The Upstager

Although many scenes in the Montalbano episodes are filmed in Scicli, the sede della location is 30 kilometres north in the hilltop town of Ragusa.

The Duomo of San Giorgio, Ragusa, May, 2015. On my return two years later the palm trees were gone.  A pity.  I thought they added a nice touch

Given that Andrea Camilleri, the author of the novels the episodes are based on, was born in Porto Empedocle, a few kilometres west of the Valley of the Temples in the Province of Agrigento, it was widely considered – especially by the citizens of Porto Empedocle – that the series would be set in the author’s birthplace.

Driving into Ragusa for the first time in 2005.

By the way, what is up with the apparent Italian craze for English words and expressions? The way Italians pronounce those words does make them sound a lot more intriguing, but really, don’t they have any language police like the French?  It drives me crazy.  It took me forever to figure out that the ‘Veep’ one young receptionist was going on and on about – at one point, it was getting so awkward she tried speaking English, but that only made things worse – were celebrities visiting in the area. VIP’s.

10 years later, Corso Umberto, the heart of Ragusa, on a Sunday morning.

To the surprise of many and the dismay of the empedoclini, after a great deal of searching – soul-searching as well as geographical – the town of Ragusa was chosen over Porto Empedocle.  The reason given was the povertà scenografica not only of Porto Empedocle, but of the ENTIRE province of Agrigento.  Ouch! It was a decision that to this day arouses bitter polemiche e rivendicazioni among the citizens of Agrigento, who in addition to having their feelings hurt, are also no doubt well aware of having lost out on a serious source of tourist revenue.  Their discontent has sometimes even been directed at Camilleri, who in his defence has been at pains to point out that he had put in la buona parola (good word) for Porto Empedocle,  “Però, se tecnicamente but, if technically speaking, the natural beauties of this area have been sporcate (sullied) by construction, satellite dishes and whatever, che ci posso fare (what can I do)?”

To my dismay, two years earlier I had taken a wrong turn and almost ended up in Porto Empedocle on my way to the Scala dei Turchi.

La Scala dei Turchi. No povertà scenografica here.

I took lots of photos of the Turkish Staircase (post to come – eventually), but none of Porto Empedocles.  (Camilleri was right.)  I also took lots of Ragusa, which as the location scouts knew, is full of intriguing alleys and buildings that lend themselves beautifully to crime scenes and interesting venues for investigations.

In one episode Montalbano walks under this arch on his way to interview a reluctant witness.

I had liked Ragusa so much on my previous visits that I decided to stay here this time.  L’Orto sul Tetto, a B&B in the centro storico sounded perfect – charming hosts, steps from the Duomo and breakfast in the rooftop vegetable garden it’s named for.  Well worth the ordeal getting there. Previous guests recommended slavishly following your GSP.  Others, better informed, who know we visitors are not allowed to drive into the historic centre said forget it, just phone from the big parking lot below the centre and someone from the B&B would come and get you.

Ragusa’s narrow, atmospheric alleys are a director’s – and a tourist’s! – dream, but it’s clear that living here has its challenges.

Since I had been to Ragusa just two years earlier ( ‘Keeping Everybody Happy’, August 2, 2015), I figured I could manage getting to the B&B on my own.  After a fair bit of time spent cross-checking the directions I found on Google against the map I’d brought back from my previous visit I had a rather long, but what I thought was a foolproof set of directions.

I got as far as the little piazza in the photo below.  I knew I was close.  The B&B was at Via Tenente Distefano, 56 (in Italy street numbers follow the street names), the street directly across from the bar. But there was a big sign, which, atypically, had been placed where it couldn’t be missed, even by a frazzled foreign driver, advising that the area beyond the sign was a ZTL.  Zona Traffico Limitato.  All the major cities and towns in Italy have them.  They are to keep outsiders – even Italian outsiders – off the roads in really tight or congested areas.  I once got terribly lost in Padua in northern Italy and ended up driving through a ZTL.  Of course I had no idea at the time and was horrified when a couple of months later I received a letter from the car rental agency containing a copy of a hefty fine which had been charged to my Visa.

For once ignoring the ‘No Parking’ signs scattered around the tiny piazza, I pulled up in front of the bar to ponder my next move.  A couple of tourists sitting at a table in front of the bar eyed me sympathetically.

