Without a doubt, the greatest advertisement for Sicily in the last few years has been the television series of Inspector Montalbano. Since it was first aired in Italy in 1999 there have been almost forty episodes and it has come to be considered one of the most successful Italian television dramas of all time. It has now been broadcast in 65 different countries.
Its success derives perhaps from two factors – the charm of the lead actor, Luca Zingaretti who plays the Police Commissioner Salvo Montalbano and the illustrious setting of the filming.
The dramas are based on a series of detective novels by the writer Andrea Camilleri (b.1925 d. 2019) who was born and grew up in the town of Porto Empedocle near Agrigento in the south of Sicily. These murder mysteries, sometimes with tortuous plots and subplots, are also laced with the recurring theme of the Inspector’s love of his food. Frequently “Salvo” will down tools, even at the most critical moment in an investigation, to go and eat a dish of pasta with sardines and wild fennel, octopus salad or swordfish involtini.
Camilleri originally set the novels around his home town of Porto Empedocle (Vigata in the novels) and Agrigento (Montelusa), but when the RAI came to shoot the films, they decided to relocate them to the area of South East Sicily within a radius of Ragusa. Anyone who knows the South East of Sicily, will understand the decision.
Noted for their warm, buttery stone, the towns of Ragusa, Modica, Scicli and Noto are some of the most visited in Sicily. Almost entirely destroyed by the colossal earthquake of 1693, all the towns around were rebuilt in the early eighteenth century in the homogenous “Baroque” style. And however much you like or dislike Baroque architecture, the style in Sicily is distinct from the rest of Europe and gives eloquent expression to much of what we think of as being “Sicilian”.
Punto Secca – Montalbano’s house
Without a doubt, the most hunted locations are two: Montalbano’s house and his office. And fortunately both are fairly easy to track down.
In this part of Sicily, consulting a map will show a number of places on the coast with “marina di” or “lido di” followed by the name of a local town. Thus we have “Marina di Modica”, “Marina di Ragusa”, “Marina di Avola”, “Lido di Noto” and so on. Almost without exception, and despite their airy sounding names, these are tiresome places. If you are unfortunate enough to visit them in July or August you will barely be able to park. At any other time of year, you are unlikely to see any other living being. They exist for the sole purpose of providing summer homes on the beach.
This part of Sicily has always attracted the advocates of a epicurean lifestyle. Pozzallo and Comiso are two nearby towns separated by a distance of around 20km. However, the journey on train between them takes around two hours. The reason is evident is you look at a map: the train line loops and snakes its way through the countryside for no obvious reason. Until, that is, you learn that when it was constructed at the beginning of the twentieth century, any aristocrat living within a radius of twenty miles, asked for the route to pass by his front door. Train passengers today are still living with the consequences of such self-indulgence.
To journey through this part of Sicily is something of an enigma. On the one hand, one glimpses towns, churches, gardens, villas and palazzi of huge beauty. There are landscapes in the countryside of sublime charm – run down farm houses, drystone walls, millennial olive trees, poppies and wildflowers in abundance, pastiche castles, and the shimmering Mediterranean in the distance. And then one passes through towns such as Santa Croce Camerina and Scolglitti – to name two of the worst offenders – where one feels to have set foot in a different universe.
Part of the problem, is that this is Sicily’s horticultural powerhouse. It is where all the tomatoes, lettuces, aubergines, strawberries and so on are grown. Much of it is flat, iron rich and fertile soil. There has always been a cheap source of labour. Particularly west of Vittoria, one gazes upon nothing else but polytunnels. It is also an area where on several days in the month, the Scirocco wind will blast across the Mediterranean, flatten everything in its trail and shred the polythene of the polytunnels to rags. So, worse than an area of polytunnels, this is an area of desolation. But of course, in the films, all this is cleverly cut from view. So, having seen the gorgeous scenery of the television episodes, travelling here can be something of a delusion.
The other problem, is that two locations which in the film can seem to be just two ends of the same street, in reality can be two quite different towns. And so tracing the locations of an episode can take quite a bit of groundwork and time.
Be that as it may, Inspector Montalbano’s house is on the beach at a sleepy summer resort of Punto Secca. To arrive in this place anytime outside July or August is to find a deserted village, entirely closed and shuttered up. It is unlikely there will be a restaurant open, and there is only one small shop selling the barest of necessities. Montalbano’s house is not difficult to find. Once you have parked your car, head for the lighthouse and keep going so that you keep the village behind you. The last house you come to will be Montalbano’s. It would be any other ordinary house if it were not for the first floor balcony which runs the entire length of two sides of the house – more of a narrow terrace than a balcony.
It was clearly designed for someone to appreciate the 270 degree view it commands of the sea. This is the balcony of someone who puts the world behind them and who wants to gaze at the Mediterranean towards North Africa. The house it is attached to is rather nondescript, not helped by the dull aircraft grey in which it is painted, but this is the balcony of a dreamer, a bon vivant, someone who clearly enjoys life. It is the perfect balcony for the cinema.
