As if in a dream, I found the house. The winding path was overgrown, and the twisted, almost horizontal, vine trunks rose gradually to announce a sudden wall with a small door to a kitchen: a transition from messy overshadowing leaves to white-domed domesticity. From there, like servants, we entered the grander spaces. Every room delighted me, and we walked round the abandoned house in awe, our sole guide saying as little as possible.
What can I really remember? The purity of the repeated arches throughout the house; the triumph of the main room looking out at the blazing Mediterranean, empty but for a Steinway grand; the decadent promise of the sunken bath cut into the floor with four submerged marble armchairs facing each other like compass points; the colonnade-arched swimming pool; the intimate bedroom in a separate annex, and most of all, on another terrace facing the garden, the outdoor table of black marble with fluted square black marble legs, and not a chair in sight. I imagined the parties, the poolside antics and conversations with Greta Garbo, Jean Cocteau, Somerset Maughan and Cecil Beaton.
I walked out to the lawn overlooking the beach, drunk with the perfect house. So simple, so pure. Nothing forced, all in place, numinous. I was ready to move in. The guide drew on a cigarette and I assumed the private tour was over, and that it was time to tip him. But he had more. We walked down an unpromising path, to the beach, I supposed. Turning right through the dunes it led to a perfect amphitheatre facing out to sea. An unseen Chorus sang of the battle of ancient civilizations, the victors building on the demolished stones and then being drawn back to the same places, a palimpsest held together with garum.
The rest of the holiday was something of a haze. The kids were selling oranges, and pestered us interminably. We swam in hotel pool, I suppose. A visit to a souk. That was it.
It would be too much to say that I have spent the intervening 45 years searching for it, but I never forgot it. Long before the Internet I might have tried some guide books, or simply asked some architects to name it, so that I could find out more about its history. Perhaps that would have been too easy, and would have broken the spell of a tour conducted somewhat against my will, with no great hopes, just the two of us and the very quiet guide, doing his duty on a slow day.
Frank Lloyd Wright rated it “the most beautiful house I have ever seen”.
Guided by accounts of new archaeology on the events of 21st July 365, I found it last night, just like the first time, rising barely visible from the overgrown path of memory.