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.



Realistic – and Not Realistic

I had come to Scicli (she-klee), the town that plays such a big role in the Montalbano Detective series.  It’s named after the Sicels, one of the three earliest known tribes in Sicily.  When the Greeks arrived, that was the end of the Sicels but not their settlement which, like towns and villages throughout the Val di Noto in south-eastern Sicily, survived centuries of invaders and conquerors only to be destroyed in the earthquake of 1693.  Like its more famous neighbours, Ragusa and Modica, Scicli was rebuilt in the ‘new’ baroque style.

Grotteschi like this one on the façade of Palazzo Beneventano were popular – and to my eye, unlikely – decorative elements of the new baroque style.

Palazzo Beneventano is considered by many to be the most beautiful baroque building in Sicily. But it’s difficult to get a good shot of it.  Although the sciclitani adopted the new architectural style for their buildings, they kept the narrow, winding alleys of the previous medieval layout, which makes it difficult to get far enough back to get a complete shot of a big building like Palazzo Beneventano. I caught my first glimpse of the palace at the end of a block that sits, island-like, between two other blocks.

Assigning modern street addresses must have been a logistical nightmare. How to decide what street a unit is on when it opens onto two, or as in the case of the store in the centre, three streets?

At the end of the block takes on new meaning in medieval Scicli.

There are a lot of baroque buildings in Sicily, so I’m going to stay clear of whether Palazzo Beneventano is the most beautiful of all.  I’m not a fan of these pronouncements anyway. They remind me of the tale of the wicked queen who commands her mirror to declare who is the fairest of them all.  The mirror, in case you’re rusty on your fairy tales, is supposed to reply that she is, but one day slips up and says Snow White, which leads to all sorts of problems for the poor, young thing.   Having said that, I think it’s fair to say there is definitely a lot of baroqueness going on here.

Below the Beneventano crest, the heads of two (conquered) mori, the historic, but obviously now politically incorrect term for dark-skinned people.

Because all the towns of the Val di Noto were rebuilt at the same time, in the same style, they are to a certain extent indistinguishable. (But I wouldn’t say that to a local.) The supports for this balcony in Scicli could easily be mistaken for those on Via Nocolaci in Noto.

But before I could explore Scicli’s baroque palazzi and Montalbano’s haunts, I had to park the car.  Like driving in Sicily – I have an entire post in the wings dedicated to that subject – parking in Sicily is not always a straightforward matter, especially if you don’t want to come back to a ticket or a bashed car.  In any event, somehow, without a piantina (map of the town)  I had managed to make my way to Piazza Italia, which is as close as you can drive to the centro storico.  This would have been good for some pretty healthy bragging rights except for the fact that I didn’t yet know where I was.  For that I still had to find the local tourist office, which hopefully would not be closed and hopefully would not yet have run out of maps.  It was only May, but it wouldn’t have been the first time.

For such a small town the piazza was a pretty lively area with an astonishing number of vehicles either whizzing around or parked, many rather haphazardly, it seemed to me. On my second time round I saw an empty spot that looked like it might be legit.  It was.  There was even a parking meter right next to it. The only problem was, I couldn’t figure out how the meter worked.  There were a few fellows I took to be locals standing next to the kiosk across the road.  I walked over under their watchful eyes.  I knew the routine by now.  They would stare, I would say ‘Buon giorno‘, keep talking and eventually one of them would start talking to me.  In this case it was a young man who put his beer down – it was 11 am – and proceeded to explain how the meter worked.   I wasn’t sure if it was his accent – much heavier than I had encountered so far – or something else (it seems small-minded to criticize those who reach out to lend a hand) but I couldn’t understand half of what he said.  I thanked him and headed back to the meter.  To my surprise he followed me.  Faccio io, (I’ll do it) he said, with a hint of swagger as his buddies watched.  He glanced at the instructions on the meter machine and said, it was easy, a one euro coin, and I’d be set.   This surprised me.  From what I had been able to make out, this was one of those places where the idea of charging people for parking while they are eating lunch is considered contrary to the social fabric.  Accordingly, although you had to pay to park between 9:30 and 12:30, it was free from then until the end of the lunch break, which in Scicli apparently ended at 16,00.  I tried to suggest that I didn’t think one euro would do it, but he was having nothing of it.  I fished around in my wallet and gave him my last one euro coin.  Usually I make a point of hanging on to spiccioli (spee-choe-lee) but I’d used up a bunch of coins for parking the day before and hadn’t yet had an opportunity to replenish my supply.  He inserted the coin, pressed the button and out came a biglietto valido fino alle …12,07.    Perhaps the vigile may not come by, he offered after an uncomfortable few moments, it’s only a few minutes.  I was occupied with resisting the urge to say I told you so, and trying to dismiss uncharitable thoughts about why I hadn’t been able to understand him in the first place, so by way of reply I gave him my best shot at an ambiguously thoughtful look.  In fairness, instead of standing red-faced in front of a parking meter with a straniera, he could have been back at the kiosk enjoying his beer.  To the relief of both of us I am sure, the solution to our predicament soon presented itself in the form of a father with his young son.   Without getting into any niceties such as enquiring how long they wished to park, he informed the hapless newcomer that because “abbiamo sbagliato” (WE had made a mistake) he could have my ticket and in return, would buy a new ticket for me for €1,50 – I would provide the additional 50 cents.  The poor fellow hesitated, looked at the duo in front of him and probably decided it was not worth arguing about.  I lavished mille grazie (a thousand thanks) on both of them and put my new biglietto which was valido until a comfortable 12,47 on the dashboard.   Then I set off in search of Montalbano.

