Places I Remember with Lea Lane

Rome: Current Pleasures, Ancient Secrets

February 28, 2023 David Downie, who lives part-time in Italy, is author of Roman Roulette and many novels and travel books. Season 1 Episode 79
Places I Remember with Lea Lane
Rome: Current Pleasures, Ancient Secrets
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

David Downie shares insights about the great Italian capital city, used as the setting for his new mystery/thriller Roman Roulette.

He tells us why he chose Rome as the setting of his newest book, and talks with Lea about not-to-miss sites and insider suggestions of what to do and see. We talk of food specialties, and top destinations just outside of Rome, including Ostia, and Tivoli.

David ends the episode with a special memory of Rome that brings together past and present.
Born in San Francisco, David Downie is a multilingual Paris-Italian based American nonfiction author, crime novelist and journalist who writes most often about culture, food and travel. Order Roman Roulette from your local indie bookstore online (or in person) or from Amazon (if you must):
Podcast host Lea Lane blogs at, has traveled to over 100 countries, written nine books, including the award-winning Places I Remember,  (Kirkus Reviews: star rating and "one of the top Indie books" of  the year. ) She has contributed to many guidebooks and has written thousands of travel articles.

Contact Lea! 
@lealane on Twitter; PlacesIRememberLeaLane on Insta; on  Facebook, it's Places I Remember with Lea Lane. Website:

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Lea Lane  0:06  
Hi, I'm Lea Lane, an award-winning travel writer and author of Places I Remember: Tales, Truths, Delights from 100 Countries. On this podcast we share conversations with travelers about fascinating destinations and memorable experiences around the world. 

Author David Downie has written over a dozen travel books and lives much of the year in Italy. He introduced us in Episode 37 to Daria Vinci heroine of his mystery thriller Red Riviera, set along the Ligurian coast of Italy. In David's newest mystery, Roman Roulette, Daria is working in the grand Italian capital city of Rome. Welcome once again, David to Places I Remember.

David Downie  0:52  
Thank you, Lea, it's wonderful to be here.

Lea Lane  0:55  
Why did you choose Rome as a setting for your second book of the series?

David Downie  0:59  
Well, how Rome has some pretty wonderful places to set deaths, I shouldn't say murder, because it's supposed to be a mystery. And we're not quite sure in the beginning, if it's a murder, or a suicide, or just a mistake and accident, I thought the catacombs were a pretty great place for that to happen. And since I have personal experience of crawling through catacombs, and such like, I thought I'd do that. Also, I spent a lot of time in Rome when I was a boy, my mother was Italian. She was Roman, though I grew up mostly in the Bay Area, San Francisco Bay area. So I just wanted to set the next study of Vinci or the current one in Rome, because of the wonderful atmosphere and all the possibilities of great places to murder people or have a chase scene.

Lea Lane  1:52  
Sounds perfect for that. Well, Rome was founded around 625 BC, and in 410 AD, the city of Rome was sacked by the Visigoths. Since then, it's become one of the world's great cities for tourism. In Episode 13, we titled it Italy, What's Not to Like? Well known tour operator Steve Perillo went over a few of Rome's not to miss sites. Let's discuss some of them a bit more. Why don't you start with one of your favorites?

David Downie  2:21  
I actually like a lot of, I guess what people would consider B-list sites that if they were in any other country will be you know, five star A- list sites that there's just so much in Rome; that an area like the Caelian, most people haven't even heard of it, right. It's one of the hills of Rome. And it's got this wonderful atmosphere, a beautiful arc up at the top. It's got one of the great early paleochristian round basilicas Santo Stefano Rotondo -- St.Steven the round, because it's a completely round church, just astonishing, with astonishing frescoes, and so forth. And it's got a great fountain. And my favorite thing of all is a perfectly preserved, unchanged, ancient Roman road that runs up from basically behind the Colosseum. But on the far eastern side, you have to cross the big busy boulevard, and you climb this very steep, narrow, Roman road and it is exactly almost exactly as it was 2000 years ago. So you have a real sense of the Roman city, this would have been the outskirts at that time. Now it's right in the center of town.

