Richard E Grant visits the European spots that inspired the world’s best authors

While summers used to mean Mediterranean climes, delicious food, beautiful vistas and a fantastic book to read, this year many of us will have to enjoy all of that vicariously – and Richard E Grant’s new series is a great way to do it.

The Oscar-nominated actor takes us on an entertaining and educational three-part jaunt to key places in Italy, France and Spain that have inspired some of the world’s favourite books in Write Around The World, which merges literature, food and culture. 

It’s a feast for the eyes, the ears and the brain as Richard throws himself into the places he visits. He doesn’t just eat the famous pizzas of Naples, he devours them. He dresses up, rides a donkey, busks – and even takes his clothes off for a dip in the pool once enjoyed by F Scott Fitzgerald. 

Here Nicole Lampert reveals some of the show’s highlights…

Richard E Grant (pictured) visits key places in Italy, France and Spain in three-part series Write Around The World, as he explores the inspiration behind some of the world’s best authors

Italy, first stop for Mussolini and grisly murder

Richard stays in the same room Patricia Highsmith stayed in at the Albergo Miramare hotel, while writing The Talented Mr Ripley

Richard stays in the same room Patricia Highsmith stayed in at the Albergo Miramare hotel, while writing The Talented Mr Ripley

POSITANO American writer Patricia Highsmith was travelling through Italy when she and her girlfriend Ellen Blumenthal Hill reached the stunning coastal resort of Positano on the Amalfi Coast. 

Richard stays in the same room Patricia stayed in at the Albergo Miramare hotel, where she created one of literature’s great anti-heroes, the brooding Tom Ripley in her 1955 book The Talented Mr Ripley. 

Richard stands on the same clifftop balcony where Highsmith peeped down to the beach and watched ‘a solitary young man in shorts and sandals, with a towel flung over his shoulder, making his way along the beach’, and from that scene devised the murderous conman hellbent on stealing the lifestyle of the young man he’s been sent to Italy to help. 

‘Like her fictional creation, Highsmith had a miserable childhood and was also gay when homophobia was rife,’ says Richard. ‘Ripley was a vehicle through which she could vent her own rage.’

MATERA In his final Italian stop, Richard visits the stunning hilltop city of Matera. Because of his anti-fascist activities, Turin-born writer and artist Carlo Levi was exiled to the southern Italian city in the 1930s as Mussolini rose to power. 

There he found people still living in caves with animals, untouched by modernity and riven with poverty. In his bestselling book Christ Stopped At Eboli, he called what he saw there ‘the shame of Italy’, adding, ‘I have never in all my life seen such a picture of poverty.’

After the war, the Italian government invested in the city and built new homes for the cave dwellers, and in 1993 the area was named a UNESCO world heritage site. Richard examines how it has now become a tourist resort – with people staying in the caves that have since been turned into hotels.


Richard (pictured) said Charles Dickens, who was one of the first British authors to explore Naples, was shocked by its deprivation

Richard (pictured) said Charles Dickens, who was one of the first British authors to explore Naples, was shocked by its deprivation 

 A heady mix of faded grandeur, grinding poverty, the Mafia and the best pizzas in the world, all in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, Naples has proved to be ripe territory for writers. Charles Dickens was one of the first British authors to explore the tensions in the city as part of his Pictures From Italy travelogue.

‘While he was not unmoved by Naples’ charm, he was shocked by its deprivation,’ says Richard.

Another Briton, intelligence officer Norman Lewis, who was posted to the city at the end of the Second World War, conjured up a similar picture in his classic book Naples ’44. 

It revelled in the locals’ will to survive despite their grinding poverty, and featured eccentrics such as the doctor who specialised in restoring lost virginities.

Richard (pictured) reenacted Robert Louis Stevenson's journey by donkey to one of the most remote parts of France

Richard (pictured) reenacted Robert Louis Stevenson’s journey by donkey to one of the most remote parts of France

Viv e la France! donkeys, decadence… and Elizabeth David

THE CEVENNES Richard starts the French leg of the series by replicating part of a journey Treasure Island writer Robert Louis Stevenson took 150 years ago across one of the most remote parts of the country, accompanied only by a donkey. 

