Interview by Bill Ward in the Star Tribune

My secrets have been revealed! Bill Ward, the great travel and food writer of the Star Tribune, interviewed me the other day. The piece was published on Sunday, August 16. Here’s the URL:

The interview is pasted here in full. Note that the title of my thriller is PARIS CITY OF NIGHT (and not Paris, City of Lights). dd

An expert’s view of Italy and France

By BILL WARD, Star Tribune

August 15, 2009

Physically, if not spiritually, it’s a long way from Haight-Ashbury to Cinque Terre. But David Downie is an equal-opportunity admirer of both his Bay Area birthplace and the Italian Riviera, subject of a recent travel book by the prolific writer.

“If I can keep dividing my days between France and Italy — Paris, Burgundy, Liguria and Rome — I’ll be a very lucky and happy man,” he said via e-mail. “But if I could work in more time in my hometown — San Francisco — I’d be even happier.”

For now, Downie will “settle” for living in, and writing about, France and Italy, the locales for four books he is publishing within 16 months: “Food Wine Rome” and “Food Wine The Italian Riviera and Genoa,” part of the Little Bookroom’s “Terroir Guide” series; the just-released mystery “Paris: City of Lights” and “Food Wine Burgundy,” due in February 2010.

Downie’s life always has been peripatetic. The 51-year-old lived in Rome as a child (his mother is Italian), graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Cal-Berkeley in 1981 and lived in 10 U.S. cities before embarking to Europe for good in 1984 after earning a master’s degree from Brown. He lives in Paris with his wife, photographer Alison Harris. “I’m her assistant, driver, lighting engineer, assistant stylist, gofer,” he quipped.

Q How did you set about making your travel guides distinct?

A I created them from scratch. Having worked for a number of guidebook publishers (Gault-Millau, Fodor’s, Frommer’s, Dorling-Kindersley), I knew what I liked and what I thought was lacking. I knew that the food and travel guides I was familiar with were pulling punches and doing a hard sell, or the opposite — running everything down.

I’ve interviewed hundreds of hard-working chefs, restaurateurs (not the same thing!), winemakers, food artisans, travel specialists, local historians and experts in everything from salting anchovies to training falcons. The world is complex, full of wonderful, sometimes crazy stories. I wanted to capture the good, useful part of that craziness.

I asked them where and what they ate and drank, and I avoided the hyped, overpriced, over-famous places. I wanted to create something opinionated and authoritative, something the PR-meisters and tourism offices might not necessarily recommend.

Q I’ve got a 400-page Fodor’s guide on Italy from 1978, and there’s no mention of the Cinque Terre. How did it go from completely off the tourist map to major destination?

A First, waves of young, penurious travelers like me, who’d heard of ritzy Portofino and roughneck Genoa, and had some notions about “the Italian Riviera” but hadn’t been there, started washing up in Riomaggiore or Monterosso, the Cinque Terre’s main towns.

I first went in 1976, by chance. “Riomaggiore” sounded intriguing, and the coast was so gorgeous that I just stood up, grabbed my bag and jumped off the train when it stopped.

By the 1980s the word was out-via backpackers’ and students’ guidebooks. But you’ve got to understand, in the 1970s the Cinque Terre villages were rundown, half abandoned, and the vineyards were dying. Fishing was never going to maintain the population. Everyone knew tourism would have to come to the rescue, and the Italians started pushing the area.

Now the Cinque Terre are being loved to death, like Yosemite, and the Italian government has had to create a national park and charge entrance fees.

Q Summer’s almost over. What are some good reasons to visit Cinque Terre in the off-season?

A The weather: It’s perfect in spring and fall, and the water in September-October is still warm enough for swimming. The crowds: It’s always crowded, but in summer it’s insane. The grape harvest: It’s lovely to see the ripe grapes on the vine, and watch locals pick them, clambering up and down terraces that are as steep as a stepladder. The food: Service and food quality are infinitely better out of season.

My favorite time of all is winter; no swimming but spectacular storms and rough seas, cool temperatures perfect for hiking and a great time for fish.

Q What is your favorite time of year to be in Rome?

A January and February. It’s cold at night but often warm, sunny and clear during the day. The crowds thin out, and you get into churches and museums without standing in line. For food, the best time is spring: artichokes, milk-fed lamb, chicory.

Q What’s the minimum amount of time a tourist should spend in Rome or Cinque Terre?

A For Rome, you really need several lifetimes, and I’m not kidding. Don’t bother to go to Rome if you can’t spend a week there. Skip the summer months, unless you enjoy sweltering, suffocating heat and mobs. And be very, very careful about where you stay; the Termini train station area is impossibly dreary!

You can enjoy the Cinque Terre for half a day or a week, depending on your tastes. If you like swimming and hiking, stay longer. If you just want to enjoy the atmosphere of Vernazza (the most attractive of the five villages), you can spend a morning or an afternoon there. The number of historic and cultural sites is limited, the natural setting and atmosphere are unlimited.

Q What are the most important things Americans should do to ingratiate themselves to Italians?

A Be natural, be unaffected, be totally American and don’t expect that the rest of the world is a projection of America, or a playground for Americans. Italians respond to anyone who shows interest in their culture, language, history or food.

Q So you’ve written a mystery set in Paris. Will there be more of the same or will you do mysteries set in other European places?

A Yes, the heroine of “Paris City of Night” is the city, an unusual, dark, sinister but alluring Paris. Depending on which way I jump, my next one will be set either in the Paris area or Rome. Lots of good food and atmosphere in both!

Q Where would you eat your last meal on Earth, and what would you order?

A I would eat at Da Gino, an old family-run trattoria in the center of Rome, near the Italian Parliament building, and I’d order chicory salad with anchovy dressing, followed by tonnarelli alla ciociara (fresh pasta with bacon, peas and mushrooms), then simply roasted spring lamb seasoned with rosemary, with a side of roast baby potatoes and a fried artichoke Roman-Jewish style. The kicker: a slice of ricotta-and-sour-cherry tart, or Gino’s classic tiramisu. To die for.

Bill Ward • 612-673-7643

© 2009 Star Tribune. All rights reserved.

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