“Commissario Montalbano sono”. These words – “I am Inspector Montalbano” – undoubtedly, sound familiar to fans of the RAI 1 series Commissario Monalbano. Based on the novels by the late – and great – Andrea Camilleri, Montalbano has been making regular appearances on BBC 4 since 2012. I came to the series on the back of other BBC4 Saturday evening crime staples such as The Killing or The Bridge. By then accustomed to those so-called ‘Scandi Noir’ programmes – gruesome, predominantly filmed in dimly-lit spaces, and peopled by largely taciturn characters and loners – Montalbano did not, initially, appeal to me. The programme was too bright, too vivid, too lively. But luckily, those first impressions did not last long and I was soon captivated by the passionate inspector – anything but taciturn – and his fellow investigators: the serial womaniser ‘Mimì’ Augello, the faithful and hard-working Fazio, and the hapless Catarella. From being glued to the screen on Saturday nights it was a small step to reading the books, too, and for once the exacting literary critic in me was happy with the way the books had been adapted for the small screen: the actors fitted the characters as I had imagined them, the locations were beautiful, and so it wasn’t long before I started thinking about planning a holiday around my favourite TV detective.
Using novels or their authors to market places or regions for tourism is certainly not a new thing. We only have to think of the many literary destinations in the UK alone: Stratford is all about Shakespeare; West Yorkshire’s Haworth is at the heart of Brontë Country; Dorchester and Dorset celebrate their connections to Thomas Hardy; and I am writing this article in Portsmouth, the birthplace of Charles Dickens, the city where Arthur Conan Doyle penned his first Sherlock Holmes story, and where my colleagues in the city university’s English Department maintain an interactive map of ‘Literary Portsmouth’ that celebrates all the city’s literary greats, past and present. In a similar manner, Sicily has, in recent years, been using Montalbano as an added marketing tool to attract visitors from all over the world, and it is pretty straightforward to plan a holiday around the main sites and locations.
The setting for the novels
The main setting of the novels is the fictional town of Vigatà which is loosely based on Camilleri’s birthplace of Porto Empedocle on the South Western coast of Sicily. While Camilleri might have had fond memories of Porto Empedocle, the town is not necessarily the most picturesque of places, and so RAI 1’s location scouts might be forgiven for finding alternatives with slightly more screen appeal. The result is a wide variety of places clustered around the stunning Baroque towns of Ragusa Ibla, Modica, Scicli, Noto, and Ispica as well as the nearby Castello di Donnafugata. In Ragusa Ibla, for instance, we can find the Circolo di Conversazione, a stunning neo-classical Palazzo dating back to the 1850s where the series’ curmudgeonly but lovable pathologist Dottore Pasquano plays cards. Donnafugata is home to the head of the series’ local mafia clan, Don Balduccio Sinagra. ‘Vigatà’ is, predominantly, filmed in Scicli, one of the lesser-known of the numerous stunning Baroque towns of the region: approaching by driving down narrow and winding roads surrounded by towering cliffs, the town is a marvel of small limestone houses built on top of each other and into the cliffs and imposing Baroque façades. The local town hall is home to the set of the series’ ‘Commisariato di Vigatà’, and the Mayor’s real-life office doubles as the TV programme’s office of the Questore, Montalbano’s superior and, more often than not, his nemesis. Both office and set can be visited and there is a steady stream of tourists posing for photos at Montalbano’s desk while the lively local guide passes on stories and gossip from the set.
These are all towns and attractions that have always been an integral part of the Sicilian tourist trail but that have, undoubtedly, been made even more popular by their regular appearances in the series. But the place that is, nowadays, probably most associated with Montalbano is one that has not been on the radar of international visitors prior to the RAI adaptation: Punta Secca. A largely unremarkable fishing village with a regular population of just a few hundred inhabitants, Punta Secca comes to life during the summer months, largely due to its long and sandy beach that attracts predominantly Italian visitors, many of them Sicilians from the larger nearby towns and cities who have a summer bolthole there. Punta Secca is the fictional Marinella, Montalbano’s home, and location for the stunning beach house that viewers of the series have become so familiar with. The good news is that the house is a B&B where fans can not only walk in the footsteps of the detective but can also sleep and sip their morning caffè where he does. The added bonus is the location of the house that gives direct access to the marvellous beach which is so very welcome after a few busy days of sightseeing around the area. And as if this were not yet enough, there is the added option to book a table at ‘Enzo a Mare’, Montalbano’s favourite restaurant, located right on the beach, just a few hundred yards from the house. Sitting on the terrace, listening to the sound of the waves while watching the sun go down and gorging on wonderful seafood is truly memorable.
Sicily, rich in culture and heritage
Sicily is an incredible island, rich in culture and heritage, with a history that includes conquests by the Greeks, the Romans, the Normans, the Arabs. Traveling around Sicily, all of these influences are visible – from the Arab-influenced cous-cous in the Trapani region to the Norman palace in Palermo, and the ancient ruins in Segesta, Selinunte, Agrigento and Siracusa, to name but a few. To the South East lies the vast area of the Parco Nazionale di Etna and the Gole dell’ Alcantara that invite intrepid adventurers, and the interior of Sicily is home to stunning and vertiginous hill villages that are a challenge to the most experienced of drivers. There is so much to see and discover – but a few days on the Montalbano trail should be included in any itinerary.