And despite the frequent scenes of Inspector Salvo taking a dip in the sea before work, the beach below it is hardly a glimpse of paradise. The sand extends only a hundred metres round a scruffy bay and is littered with driftwood, flotsam, detritus that is washed up from the Mediterranean onto this small promontory. Even the sand is far from golden – more a kind of tawny brown.
But it is impossible not to feel a thrill at arriving here – at having at last found one of the most iconic locations in recent television drama. Though after a quarter an hour of posing for photos, the experience begins to pall. It is time to move on, before the memory tarnishes.
Nowadays, the house is let out as a Bed and Breakfast during the winter months when filming is not taking place. It is popular and difficult to book, but I always feel a sense of pity for those that stay here. Once you have arrived and looked around, there is nothing much else to do except sit on the balcony, sip an aperitif and eat a meal – which is, of course, just what the Inspector ever does. Outside the summer months though, even the sea doesn’t look particularly inviting for a swim.
Scicli – the commissioner’s office
This is all in contrast to the delights of going in search of the police commissioner’s office in Scicli. Scicli (prounounced “Shikli”) is one of those places that is off the beaten track in most tourist itineraries. Not that it’s difficult to get to, but that the road beyond doesn’t go anywhere – except to the tiresome “marinas” on the shore.
To arrive in Scicli, take the road from Modica towards Donnalucata or Sampieri. Once out of Modica, it’s a twenty minute drive through some fairly unmemorable countryside until suddenly you come upon a hairpin bend overlooking an unexpected gorge. Scicli is cradled like a nativity scene beneath you. Scicli’s one-way system defies mathematical logic, so my impulse is always to abandon the car as soon as possible and explore on foot. One inevitably makes for the town hall, (Via Momina Penna if you need a reference to punch into Google). Pedestrian and lined with oleander trees, Via Momina Penna is an oasis of charm and one of the loveliest in Sicily. Whatever time one arrives though, it inevitably feels like time for an ice-cream or a cold beer at the Millennium bar. Certainly, sitting outside in the square gives you the time to absorb the scene – the bandstand, the flags on the town hall, the gentle peace.
The Mayor’s office of the town hall is used as the location for the Commisario’s office and nowadays, it is visitable most days. Further down the street, don’t miss a couple of charming Baroque churches, the enchanting chemist’s shop (“Farmacia”) and Palazzo Spadaro.
After Via Momina Penna, it is worth spending a bit more time exploring Scicli as there is plenty for the eye to enjoy and usually not too many tourists. Highlights are Palazzo Fava and Palazzo Busacca and, if you are feeling strong, a walk up to the Convento della Croce for some fine views of the town.
Not far from Scicli down on the coast is Sampieri and the emblematic brick factory which burnt down in 1924 and has been left as a ruined hulk ever since. Many of the more incriminating scenes of Montalbano were filmed here, so it is intriguing to visit. It is not possible to go inside but there are a number of tracks that lead down to the adjacent sea. But despite its magnificence, the whole area seems on edge and one doesn’t feel welcome or at home. It doesn’t help that the whole area is used as a gay cruising ground, but you also get the feeling you could easily be mugged. It’s not really an area to loiter.
The other central location for much of the shooting of Montalbano has been around the Piazza Duomo in Ragusa Ibla – in particular Palazzo Arezzo and Palazzo Bruno-Ottaviano. And also one other location in Ragusa Ibla which is sadly no longer in the same place – the trattoria Rusticana which was on the left hand side walking up Corso XXV April from the Giardino Ibleo. This delightful small trattoria had an outdoor seating area beneath a canopy of Virginia creeper that was quite one of the most lovely in Sicily. In almost every episode, Montalbano would stop here with one of his colleagues for a plate of pasta all norma or aubergine caponata. But, as far as I understand, the fame of this trattoria from Montalbano proved to much for it and the assault of well-meaning aficionados meant that it had to move to a new location around the corner. And in the process, I regret to say, has lost its charm.
Donnafugata – Ispica – Marzamemi
There are a few other outlying locations which are definitely worth the visit if you have time. One is surely the castle of Donnafugata (once owned by Corrado Arezzo De Spuches – of the same family as the Palazzo Arezzo in Ragusa) and which, in the Montalbano films is used for the house of the mafioso.
The other charming place which is worth a visit are the old houses just beneath Parco Forza in Ispica. The cave houses lining the side of the gorge were still lived in until the 1950s and even today are still used as stables by some of the locals. But they still provide a perfect backdrop for a film setting.
Marzamemi has also been sky-rocketed to fame by the Montalbano series. But if you chose to visit, be sure to come out of season. Nothing more than an (albeit thoroughly charming) tuna-fishing quarter, the place is tiny – just a courtyard the size of a hockey pitch – and on an August evening, it can easily seem as if the whole of Italy is there.
Otherwise, Noto and Modica are similarly full of locations that any keen-eyed Montalbano fan will recognise. Nowadays too, in the local bookshops, it is possible to pick up a guide that will pinpoint the locations for you.
However, identifying the locations of the Montalbano film is one way to see this area, but it is of course, it is just as valid to stroll the area as if Montalbano never existed.
And in many ways, this would be my preferred way – to happen upon the these beautiful locations by chance.
Esplora Travel visit many of these locations during their small group tours of Sicily