica. In fact this week's news from England, as seen in Italy, is the threat of a new abdication crisis, that the saintly Lady D is to visit Bosnia, and that the Andy Capp cartoon strip is 40 years old.

The English may fly to Italy in large numbers, thrilling to its art and culture. To the Italians, however, we remain a nation of monarchists in flat caps whose elected leaders simply cannot compete in terms of charisma with the fascinating lives of Carlo d'Inghilterra, his mistress and his ex-wife.

Talking of the latter, the Italian press naturally has its own spin on the latest Lady D story. Franker, or even more prone to flights of fancy than British counterparts, Italian journalists have been reporting for the past week that the Princess wants, at the age of 36, to have another baby. Gente has even commented on her "sospitta rotundita", and there is huge excitement over the fact that her dalliance with Dodi Fayed apparently took place off Sardinia.

Yet the story is so brilliantly tailored to an international market (English princess, Egyptian millionaire, American precedent, Italian and English settings) that it seems only sensible to add a cautionary note. What always enters my head when a Diana-in-new-sensation episode breaks, as it does almost weekly, is that the girl certainly knows how to wipe other celebrities off the world's front pages.

Now she's done it again, upstaging Carlo d'Inghilterra and Camilla with her abrupt metamorphosis into a latter-day Jackie Onassis. (If the palace was alarmed by her flirtation with Catholicism, what will it make of the prospect, however distant, of a conversion to Islam?)

Whether or not the Princess's reported romance with Mr Fayed is true, it confirms her mastery of PR. Three weeks ago she promised, then denied, that she was going to make a major revelation. Who knows whether she had this up her sleeve all the time? It hardly matters. The Princess of Wales is the world's finest spin doctor and, with only one client, achieves extraordinary results.

An Egyptian millionaire with a controversial father. Very clever. I wonder, though, whether she shouldn't have gone for someone a bit younger than 41-year-old Mr Fayed. An expert on ageing, Professor Umberto Scapagnini, has just announced here that taking younger lovers helps a woman stay young.

Commenting on the actress Ursula Andress, who attributes her youthful appearance (she is 61) to her love life, Professor Scapagnini observes: "The enthusiasm, vitality and the stimulation derived from adventures with young men who are full of positive energy has certainly contributed to keeping her young."

If the next-but-three Diana sensation involves a footballer in his late twenties, remember you read it here first.