The idea of having a good cry was tempting and although I am a firm believer in the therapeutic effects of a good cry, I doubted it would help in this case, so instead I went into the bar.  Not, as some of you may be thinking, to drown my sorrows.  Italian bars, I have discovered over the countless times I have got lost in my travels around the country, are a surprisingly reliable source of information.  I explained my predicament to the signorina tending the bar.  It turned out I was less than a 10-minute walk from the B&B and a mere 100 meters from the parking lot.  But, she warned, the vigili passed by regularly and I would get a big fat multa (ticket) if I left my car where it was.  Also, the parking lot was at the bottom of the hill.  ‘Non ce la farà con la valigia.’  She doubted I would be able to drag my suitcase up the long staircase.  As if that wasn’t bad enough, she added with a concerned look on her face that even though the B&B was not far, it would be una fatica (fa-tee-kuh) to get there.  It was all uphill.

So, so close.  The ultimate frustration. Behind the bar was the blue dome I’d used to make my way back to the parking lot on my previous trip.

While I worked on trying to find my zen zone, she came up with the solution to my predicament.  A solution that was as simple as it was generous. She would keep an eye on my suitcase while I parked my car.  Then I really almost burst into tears.

As the signorina had warned me, it was a good workout hauling my suitcase up to the B&B, but I hardly felt it.  Amazing how an act of kindness can lighten our load.

Looking out my window the next morning I couldn’t see much of yesterday’s long climb, but I had a great view of the street below.  No wonder tourists aren’t allowed to drive up here.

Breakfast wasn’t quite ready when I went up to the rooftop terrace, so I put my things down at one of the tables and went over to have a look at the ‘orto‘.  It was lovely.  A tiny bit of paradise full of citrus trees and what back home we call ‘tropicals’.  A few minutes later I was joined by Pino, who in addition to helping with the breakfast service, is also the gardener.   He saw me looking at a shopping bag in one of the lemon trees.  At first I thought it had just blown into the tree and got caught in the branches, but when I got closer I saw it had been very carefully tied, at the top and bottom, onto a branch.  “Margotta”, he said.  “Innesto?” I asked, thinking margotta might be Sicilian for ‘graft’.  No, no, no.  It was a totally different thing.  Whenever he wants a new tree – you can never have too many lemon trees in a Sicilian garden – he has a good look at a ‘Mother’ tree and chooses a branch he thinks will make a good, new one.  He carefully scrapes the bark to form a ring around the branch and then he ties a bag filled with moist earth around the ring.  In September he cuts the branch off – below the bag, which is where the roots of the new tree have formed – and plants it in a pot.

Margotta, a simple and chemical-free way of multiplying your plants. ‘Layering’ in English.

Pino also had a place in campagna (cam-pan-yuh).  In the countryside outside Ragusa.  There he has olive trees and fruit trees of every variety. Tutti i frutti.   He made a point of letting me know that he grows everything zoobiologicamente.  Organically.  No poisons or chemicals touch his plants or soil.  He started to tell me about his natural remedies for pests.  For the tiny wasps that attack the olive trees he makes a concoction of honey and vinegar and hangs bottles of it – the bottles have small holes that prevent the wasps from getting out – on the trees, a few scattered through the grove, but most of them at the south end, the direction the wasps come from.  Controlling aphids takes a few trattamenti of a spray made with ortica (or-tee-kuh).  I grimaced. Yes I knew what it was, having stumbled into a clump on a trail years earlier.  Stinging nettle.

The tiny orange tree in the pot next to the table where I had breakfast was one of Pino’s ‘margottas‘.

I’m sure he would have loved to go on – and me too – but other guests had come up to the terrace.  It was time for la prima colazione (pree-muh coh-lah-tsee-oh-nay).

Lingering over breakfast in the lush, secluded getaway was a wonderful way to start the day.

I loved going out the front door of the B&B and walking up the lane to the Duomo.

