Places I Remember with Lea Lane

The Italian Riviera: Cinque Terre, Portofino, Ravello, Genoa, With Author David Downie

October 12, 2021 David Downie is a well-known writer, whose newest book, Red Riviera, is set along Italy's Ligurian Coast. Season 1 Episode 37
Places I Remember with Lea Lane
The Italian Riviera: Cinque Terre, Portofino, Ravello, Genoa, With Author David Downie
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

David Downie lives on the Italian Riviera -- the Ligurian Coast -- the area of Genoa, Cinque Terre, Rapallo, Portofino and other appealing towns. And lucky for us, he writes about them, both non-fiction and fiction. His latest thriller, Red Riviera, is set in and around Rapallo, and offers excitement and thrills as well as a gorgeous setting.
We talk of why David moved to this area of Italy, and compare the beauty and pleasures of the Ligurian Coastline to the Amalfi Coast.
We discuss history of the area, transportation, and the joys of the main city of the region, Genoa.
We then go on to discuss the beauty spots of Cinque Terre, Rapallo, and Portofino.
We end with a discussion of David's thriller,  and the sequel, coming out next year, and set in Rome.
And David gives us his favorite  memory of the Ligurian Coast.
Born in San Francisco, David Downie is a multilingual Paris-Liguria based American nonfiction author, crime novelist and journalist who writes most often about culture, food and travel. Order Red Riviera 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 Places I Remember, and contributed to guidebooks. She's @lealane on Twitter; Travelea on Insta; on  Facebook, it's Places I Remember with Lea Lane. Website: placesirememberlealane.comPlease follow, rate and review this weekly travel podcast!

*Transcript edited for clarity.

Lea Lane  00:04

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. In this episode, we'll be focusing on that sumptuous crescent of the Italian Riviera, also known as the Ligurian coast, specifically the eastern half the Riviera de Levante with rugged cliffs, turquoise coves, the colorful Cinque Terra fishing villages, and stylish resorts such as Portofino and Santa Margherita Ligure. Ray. Our guest today is David Downie, a distinguished writer who lives on the Italian Riviera from where he's talking with us today. I met David a few years ago in Paris where he also lives. In his new mystery thriller, Red Riviera, he describes the Italian Riviera as "that crescent of coast with Tuscany bounced on one end, and the coat is you're teetering on the other in France." Welcome, David. So good to speak with you again.


David Downie  01:09

Yeah, it's great for speak with you and see you. 


Lea Lane  01:13

We're gonna be talking about your new mystery novel, Red Riviera, later in the episode. But first, tell me there's so many gorgeous areas of Italy for an expat to live in. What made you choose one of Italy's smallest regions Liguria?



It kind of chose me, I had some vague family ties too; my mother was Italian, as you may know. And my wife lived in Italy for years as a child and her family bought a house down there. And so we kind of moved in at one point, because we both love that region, above almost all others in the world. And it's just a fabulous place.


Lea Lane  01:53

Well, Liguria was originally home to fishermen and singers, poets, explorers, but it's now been discovered by the tourist world. I wrote about the Amalfi Coast for Fodor's. I know that area very well. It's often compared to that coast, that Italian coast down the Med a bit. How would you compare the two?


David Downie  02:10

Well, the Amalfi Coast is stunning and amazing. I remember way back, probably 1979 or 80. And being struck by how beautiful it was. It's slightly different in that a lot of the action if you will, on the Amalfi Coast is up above, high, whereas in Liguria, you have a lot of villages up high on the hills, but you also have the kind of beach world down on the coast, right on the water's edge. And I love the  food. The food everybody knows generally is pesto, the green sauce, and flatbread and so forth. A lot of people don't know that [..] come from there too, very, very far back in the Middle Ages. And so it's it's a pretty amazing place for food and stunning scenery and beautiful weather, especially for me off season.


Lea Lane  03:13

We're taking about that area as sort of spring like most of the time, so it's moderate, I would say yeah. 


David Downie 03:19

And the truth is, it became a resort area over 100 years ago. aristocrats of Europe, especially the Russians, and people from the Nordic countries would go down to the Riviera. They wouldn't go there in the summer. They'd arrive in October, November, December and stay through the winter because it's generally mild.


Lea Lane  03:40

Well, I would think up in the mountains, that border that are right above it, it would be very cold. Oh, yeah, lots of snow. Before we get into the delicious details, tell us what you suggest about transportation and lodging in the area for maximum pleasure and time management.


