A while ago I started to notice a geographical shift in the questions I was getting from people who were thinking of going to Italy. Many of them wanted to know about the perennial favourite, Tuscany, but more and more often it was Sicily they were interested in. What was going on? When I explained that if they wanted to experience southern Italy there were other regions with spectacular scenery and sites that were much easier to get to and where the public transit was much better – Puglia or the Amalfi Coast for example – they shook their heads. For some, the allure of Sicily was its Greek temples, for others its Arab-Norman cathedrals, or Roman ruins or baroque architecture. And there was one more thing. Or rather person. Actually, a non-existent person.
It had happened before. Peter Mayle had put Provence on the map with his tales of life in Ménerbes. When Francis Mayes wrote ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’, busloads of tourists started coming to Cortona, which up until then had been just another of Tuscany’s many lovely, but essentially unknown hilltop villages. In Italy’s northern Lake District visitors seek out the settings for scenes from Star Wars and James Bond movies. In Venice fans of Donna Leon’s gialli (jahl-lee), which most of the time means ‘yellow’, but can also mean detective novels, follow in the footsteps of the fictional Commissario Guido Brunetti who, starting with ‘Death at La Fenice’ in the early 1990’s, has gone on to solve 25+ murders set in the watery lagoon.
Now it was Sicily’s turn. In 1994 Andrea Camilleri, a native of Sicily, and long-time resident of Rome, where he had worked as a screen writer, director and on TV productions, published ‘La Forma dell’Acqua’ (The Shape of Water), a crime novel featuring a ‘fractious’ Sicilian detective. In homage to Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, the author of Spain’s most famous fictional detective, José ‘Pepe’ Carvalho, Camilleri had named his detective, who shares many traits with his Spanish counterpart – including his love of food – Silvo Montalbano. The book was an instant bestseller and the rest, as the saying goes, is history.
In case you aren’t familiar with the Montalbano phenom, it all started on May 6, 1999 when RAI, Italy’s public national broadcaster, aired a show called ‘Il Ladro di Merendine’ (The Snack Thief), in which the beleaguered, but ultimately honourable (not to mention very appealing) Commissario Montalbano, Chief Inspector of an imaginary town in Sicily, sets out to discover why merendine (snacks) keep disappearing and how two unfortunate strangers came to their violent deaths. The response of Italian viewers was unheard of in an era where we blithely surf hundreds of channels. As one commentator put it, it was as if they had gone back to the old days when RAI was the only broadcaster. To say it was the launch of an extraordinary success, worldwide as well as in Italy, is almost an understatement. First airings of subsequent episodes – 30 as of March of this year – have continued to attract millions of viewers. The most watched episode so far, Come voleva la prassi (According to Protocol) attracted 11, 2000,000 viewers. In Italy alone. Even repeat airings, including during the usual dismal summer period, have attracted astounding numbers. And one episode, La Gita a Tindari (Excursion to Tindari) was watched by more viewers when it was replayed (8.2 million in 2013) than when it was originally aired, (7.3 million in 2001).
I began to imagine a return trip to Sicily. Instead of the big UNESCO sites which I’d visited just a couple of years earlier, some for the second time – I would focus on filming locations – not just for the Montalbano series, but also the great movies that have been set in Sicily – The Godfather, Malena, The Star Maker, Cinema Paradiso and The Leopard, Visconti’s classic movie in which Burt Lancaster is improbably cast as the aging patriarch in the dying days of Sicily’s aristocracy. When I discovered that in real life, the seaside house of the fictional detective operated as a B&B, that was it.
I booked a flight to Palermo and then I contacted ‘B&B La Casa Di Montalbano‘. Maria replied right away. I was thrilled to learn that no, they weren’t fully booked for the following May. In fact bookings for 2017 weren’t yet open. It was only mid-October. I think it’s fair to say that once I get an idea for a trip I like to jump on it. She asked me to gentilmente get back to her in December. I didn’t want to appear too eager, so I let the first few days of December go by before writing to her again. Yes, she had una camera libera for May 21 and 22, although they had yet to establish the prices for the upcoming year. In any event she reassured me that the anticipated increase would not be more than 3%. There was one more thing. New episodes of the Montalbano series were going to be filmed around that time and typically she had been given only a few days’ notice of when the villa would be needed. In light of this, she proposed, if I wished, to confirm a reservation for me with the promise that if the villa turned out not to be available for my dates she would help arrange alternative accommodation in the area. This way, she added, I might get to watch some of the scenes being filmed. I was a little uneasy – normally I like to have my accommodation riservato and confirmato – but I had a strong feeling she wouldn’t leave me high and dry. Besides, who knew? I might catch some real live filming.