Lea Lane  3:47  
Right. That's one of the great things about Rome, you walk down a street, it could have been 2000 years old, or it could have been done 10 years ago. It's layers and layers and layers. It never fails to excite.  I would say keep a guidebook handy. There is so much to learn. And see I think this is one city where it really helps to know your history. Obviously. I'd mentioned the Roman Forum because you mentioned the center of the city and that was the center, the sort of world's oldest shopping mall, you might call it. It was the location of religious political, social activities and antiquities. Again, I would take a guide if you have a very good one handy. I've been many times -- the best time was with a wonderful guide because I learned so many little details that I never would have noticed it. It looks so imposing like a bunch of stones and if you don't know what you're looking at, kind of lose it. And near it, of course, is the Colosseum, the largest Colosseum in the world. Largest Amphitheater in the world. Despite its age, it's almost 2000 years old, and that's where the gladiators would fight. Would they fight the animals or themselves? I forgot if it was one or the other or both. .

David Downie  4:59  
They fought wild animals who were kept underneath the stage in cages, and then released from strategically placed secret doors. Same with the gladiators, they're fighting each other. I think it was probably even worse than a really brutal game of rugby.

Lea Lane  5:17  
It was pretty gruesome. I think when you go underground and you are able to see this, you can see where the animals were kept, as you said, and it's a wonderful place to walk around and imagine the gruesomeness I guess. Another place I like is the Circus Maximus. It's a park now. It's just a green space, right? Big, huge oval, but that was huge. And it was six times actually the size of the Colosseum. And that was really, really rough. Because like, people were in chariots and they were, you know, falling down and it was like, NASCAR of the time, I think I would call it. Over 200,000 people would be there watching this. Have you been?

David Downie  5:58  
People were smaller back then? Yeah, it's great because you can walk all the way around it on the outside. And while you're there, you should go up on the Aventine which flanks the Circus Maximus. The Aventine has a wonderful rose garden botanical garden and these amazing trees covered with wisteria. So if you're the right time of year, it's just astonishing. Also up on the Aventine, there is the park of the orange trees full of nice old bitter oranges that bloom very sweetly, and you get amazing views down to the city. The Aventine is another one of these super atmospheric places that generally have fewer people on them. I'm only slightly allergic to crowds, which can be problematic in Italy in general. But there are lots of places in Rome where you can get away like that. I wrote a book about that, called Quiet Corners in Rome; you can find quiet places and beautiful places, the bustle a lot of people love. It's really energizing these crazy crowds of people in these very anxious spaces that are not at all threatening. They're welcoming. That's the interesting thing about Rome. It's a very welcoming city.

Lea Lane  7:29  
Well, one of the most perfect things to see is the Pantheon. It looks like it was just built; it's 2000 years old, but you go in there and and you look at it, and it's as if you're in the past.

David Downie  7:40  
Yeah, it's one of the great places in Rome. It's actually a church that was saved because it was consecrated as a church. In the seventh century, I believe. What astonished me about the structure is the oculus, there's a hole in the center in the roof, which is actually a big hole, you can look up and see the sky way, way up there. And when it rains, the rain doesn't come down into the oculus, or, in theory, it doesn't; if the doors are open there's an updraft through the oculus. It's pretty astonishing engineering. Everything about the place is astonishing. The thickness of the walls, the height inside, the marble pavement, and the carvings and the tombs. It's a fantastic place. And almost all architects make a pilgrimage to the Pantheon to try to understand how they built it. Lots of studies have been done. They now know how it was done. But it was a real feat of architecture.

Lea Lane  8:43  
Now we have to mention, of course, the Vatican, the official residence of the Pope and St. Peter's Basilica, which are crowded. You mentioned crowds, there are lines there that are awful; you can get tickets ahead and you can try to go in early hours and so forth. Any other tips on that?

David Downie  8:58  
The only way I will go to the Vatican nowadays that I go to seven o'clock in the morning mass, and there's still very few people. So that's actually a really good time to visit it. You can get in and get out without too much trouble and you see it and feel it better than you would when it's packed that again. St Peter's and the square were designed to be packed with people. The Italians when they go there, they say they're going to take a crowd bath.

Lea Lane  9:28  
Oh my goodness. Yeah, crowd baths.

David Downie  9:31  
Since I'm not really in for crowd baths anymore.

Lea Lane  9:35  
In Japan, it's a cloud bath, in in Italy, a crowd bath. That's interesting. I've never heard well, how is that set in Italian?

David Downie  9:42  
Bano ....

Lea Lane  9:43  
Oh my goodness. Crowds. I think St. Peters can fit 300,000 people. So that's quite a bath.