David Downie  03:56

Liguria, the Italian Riviera is 200 miles, and it stretches from Tuscany all the way to France. So if you want to explore both sides, the eastern and the western Riviera, then you logically you could stay at one end or the other and then move around. Or you could stay in the middle at Genoa. Genoa is the capital city at the very northern tip of the Mediterranean. And Genoa has lots of nice hotels. And it's a fascinating place to say it's very little known by Americans. And it's a real discovery. But you have to like the kind of medieval configuration of an Italian city with really tall old stone buildings. Some of them are 1000 years old and narrow alleyways. And it can kind of scare some people, although it's really a very safe city. On the other hand, there plenty of places right on the coast. First, you know beautiful hotels. You mentioned Santa Margarita legal. Santa Margarita has fabulous hotels, many, many of them are Paulo has wonderful hotels Portofino has one of the finest hotels in Italy splendido. But it's an extraordinary place in a convent. It's been reconverted, and you will find no lack of wonderful accommodation on the Italian Riviera, I can tell you.


Lea Lane  05:30

Yeah, no, of course was, was one of the great Republic's in the 11th century along with Venice, so I know it has tremendous history. And we know it, of course, is the birthplace of Christopher Columbus and most of us think of Jannah Well, that's what we think of, but I have been there and I think it has a very vibrant feeling. It's a rough edge kind of style. It's eclectic. And it's a really great transportation hub. It has a good airport. It has a central train station, where you can take trains to all the rest of the area. There's ferries out of there, so it's a good hub. But let's go on to some of the beauty spots. I think everybody first thinks of Cink Butera, it was discovered a few years ago, and now it's become tremendously popular. Tell us a little bit about it. 


David Downie  06:14

30 are famous for being completely isolated on the coast. But because I don't like to mislead people. And because I've written a number of books about the area, I have to tell you that almost every one of the cheek repairer has a train station in it, and it's served by ferry boats, and most of them now have little winding roads. Granted, it takes you a very long time to drive there and I would never encourage anyone to drive there. It's a bit of a myth if they're isolated. However, when you approach in a ferry boat in you look at them perched on the coast there. They're sort of the archetypal Italian fishing villages. They also happen to be wine growing villages that is they make a lot of cheap ricotta wines, white wine, primarily, almost entirely, and kind of sweet wine you drink with almond cookies and so forth called Shotcut. Tra which is very good. They used to have very important agricultural industry. It was like Machu Picchu, growing everything on terraces and fishing industry, the anchovies, salted anchovies of the Chico ricotta, were famous, there is still one cooperative that makes them and they're very good. But the truth, again is that there are fewer and fewer anchovies in the Mediterranean, as everybody knows, because they're very, very popular destinations. These five little villages. The hiking is wonderful. Swimming can be wonderful to very rocky, don't plan on the sandy beaches of Los Angeles, the coves and everything very beautiful and dramatic. That's the road I would choose.


Lea Lane  08:04

Well, it isn't just a collection of villages. It's designated as a national park, which helps protect and preserve the area and it's a UNESCO World Heritage Site. When you see it from the sea, it looks like a rainbow exploded. It's just full of color. It's the archetypal idea of an ancient fishing village. And I remember as a child, I went to this little Italian restaurant, and on the wall was a picture of Chinko tower, one of the villages that's always what I thought of as Italy. The most beautiful part to me is looking at it from the sea when you get inside. It's a real place. Do you agree?


David Downie  08:39

Yeah, absolutely. I think they're meant to be on the sea too. And yeah, I first went there in the 1970s. They were not undiscovered at the time, but compared to today, they were very quiet. Now they tend to get very, very crowded. My advice would to be would be to go off season primarily when you go to the cheaper theater, you go there to see a man to hike. He said this network of hiking trails. So you know, you don't need to be there at the height of the tourist season in you know, you'll be happier. If you go say in November, December, January, February, March, April, and then it gets kind of crazy. The nation as a as a national part, by the way is is very recent. I reported on that when it was being formed. And they've done a very good job in saving a lot of the vineyards were falling apart is you have to understand it really is like Machu Picchu. You see stone walls, countless millions of stones piled up there dry stone walls, there's no cement from basically sea level way up to about 2000 feet or more because it's very steep. And a lot of those terraces will just collapse Once upon a time, and one of the great things the National Park has done is it's brought in money from big corporations to to help the locals restore the vineyards and bring back the wine industry.


Lea Lane  10:12

That's wonderful. Well, we mentioned a couple of other places. Rapala was one. Is there something specific to that area that you'd like to talk about?


David Downie  10:21

My much of my novel is set. Yes, it is. And it's got a big marina. There are lots of super yachts there you see those in in Genoa too. It has a little castle on the sea. It's very lively. It has absolutely delicious food and fabulous ice cream. There's a little ice cream maker right on the seaside castle and of the sea side. So when Apollo is big enough that it's a real town. It's the working all year long. It's not just the seaside resort people, I think like it for the fact that it is a real place like Genoa. Genoa is a real city it's not a tourist city at all.