The first time I reached the top of the ridge and saw the light display being installed along Corso Umberto I wondered if by sheer luck my stay in Ragusa coincided with a festival.  I have mixed feelings about Italy’s festivals.  In Puglia I had once got caught in the middle of a procession and couldn’t get back to my car (‘When the Saints Go Marching’, Apr. 4, 2017) and on this trip I ended up handing my car keys over to perfect strangers – twice – because of festivals.  One of the guests at Montalbano’s Villa, a Brit who was using Sicily’s limited public transit to get around, had hired a driver  to take him to Noto for the annual Infiorata (‘Flowery But Not Florid Street Art’, July 7, 2015).  It cost him €120 – roughly $180 Cdn – for four hours, 45 minutes of which he had spent sitting behind hundreds of other cars in periferia and another 45 minutes getting to the little lane where the display is held.   Festivals can be a fantastic experience.  The trick is to get settled in before they start and plan not to go anywhere in your car until they’re over.

In the middle of the piazza was another ZTL sign. I pitied the poor tourist who drove up here.

Down the lane to the left was the trattoria where I’d had a lovely Sunday lunch on my previous trip.

There were lights on the side streets too. This one reminded me of a Victorian Christmas scene.

La Bettola was closed. It was their weekly giorno di chiusura. Just around the corner I saw a few people eating at tables set out along a narrow terrace. I was hungry so I decided to give it a try.

The pasta del giorno, tuna with tomatoes from Pachino and mint. Delizioso!

Feeling much better, I tucked the half bottle carefully into my bag.  It was delicious, but as the Stanford marshmallow experiment showed, a bit of delayed gratification often leads to greater rewards, in this case not feeling (too) sluggish after lunch and a lovely aperitivo on the rooftop terrace of the B&B in the evening.

Further down the corso I came to the meeting place of the so-called ‘Conversation Society’ where Montalbano occasionally interrupts Dottor Pasquano, the irascible coroner, at a card game.

Where the corso narrows can get pretty congested with locals autorizzati to drive in the ZTL and school groups and tourists.  Add in the lighting crew and their equipment and it becomes really slow going. But everyone took it in their stride. They knew the town was getting ready for a party.

The last time I’d seen such a big light display was in Gaeta on my way back from the gardens of the Reggia Caserta (‘Versailles all’italiana’, Feb. 1, 2015).  In fact it was so big it had fatto saltare il generatore.  Made the town’s generator jump.  I went up to one of the crew to have a chat.  They travelled all over Sicily putting up these displays.  And no, he laughed, they weren’t worried about blowing the generators.  Una volta sì.  In the past, yes, they’d had problems, but now they bring in extra portable generators.  And they use LED lights which consume much less electricity.

Like working on a giant puzzle. With electrically charged pieces.

The panels would all be mounted, and the lights tested and ready to go for the opening ceremonies on Friday evening.   Oh, I said dejectedly, I’ll miss it by one day. I would be in Siracusa on Friday. The festival continues until Sunday, he said hopefully.   I shook my head.  It may be something a local would do – Siracusa is less than 100 kilometres from Ragusa – but there was no way I was going to drive back along those narrow, twisting, country roads in the dark.

At ground level the crew had neat bundles of colour-coded wires at the ready.

I continued down the lane towards the Public Garden.

Was it really the same crowd that had been sitting in front of the San Giorgio Social Club two years earlier?

Even the Giardino Pubblico was getting the treatment.

I retraced my steps to the Duomo di San Giorgio, Saint George, in whose honour the festival was being held.

The sunlight caught some of the bulbs at just the right angle to give a hint of what things would look like Friday evening.

I had just taken the photo below when a young man came up to me and asked if I would fare una foto.  Certo, I replied.  He pointed to a group standing in front of the Duomo.  They were all young men, of various skin colours from dark brown to black.  Sono profughi, their leader explained as we walked over to the group.  Refugees. Sono appena arrivati. In barca.  They had just arrived. By boat.  Di dove sono?  Where are they from? I asked.  Different countries – Ghana, Nigeria.  The young man had an odd, somewhat halting accent.  It didn’t sound like any dialect I’d heard. I asked where he was from. I didn’t write it down – some things you think you won’t possibly forget – but I have a vague recollection he said Chicago.  I laughed.  Allora, well, if you prefer, I said, we can speak English.

The light display was only on one side of the piazza.  Like cats everywhere, this one, on the undecorated side of the piazza, was unperturbed by all the human activity around it.