David Downie  9:50  
I'd like to know how they count them. Because when you compress people, it's amazing how many more you can get in there and

Lea Lane  9:58  
We're not little anymore. Way overfed. While the Sistine Chapel of course is something if you have not seen it, you would want, the frescoes by Michelangelo are amazing, but the crowds are amazing as well. Any tips on that

David Downie  10:10  
Grin and bear it, I mean, book head, reserve on the internet, try to go early in the morning, earlier, you can get your reservation ahead, but they are worth it. If you've never seen them before. It's so it's breathtaking. It's very moving, people will be quiet and respectful. In reality, that's not always the case.

Lea Lane  10:32  
But the museums around it as well. ancient maps are my favorite. They're covering the walls. And you can see the world as it was.

David Downie  10:40  
You know, the Vatican Museums are just amazing. You have to be prepared to stand in a long line to get in. But once you're in, it's such a vast place. I mean, it's unimaginably huge. And so you snake around and see the statuary is incredible the maps, you could take out 10 pieces from the Vatican's vast collection of hundreds of 1000s or millions of pieces. And those 10 pieces would be the pride of any great museum anywhere in America, you would drive a 1000 miles or more to see these things. One thing I would warn people about in Rome is, don't overdo it, because there is just so much there, it can overwhelm you. So dose things out, walk a lot, though, you know, I love to walk around Rome, that's the best way to see it. And then go in, see one painting, see one sculpture, spend half an hour or an hour in a museum, it doesn't have to be one of the huge ones, and then go out and walk around some more, sit in a piazza, that kind of thing. Otherwise, you know, you'll just wear yourself out. There's too much there.

Right? I think the neighborhoods and the piazza are again, one of the great things of Rome as well. Let's talk a little bit about the food -- pasta. Rome is known for pasta.

Well, yeah, Rome is known for all kinds of great foods. But of course, carbonara is associated with Rome. And .Amatriciano, which is spicy, which also everyone thinks is Roman, it actually comes from Amatrici, ,which is near Rome. So those are kind of the two great pasta dishes that everyone is familiar with. But Rome has lots of wonderful things, vegetables, the area around Rome, it's sort of like California with the Central Valley growing fruit and vegetables. So Rome has about the best produce you can get anywhere. In my experience; a vegetarian will be in heaven. The artichokes are fabulous, especially I like the fried ones. Jewish style, made in the Roman ghetto for the last actually over 2000 years, because the Jewish community was in Rome from about 70 BC, if you can imagine that. So tons of great stuff, the lamb if you'd like lamb is famous. I could go on and on.(How about the gelato?) Yeah, of course, I can't eat it anymore. But there you have it. I did for many, many years. And it's absolutely some of the best: I would say Rome and Florence probably have the best in Italy, but you find great gelato all over the place.

Lea Lane  13:21  
You do. You mentioned outside of Rome. There are two places that I especially like. Ostia, tell us about that.

David Downie  13:27  
Ostia Antica was the port of Rome, Rome is 10 miles in from the Mediterranean. So it's not right on the sea, although you smell the Mediterranean because it comes wafting up the Tiber River Valley. And Ostia was the big port, like San Pedro for Los Angeles. What's astonishing about Ostia is how well preserved it is. There's so many buildings, foundations roles, the layout of the Old City is still there and you can traipse around the ruins. And I used to bring a picnic and sit down there and there's wild mint growing, and grass and it was just a wonderful experience to sit out and have a picnic in Ostia Antica. Whether you can do that these days, I don't know.

Lea Lane  14:16  
I sat on the steps of the ancient theatre there and had some pizza. I think, it was just so nice, the water was there. Trajan harbor is one of the most beautiful attractions in that area. And then there's Tivoli on the slopes of a mountain. You have two great villas that deserve a visit: the villa Adriana and the Villa d' Este. Tell us about those.

David Downie  14:37  
These are ancient Roman sites that were then rebuilt in the Renaissance and use for many centuries. And of course, Tivoli is famous for its waterworks, the fountains and just amazing cascades of water and landscaped gardens. Absolutely breathtaking and beautiful and magical and quite big, too. Much bigger than you might expect. The Villa Adriana is vast, again, you know, you need to go out there and spend an entire day walking around and just taking in the sights. It's only about, I'm guessing, 10 miles, 10-15 miles outside of Rome, pretty easy to get to. It's a magical place, these ancient places transport you not necessarily back to the ancient Roman Empire, but certainly to the period of decline, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance and Baroque because they are places that have been used in one form or another for 1000s of years. And they're marked by various periods. So a lot of people go around thinking, well, it's all going to be like the forum right? Piles of masonry and columns and half ruined temples and so forth. But it's not like that. I mean, there are areas that have lots of Roman antiquities, but the Romans were always there. So they use the temple for something else they built into it, they turned it into an apartment house, or a theater or a church often. So that's what you get, you get this accretion of all of these different periods. Boggles the mind.