Lea Lane  11:05

Portofino is definitely a tourist city because it's a beauty spot. There's not a lot except to look at it shop there walk around a bit, as far as I remember. Is there a beach nearby? I know there's not in Portofino?


David Downie  11:18

Not really, no, you don't go to casino to swim, you go there, buy Gucci bags and sit in a fancy cafe or eat in a restaurant and spend huge amounts of money. It is a very fancy place. A book I wrote many years ago about 25 years ago or more called in Champions League Rodia, I remember quoting a 16th century traveler, so that's 500 years ago. And he was saying that Perth Athena was so expensive and exclusive that they made you pay for the breeze.


Lea Lane  11:54

Oh my god. Well, I know in the 1950s, the Hollywood stars began to spend their time there, Clark Gable, and all those, those guys. And so it has a sort of cachet. It's beautiful. I have to say that but I would say you don't have to spend much time right. So let's talk about your mystery thriller read for the year, just a little bit. The Ligurian Coast plays a big part and as a gorgeous setting for your heroine, Daria Vinci, and for all kinds of intrigue on the land in the sea. And as you mentioned much of it in Apollo area. You're well known for writing fiction and nonfiction of France and Italy. Why did you choose to write a mystery with a setting of the Italian Riviera rather than a travel book?


David Downie  12:36

I've written a couple of travel books already about the area. I had this idea in my head way back. It took a long time to mature. But I'll tell you, let me ask you this. Have you ever slipped on an anchovy?


Lea Lane  12:50

Have I ever slipped? Well, I've slipped on a banana peel, but not on an anchovy. 


David Downie  12:54

So imagine instead of a banana peel, you're taking a hike. I'm a crazy hiker, I hike all over. So I'm hiking up in the mountains above the coast. About 20 years ago, I slipped and fell because I slipped on an anchovy and I'm looking at this anchovy and I'm saying what I mean how to disk and then I look out to see and there is one of these Canadair firefighting airplanes to kind of dip down and scoop up the water and then dump the water on fires, right, because they have lots of wildfires. It's like California. And so then I had this fantasy about the airplane coming down and scooping up a billionaire or a spy. And in the end, he wound up being not quite a billionaire, but he was a former spy. So it was just a kind of a lark that I wanted to create. And I also had this idea for an Italian female sleuth based on all of these wonderful, dynamic, smart and very strong physically and also intellectually, Italian and other women I've known in my life mostly more interesting and sharper and more capable than the men I've known.


Lea Lane  14:10

And Daria is a very, very imposing young woman.


David Downie  14:13

Yeah, but she's lovable. And she's like all of us, as you will see when you read the sequel. Yes.


Lea Lane  14:21

Yes. Tell me about the sequel. 


David Downie  14:23

Well, the sequel is called Roman Roulette. And it's set in Rome. And there are lots of scenes in ruins and catacombs that nobody really knows about, because in part because they're invented but catacombs, I mean,


Lea Lane  14:40



David Downie  14:41

Anyway, Murder in the Catacombs, it could be called.


Lea Lane  14:44

Oh, wow. These are perfect books to read. At this particular time, I'm looking forward to that one as well. So David, the name of the podcast is places I remember and we share special memories. Could you share one with us about the Italian Riviera? 


David Downie  14:59

Yeah, a black and white photo of a young couple with a baby in their arms, getting on a freighter in 1952 lead gen for San Pedro, California. Those were my parents and my elder sister. And my mother was Italian and they emigrated to California in 1950. I was born in San Francisco, but we always had that photo frame in the house and then in the mid 60s, my mother decided she would move us back to Italy. So we moved back to Italy and lived in Rome, but I always wanted to see genera. I went there in 1976 and fell in love with the place and I've lived there on and off ever since at least part of the year.


Lea Lane  15:45

You're a lucky man. Thank you so much. David Downie, author of the delightful gripping crime mystery, Red Riviera. You certainly choose fabulous places of the world to live and thankfully you write about them and share them with us. Ciao.


David Downie  16:01

It's a real pleasure, Toto. Ciao, ciao.


Lea Lane  16:10

Thanks for sharing travel memories with us. My book Places I Remember is available on Amazon and in bookstores, in print and Kindle, and I read the audio version. Please subscribe to this podcast and consider giving us a review. Until next time, join us wherever in the world we're going.

Why did David choose to live on the Ligurian Coast?
Comparing setting and food of the Ligurian Coast to the Amalfi Coast
Transportation and lodging in the region
Cinque Terre
David's thriller, "Red Riviera'
Sequel set in Rome
David's Special Memory