West Bay author Rosanna Ley shares her passion for the Italian Riviera that led to her writing her latest novel The Lemon Tree Hotel.

A CONFESSION: I love Italy - the passion’s grown ever since my first visit in 1989. My favourite part is Liguria, the Italian Riviera, in which lies the magical cinque terre, an area I discovered in 2001. It’s become much busier since then, but it was still the perfect setting for The Lemon Tree Hotel.

For the research trip, we flew to Pisa, rather an under-rated city, perhaps because Florence is such a glorious neighbour. Still, tourists flock to Piazza dei Miracoli to admire one of the greatest architectural complexes in the world - and climb the Leaning Tower. But it’s also pleasant to stroll down to the River Arno to look at the fine palaces that line its banks.

For my story, I was searching for an apartment for my character Alonzo to live in. (Not literally, of course, but it gives me a template to work with!) When we found it (my husband Grey takes the photographs, I make copious notes) we stayed awhile to get the feel of the broad silky ribbon of the water; the earth-toned buildings of ochre, rust and green.

In the book, another character, Chiara, visits Alonzo here. They have a row in the apartment, she rushes out and I imagine her half-running to the nearby square of Piazza Garibaldi where she might sit and drink a recuperative brandy. By this point, we were also in need of something recuperative, so we followed in her footsteps. But why is Chiara so upset when she visits Alonzo? Answer: she has made a shocking discovery concerning an apartment he rents out in Pisa.

We went in search of a suitably run-down building, taking Chiara’s route from the station. Do people wonder if we have some sinister motive as we loiter with camera and notebook? Apparently not; they never seem to mind at all.

In this un-touristy part of Pisa, we also discovered the pleasant experience of going out at 7pm for an Aperol Spritz and being offered a complete buffet along with our cocktail. What a lovely tradition – and it would be rude not to…

We went on by train to Vernazza in the cinque terre, five villages built on terraced hillsides where villagers have grown vines and harvested olives for centuries. The train unloads tourists at each village in turn; they pour on to narrow cobblestone streets marvelling at colourful houses, old churches and little stony beaches.

Our apartment was at the top of a tall, skinny building - Vernazza has no space for fat houses. There was an ancient and noisy fridge in our bedroom. But also a roof terrace above, and if we were willing to hang on to the rope provided while climbing up the death-trap spiral staircase, we could enjoy far-reaching views of Vernazza and the glittering Mediterranean sea. Wonderful.

My fictional family though, would be living in The Lemon Tree Hotel, so we tackled the coastal path to plot its location. It would be a restored convent set amidst an olive grove, I decided – easy, since most of the hillside is one big olive grove – and there would be a lemon tree. We found the spot and took photos of the hotel’s potential view. If only it really existed - you wouldn’t be able to drag me away.

Within my fictional hotel, there would be scenes set in the lemon-scented courtyard (it wasn’t hard to find one of those) and in the Cloisters restaurant – I could imagine that. Chiara would walk down the steep path to Vernazza – so we did the same. And maybe she’d have a swim in the rocky bay – so we did that too. Sometimes, research is such hard work…

While exploring the village, we came across an illustrated plaque showing a woman saving a town. Intrigued, we called into the studio opposite, and met artist Antonio Greco who showed us photos and told us the story of Vernazza which I went on to incorporate into the book. I don’t want to reveal the plot, so I won’t say more here, but you can find out everything in The Lemon Tree Hotel…

Another of the characters, Isabella, is very drawn to a mysterious guest, Ferdinand, who seems to know a lot about the old convent. I decided they might walk up to the Sanctuary of Reggio one morning at dawn.

‘Dawn?’ echoed Grey in horror.

We didn’t wake up in time, but we did walk this ancient pilgrims’ route dotted with shrines which winds uphill to the church and a magnificent spread-eagled oak tree where you can sit and admire the view – or write a scene for a novel maybe?

One day, Isabella has to play detective as she follows Ferdinand around the village of Monterosso al mare without him spotting her. This was fun. We planned a route and then played it out to check the details. This is a work of fiction, but I want it to be as authentic as possible.

But it isn’t all sunshine - a wild storm can provide good material. In Vernazza, on a stormy day, the sea crashed high on to the rocks and a couple of local lads dived into the water and let the waves bring them in and up to standing on the jetty in one swoop. I couldn’t leave that out!

And then there’s the food research… very important if one of your characters (Elene) is a chef. (I know, I know, but it has to be done). Two of the region’s specialities are trofie del pesto (best eaten at the restaurant half-way up the cliff for breath-taking views) and farinata – a delicious pancake made with chickpeas. The excellent cinque terre wine should also be sampled as it supports the villagers’ livelihood...

And so, full of the delicious tastes of Vernazza – and more aware now of the hardship too – we leave Italy. We have a camera full of images and a bulging notebook or two. It’s time to go home to Dorset and write a novel called The Lemon Tree Hotel.

*The Lemon Tree Hotel by Rosanna Ley will be published by Quercus in paperback on 13th June, £7.99