Lea Lane  16:18  
Certainly does. Yeah. Let's talk a bit about some of the Roman settings that you use for your book. You mentioned the catacombs of Emperor Nero. Tell us about that.

David Downie  16:26  
Those are invented in my book, right? Because it's a fiction. I invented everything in the book, but based on real places, and actually often on people I've known. Yeah, the catacombs are fascinating. (The real ones?) Yeah the real ones, I would say that if you have to choose just one, go to San Callisto, St. Callixtus. That's the big catacomb complex out on the Appian Way. You want to see the Appian Way. In any case, that's the ancient Roman consular highway, which is still there. It's where it always is. You go into this vast park, then you're taken down, usually in small groups, it's not oppressive, and ushered into this underground world, which is pretty astonishing. The Christians used the catacombs, as most people know, for their rituals, and they hid in them sometimes during times of persecution, and they also buried their dead there. So you see funerary niches and you some mosaics and frescoes. And if you're not happy being underground in a tunnel complex, then you you might want to skip the catacombs. However, St. Callixtus.has a number of areas where the ceiling, the roof has collapsed. So there's light that comes in. These were often natural caves in the tufa stone, or they were quarries or both, contrary to which you might believe in a number of them there is more light than you would think. So it's not completely oppressive.

Lea Lane  18:14  
It's not for everyone, but it is different for sure. You can always escape to the Villa Borghese,  the gardens which are also in your book, and which are a real oasis in Rome. It's a beautiful park. So that would be something maybe you'd want to put in there. After catacombs.

David Downie  18:29  
Yeah, a great view from the Pincho which is the overlook, the panoramic overlook on the edge of the Borghese gardens, and you look down over the whole city, you're right of Piazza del Popolo which is another fabulous huge piazza, which is mostly closed to traffic. Now, that's one thing I will say about Rome. In the last years, many areas have been pedestrianized. And it's a lot easier to walk through, and less noisy and dangerous because it used to be crazy. When I lived in Rome as a child in the mid 1960s. Every road was like a race course; it was terrifying.

Lea Lane  19:08  
Those chariot drivers never gave up. That's was right. The vespas.

David Downie  19:14  
Electric cars that you can't hear and they come flying.

Lea Lane  19:18  
Even worse. Well, we've covered the highlights of Rome. But the name of the podcast is Places I Remember. So David, please give us a personal memory of Rome.

David Downie  19:28  
My mother was Roman, as I mentioned, and when we lived there in the mid 60s. One day she took us to the Vatican and I found that kind of daunting and creepy. I went down into the crypt and that's another thing you can do if you want creepy things -- go into crypts are all over Rome. But then she said okay, we're going up on to the Gianicolo. The Gianicolo was called the Janiculum in English. So she took us up the backway from the Vatican, and said Don't look back, just keep climbing. And we climbed and climbed, and we got up to the top of the hill. And then she said, Now turn around. And we turned around. And there was this unbelievable view of Michelangelo's dome of St. Peter's, framed by parasol pines. And even as a six or seven year old whatever I was, I got the heebie jeebies. So that's one thing I like to do when I'm in Rome, and I take friends and when I do lead tours in Rome, I take people up that way, and reveal this incredible view, you won't get a better view of the cupola of that amazing, gigantic church.

Lea Lane  20:40  
Thank you. That's a very good tip and a very good memory. So Rome is one of the great cities of antiquity, which makes it one of the greatest cities to visit today. Thank you, David Downie once again, author of Roman Roulette, for sharing your favorite reflections with us.

David Downie  20:56  
Oh, it's been my pleasure. Let's do it again soon. (Okay, next book.) Venice.

Lea Lane  20:57  
Good. My book, Places I Remember: Tales. Truths, Delights from 100 Countries is available in print Kindle, and I read the audio version. You can follow me on where I write five travel posts a month. Please subscribe to this podcast and consider giving us a review. And I'd love to hear from you on any of my links in the episodes show notes or on my website Until next time, make some travel memories.

Why Rome for the setting of David's book?
Not to miss Rome sites
Food specialties
Special destinations just outside of Rome
Roman Settingss in Rome Roulette
David's special memory of Rome