No other television fiction series in Italy has enjoyed such a following as Il Commissario Montalbano, based on the detective novels by Andrea Camillieri. It is no doubt the most popular television series in the long history of Italy's state braodcaster, RAI, reaching 38 percent of shares, or 10 million viewers, on the last episode of the season, The Age of Doubt. Italy's version of Sir Author Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Cristie's Inspector Poirot, Inspector Montalbano's success is due to the ever-popular whodunit genre, breathtaking views of Baroque Sicily and the engaging mix of Montalbano's taciturn demeanour and investigative acumen.
Italy's most beloved fictional detective, Salvo Montalbano, is based in Vigata, Sicily. Despite this fictitious name, the fictional home of one of Italy's most popular literary characters is closely based on the southern Sicilian coastal town of Porto Empedocle, the birthplace of the inspector's creator and award-winning novelist, Andrea Camilleri. In recognition of his great success, Vigata has been appended to Porto Empedocle's name. A perfect way to discover this part of Sicily is to use the stories and TV episodes themselves as your guide.
We began our exploration in Empedocle. At its heart lies via Roma, a charming and tree-lined key location familiar to all Camilleri fans. The street is littered with cafes, but there really is only one choice: Salvo's favourite, the Caffè Albanese, now known as Bar Vigata. Stop for a fresh ricotta-filled cannolo, sip an espresso and watch passersby, the majority of whom could have stepped from the pages of any Montalbano novel.
Near the bar, you'll find the inspector himself but don't expect Luca Zingaretti, his TV incarnation. This inspector couldn't be more different: moustachioed, ageing yet with a full head of hair. The inspector we are looking at is a statue, commissioned to celebrate Porto Empedocle's favourite son, who is based on Camilleri's scant descriptions of him in the series. Looking a little perplexed, perhaps chewing over the nuances of a particularly tricky case, we imagine he'd soon be in his car and heading home.
Montalbano's home is the suburb of Marinella, an outer neighbourhood of Emepedocle. Heading there, going west on the Trapani road, we stopped at the Lido di Marinella. The expanse of sand is edged with whitewashed villas; their terraces, bathed in sunlight, border on the beachfront and it doesn't take much imagination to see our inspector sipping a glass of whisky as the sun sets.
The coast to the west of Marinella leads to the Turkish Steps, a natural marl cliff formation that declines spectacularly towards the sea. In the height of summer, bathers and sun worshippers throng the area, but Montalbano fans know it has a darker side. When Salvo needs to meet secretly with his old friend and informer, Gegè, the Steps provide much needed privacy, especially at night. Don't miss the view from the road above, even if you don't stop for a swim.
Not far from Porto Empedocle is the larger settlement of Agrigento. Camilleri takes some aspects of this town to create the fictional town of Montelusa. It is home to Montalbano's dreaded boss, Bonetti-Alderighi, as well as the regional police headquarters and the Moorish district of the Rabatu. The district clings to the hillside and a network of narrow passageways intersects ramshackle courtyards. The author describes these veins and arteries as ‘tortuous' when he takes Salvo there to track down a potential lead.
Less tortuous is the Valley of the Temples. However, if you were to ask Salvo's girlfriend, the long-suffering Livia, she may have a different opinion, often being sent there to sight-see whilst Montalbano is (yet again) urgently called away. The ancient temples sit in an olive-strewn valley on the outskirts of town and are one of the great sights of Magna Grecia and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Of more interest to Montalbano fans are the olive trees themselves. Find one with a gnarled, biblical trunk and sit in its shade, as the inspector often does under his favourite Saracen tree.
At this point, we closed the books and began taking our clues from the TV episodes. Further to the east, along the southern coast of Sicily, are the locations used for RAI's massively popular television series. Many of the street scenes are filmed in and around Piazza del Duomo, at the heart of Ragusa Ibla, one of Sicily's baroque jewels. When Salvo leaves his desk in search of a long lunch, he passes ornately sculpted balconies, high-arched doorways and the similarly tiered wedding cake of the San Giorgio cathedral. His usual destination is the Trattoria San Calogero, ably played by the real Trattoria La Rusticana in Corso XXV Aprile. As the name suggests, it specialises in flavoursome, regional dishes. If you are eating outside under the vine arbour, be sure to peek inside, where you'll find the unmistakable patterned arches that appear in the TV episodes, as well as photographs of the cast and crew.
To locate the Vigata police headquarters, head south and make a stop in the stunning baroque town of Scicli, smaller sister to Ragusa. The entire Val di Noto area has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site for its history and striking beauty. The town hall in via Mormino Penna doubles as the Commissariato di Vigata. A sign outside with images of Fazio, Mimi and Salvo reflect the town's pride at being part of the television series.
The most iconic image for all Montalbano aficionados is his beachside house in Marinella. Palomar, the company behind the television series, chose a property relatively close to Scicli, which was practically on the beach at Punta Secca. The journey down to the coast is best made when the afternoon fades to dusk behind the olive groves and dry stone walls. The intersecting maze of sturdy, weathered rocks also have their part to play in the inspector's cases. You'll see them in several episodes, with a victim fleeing her persecutors or the comical Catarella hunting mushrooms amongst the crevices.
In Punta Secca, head for the Piazzetta della Torre Scalambri. This square features an eleventh-century tower, which, although it is no longer the star of the show, having given way to Salvo's house at the opposite end of the little square, it is still a must-see. The wrap-around upper gallery and shaded lower terrace throw shadows over the sands below. Montalbano often clears his head by taking a solitary stroll along this beach or cutting through the surf to the head of the bay. Back on the balcony, the phone rings, another case begins: ‘Montalbano sono ...'
The Camilleri Fan Club website has a wealth of information on Inspector Montalbano; see www.vigata.org. If you missed the end-of-season escapades of Italy's best-loved inspector, you can watch these and others at www.rai.tv. Need a dictionary to understand the Sicilian-Italian jargon and linguistic nuances? See http://www.montalbano.tv/dizionario.
When the film crews are not in town, you can actually stay at Salvo's house in Punta Secca: see www.discoveringsicily.com.
Organised tours retrace the books or TV espisode locations; click
Salvo's new choice after the Trattoria San Calogero closed (fictionally, of course) is the Osteria al Timone Da Enzo, on via Nino Bixio in Porto Empedocle (tel. 333/4132461). In real life, the Trattoria San Calogero is La Rusticana, which serves tasty local foods in Ragusa Ibla (tel. 0932/227981).