While I was meandering around the Internet looking for information about the real life villa – it had originally been a warehouse for salting sardines – I came across an article in a local newspaper that struck me as no less fictional than the fictional detective. ‘La Casa di Montalbano è Abusiva’ screamed the headline. ‘Montalbano’s house is illegal!’ (‘VocidiCittà (Voices of the City), April 4, 2016)
The article was difficult to follow, full of references to Italian TV shows I had never watched – or even heard of – and laws I (thankfully) have never had to deal with. Apparently, in April of 2015, a TV show had aired the results of an investigation in which the show’s researchers had ‘uncovered’ documents – including a demolition order – according to which the villa was una costruzione abusiva. Specifically, the terrace where the by now world-famous and much loved detective takes phone calls, has his morning espresso and occasionally a glass of wine with a gorgeous, long-legged blond, had been illegally built.
Before we go into what happened next – a bit of background info is in order. First of all, the channel on which the show appeared is called Italia 1. It is a commercial channel optimistically launched in January 1982 as a ‘interconnection’ of twenty regional stations designed to broadcast programs ‘oriented especially at young people’ throughout the Italian territory. However, by September of the same year, the network was floundering – mostly due to super aggressive advertising tactics by the rival channel, Canale 5 – which, not coincidentally, is owned by Berlusconi, and who, in November seized control of the fledgling channel and merged it with Rete 10. Which he also owns.
The show that aired the earth-shaking scandal is called ‘Le Iene’. Le Iene (lay ee-ay-nay) means ‘The Hyenas’. It is described as a comedy/satirical show, with sketches and reports into political affairs and consumer issues. Berlusconi and Hyenas. I think that says it all.
The first to react was the mayor of Punta Secca, the real life hamlet – population 226 -where the villa is located. ‘Obviously someone is just trying to dirty the image of our hamlet with this scoop. The so-called order dates back to 1991. Who knows how many sanatorie are underway?’
Italy might be a lot better off if a few of the people in charge were stowed away in a sanatorium for a while but I didn’t see what such places had to do with Montalbano’s terrace. It turns out una sanatoria is one of those ‘false friends’ . (I’ve written about this before, but in case you missed it, ‘false friends’ aka faux amis are words that look like English words but mean something quite different and can get you into a lot of trouble, as you will learn if, for example, you try to borrow a book from una libreria. A bookstore. If you really want to borrow a book you’ll need to go to una biblioteca. ) Una sanatoria is not a hospital, but a special provision whereby the authorities can decide to ‘consider legitimate a situation that in and of itself may be irregular’. A kind of amnesty for life’s irregolarità. Sounds like a great idea to me.
The mayor’s outburst was followed by the usual torrent of commentary and at one point, the owner of the villa, Pietro Di Quattro, clearly exasperated with the whole business, threatened to take legal action. ‘They have brought forward some old documents, but more than 20 years have passed and no action has ever been taken.’ His grandfather bought the property from the state in 1904 and built the terrazzino ‘in maniera lecita‘. In total compliance with the law. While Di Quattro was being overly modest in his characterization of the allegedly offending addition as a ‘little terrace’, his frustration was understandable.
It was still early when I got back to the villa. Since my earlier request for a pre-breakfast cappuccino, had not been received with the usual grace I experience at B&B’s, I set off to explore Punta Secca.
In the end it was no less than the Governor of Sicily, Rosario Crocetta, who put an end to the controversy, declaring that ‘La Casa di Montalbano non si tocca.’ The issue had clearly touched a nerve with Crocetta. ‘To ensure that Montalbano’s House was not toccata (touched) and in consideration of the historic and cultural value it had acquired, and in honour not only of Commissario Montalbano, and Camilleri (the Governor made no distinction between the fictional and real life characters…), but all of Sicily which did not deserve the chiacchiericci (kyak-kyeh-reech-chee) scandalistici (tabloid blathering) that was trying to bring up again the concept of a region where everything is sbagliato (a mistake) the government would take action immediately to put a vincolo monumentale on the building’.
A vincolo is a tie or a duty or restriction, but I had a feeling that a vincolo monumentale was something more involved than an extra large vincolo. After ploughing through pages of legalistic articles – given that all those fancy Latin legal terms are not much different from standard Italian, Italian legalese is only slightly more incomprehensible than the English version – I came away with the sense it has to do with restrictions on the kind of things a property owner is allowed to do. Having the authorities put a vincolo monumentale on your property did not look like something a property owner would ever wish for. But the exception proves the rule and in the case of Montalbano’s villa, the owner couldn’t have asked for a better solution.
I had been looking forward to breakfast on the terrace, but it was still pretty windy. There had been a lot of talk the evening of my arrival as to whether we were in the midst of a maestrale or a tramontana, one of which lasts several days, the other seven or eight. I never did figure out which was which, but luckily had arrived at the tail end of the shorter one.
Instead breakfast was served in … Montalbano’s bedroom. Now and then one of us would open the door onto the terrace and go out with our coffee, but the wind made such a commotion we quickly came back inside and under the not too friendly gaze of the guests still sitting at the table, carefully close the door behind us.
A word of warning in case you are thinking of staying at the B&B – try to avoid weekends. Those reports on the websites about bus tours and hordes of fans swarming the site are not exaggerated.
Next: La Questura, the fictional Police Headquarters where Montalbano is regularly tormented by his interfering boss.