He was with an NGO that worked with the locals.  The young men before me would stay in a camp nearby for four months, to help them recover, then be transferred to a more permanent camp where they would wait to be processed.  The hope was that they would be allowed to stay.    Were there any females? I asked.  Yes, a few, but they were more traumatized so they were being kept more sheltered for the time being.  I took a couple of photos of the group, who posed solemnly in front of the church.  I wished them well.

What must it have been like for the young refugees?  To find themselves in the middle of the beautiful piazza, surrounded by carefree tourists and locals, and the preparations for a festival?  To be there, but not really there. Yet.

The entrance to the Duomo is up a flight of stairs on the left.  The small, plain door was tightly shut.  The church was on (a rather lengthy) lunch break. The sign next to the door was a bit scruffy looking so I decided to make sure the schedule was up-to-date.  A fellow came by carrying a shopping bag out of which dangled a couple of tenerumi, the long, snake-like squashes I’d seen in markets.  I figured he was a local.

Opening Hours. Every day from 10 am until (smudged) 12:30 and from 4 pm until 6:30 pm. Tuesdays open only in the afternoons.  It is (smudged) forbidden to visit the church during sacred (smudged) functions. Please turn off cell phones.

Another couple came up to the door as he was assuring me that the opening hours were indeed as posted.  It was almost 3:30 by now, he suggested we go up to the Belvedere and take in the ‘beautiful sight’.  It was hot and all three of us were already puffing but, as the signora commented,  ‘Ormai abbiamo fatto trenta…’ (We have already done 30).  The rest of the expression, often left unsaid, is ‘Facciamo trentuno.’  Let’s do 31.

Partway up, someone had taken advantage of a kind of open air landing.

I’d come across the peculiar saying years ago when I lived in Tuscany.  lt didn’t make any more sense coming from the mouth of a Sicilian. (She was from Agrigento.)

In almost every town I visited I saw signs like this one of the battle against the corruption that had crippled the island for centuries.

Perchè 30?’ I asked.  What was so special about that number?  Ah, she shrugged, I’m not the colto (educated one).  She pointed to her companion. ‘He’s the one who knows about geography and everything.  His sisters are maestre (teachers)’.  This struck me as an unfair and potentially inaccurate attribution so I countered, Ognuno ha le sue doti.  Everyone has their own gifts.  E’ vero, she agreed, ed io ho le mie.  ‘It’s true, and I have mine.’  On this note of happy solidarity – but no wiser about the saying – we continued up the stairs.

At the top of the staircase, a palace that looked perfect for a Montalbano episode.  The cushion and towels hung out to dry heightened the sense of decay and faded glory oozing from its walls.

As anyone who has spent time in Sicily will know, it’s probably absolutely magnificent inside.

Like Montalbano, we gazed out on the ‘new’ Ragusa, where most of the locals built after their homes after the earthquake of 1693.

When we got back to the Duomo it was open.  There was another sign inside the main door.


St. George and his steed about to stomp on the dragon were all set for the procession.  Unlike the Madonna in Scicli, St. George would not be rolled through the town, but would be carried on the stalwart shoulders of the members of the Association of Portatori (from portare, to carry).

The banner of the Associazione dei Portatori is proudly displayed next to the saint.

The Duomo was filled with the lavish ornamentation typically found in religious buildings of its stature. The only difference was that there seemed to be a lot more Madonnas than usual.

Notice the careful placement of the blanket in the lower right corner and of the head of the cherub kneeling on a cloud in the upper left corner.

On the other side of the altar an ornately decorated reliquary was also set up for the parade.

L’Arca Santa. Presumably the reliquary is connected to San Giorgio, but I haven’t been able to find any information on exactly whose sacred remains it contains.

At one end of the reliquary, golden-robed angels.

At the other end, I’m not sure. These dark-skinned figures seem much too finely dressed and their position too exalted for them to be symbols of the usual downtrodden mori.

While I was fiddling with my camera – as you can see the lighting was all over the place – the couple came over to say they were leaving.  E’ stato un piacere, said la signora as she held out her hand to shake mine.  A small, and delightful gesture that, no matter how many times it happens, always takes me by surprise.  The idea that a shared experience, even a short one, is something of meaning that warrants more than a casual Arrivederci.

The lights wouldn’t be turned on until the following evening. Even so, it was quite a display.


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