Stevenson was recovering from tuberculosis and the end of an affair with a married woman when he decided to walk 120 miles on foot with the donkey carrying his things. 

The resulting book, Travels With A Donkey In The Cevennes, is full of history while its more amusing moments come from Stevenson’s battles with his mule Modestine, who sometimes refused to walk. The book became a classic, and introduced us to the idea of the sleeping bag – which Stevenson had specially commissioned.


Former All Creatures Great And Small actress Carol Drinkwater wrote a popular book series after moving to an olive farm near Cannes, starting with the memoir The Olive Farm.

Richard meets Carol Drinkwater (pictured) at her olive farm near Cannes

Richard meets Carol Drinkwater (pictured) at her olive farm near Cannes 

Richard meets Carol at the farm where she still lives, and she cooks for him from another iconic book inspired by the region, Elizabeth David’s Book Of Mediterranean Food, published in 1950. 

David had spent the pre-war years in France and Italy and on returning to war-torn Britain decided to introduce her countrymen to the delicious fresh flavours she had enjoyed. The cookbook is considered one of the most influential in British history. 

ANTIBES After the First World War, newly impoverished Europe became cheap for Americans, who flocked to the South of France. F Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda hired a villa in Antibes and became part of the glamorous set surrounding rich couple Gerald and Sarah Murphy, who persuaded the luxury Hotel du Cap to open for a summer season for their friends when it had previously only opened in winter.

 Fitzgerald later immortalised the pair as Dick and Nicole Diver in his classic novel Tender Is The Night. ‘Fitzgerald was dazzled by the glamour of the rich but he was also acutely aware of the dangers of wealth,’ says Richard. 

‘He wrote, “The rich are different to you and me” and he was always aware of the haves and have nots. The book is like a three-dimensional look at the sights and sounds of the place as it was then.’

GRASSE Known as the perfume capital of the world, many iconic fragrances are still made in Grasse in southern France. For Richard, who’s been obsessed with scent all his life, it’s a particularly exciting stop, especially when he mixes a perfume.

‘I’ve been led by my nose all of my life – I’ve compulsively smelt everything,’ he explains. 

‘When I was 12 I tried to impress a girl I was madly in love with with a perfume made out of gardenia and rose petals boiled in water; it took me another 56 years to create my own brand.’

The town is also the setting for Perfume: The Story Of A Murderer by Patrick Suskind, one of the most successful German novels ever written. Suskind went around town on a motorbike to research his story of a 16th-century perfume maker whose obsessive quest to create the perfect scent leads him ever further into darkness.

Turbulent times in Franco’s Spain 

Richard (pictured) explores the work of poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca in the city of Granada in Andalucía

Richard (pictured) explores the work of poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca in the city of Granada in Andalucía

GRANADA In the ancient city of Granada in Andalucía, Richard explores the work of poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca. 

He fell in love with the Spanish city’s Romany culture, writing poems about what he called the ‘city of the gypsies’ and their love of flamenco in his 1928 book Gypsy Ballads.

Lorca was a socialist and it is thought he was shot by nationalists in 1936 – although his body has never been found. His work was banned until 1953 under the Fascist dictatorship and continued to be censored until General Franco’s death in 1975.

Pictured: a bull statue in Ronda

Pictured: a bull statue in Ronda

RONDA The mountain resort of Ronda was a big influence on Ernest Hemingway’s books about Spain. He became obsessed with the culture of bullfighting after a visit to Ronda’s arena, and wrote about it in 1932’s Death In The Afternoon. 

Richard dresses as a matador to recall being taken to a bullfight when he was 16, and being left with the ‘indelible impression that it was barbaric and cruel – but that is their tradition’.

Hemingway returned to Ronda in the Spanish Civil War to write for a US newspaper. His novel For Whom The Bell Tolls describes a scene he witnessed in Ronda of a massacre with men being thrown off cliffs.

Write Around The World begins on Tuesday at 9pm on BBC4.