On the left, the kiosk across the road from where I’d parked. On the right, the tourist office, which, as luck would have it was aperto (open) and still had a good supply of piantine.

Even if you’ve only watched a few Montalbano episodes, many of these photos will be familiar.  But you won’t recognize them as from a town named Scicli.  That’s because in Montalbano’s world, a world that seems so real it’s hard to remember it’s fictional, Scicli is not Scicli – it’s Vigata (vee-gah-tuh).

A poster on the door to the Tourist Office announces the upcoming MADONNA OF THE MILITIA. Historical Re-enactment of the Miraculous Intervention of 1091.

Most of the action in Vigata takes place a short walk from where I was parked, on Via Mormino Penna, a few blocks beyond the Chiesa Madre on the other side of Piazza Italia

Scicli’s Mother Church, home of the equestrian Madonna.

On my way over to the church I noticed a banner hanging from the building next to it.  Amidst the highly ornate façades of the surrounding buildings it looked jarringly, coldly modern.  It turns out it is modern.  Very modern.  The Scuola Media Lipparini (Lipparini Middle School) was built in 1961.  To make room for the new school the convent that had for centuries been attached to the church was torn down.  Which says a lot about how Scicli regards its young people.

In any event, there was nothing cold about the message on the banner.


La Giornata della Memoria is not a holiday.  But it is an extremely important day for the future of Italy.  Since 1996, on March 21 – a day chosen because of its strong symbolism as the first day of spring and renewal – a list of over 900 names – all innocent victims of the mafia – is read out in a prominent public setting and schools of all levels, primary to university, organize events, ceremonies and activities designed to educate and engage the younger generations in the battle against the mafia.  Every year the reading of the list is assigned to a different city.  Rome was the first.  Since then cities from Torino, Milano and Genoa in the north, to Bologna and Florence in central Italy and to Naples, Bari, in the far south, as well as Messina, Corleone and Gela in Sicily, but not yet Palermo, have taken up the challenge.

I walked back to the church. In anticipation of the upcoming ceremonies the Madonna had already been taken out of her niche.  Unlike the jewel-bedecked saints I’d seen in Puglia (‘When the Saints Go Marching’, April 4, 2017), there was no-one guarding the statue so I was able to get a good, close-up look at her. I thought the contraption she was mounted on took away from the intended effect, but on the day of the procession,with the crowds pressing close to her along the narrow lanes of the town, it would probably pass unnoticed.

The Madonna was already set up for the processione. The statue must be heavier than most. Usually they are  paraded around town on the (mostly broad) shoulders of the local males.

Like Spain’s Santiago (St. James) di Compostela, Sicily’s Madonna delle Milizie is celebrated for having miraculously appeared, sword in hand, on horseback and led the ‘believers’ on to victory over the ‘infidels’.

The battle took place in 1091. I wonder – as the locals follow the Madonna through the town, what do they think of the figures about to be stomped on?

I continued on to Via Mormino Penna.  The first Montalbano site I came to was the Municipio.  Confusingly – especially for a neophyte fan – as more and more episodes were made – 28 as of March 2017 – some locations ended up doing double duty. The (real-life) exterior of the (real-life) Town Hall is the (fictional) exterior of the (fictional) police headquarters where Montalbano works with Fabio and Mimì and the incomprehensible, but occasionally brilliant Catarella, while the (real-life) mayor’s office inside is the (fictional) regional office of the Superintendent which is located in the vaguely nearby and totally fictional town of Montelusa.  Adding to the confusion, despite the fact that his villa is 25 kilometres south-west of Scicli in the real-life seaside hamlet of Punta Secca, Montalbano lives and works in Vigata,

The only way for a regular tourist to see the Ufficio del Questore is by guided tour.  Not to worry.  Even if you’re generally adverse to these things, the guides are fabulous – just the right amount and type of information – and if you spring for the €5 combo, you’ll get to see two other fascinating sites nearby.

The exterior of the real-life Town Hall of Scicli and of the fictional Commissariato (police station).

The walls around the grand staircase that leads to the office of the questore/mayor are covered with enormous paintings.  Given the setting, the scenes they portray struck me as unexpected, even questionable.

On one wall, ‘La Richezza‘ (wealth).

On the opposite wall ‘La Povertà‘ (Poverty).  What message are these paintings meant to suggest?

On another wall cherubs hold up a medallion that I think the guide said was meant to represent Mussolini.  But I’m afraid by this point none of us were paying much attention to the guide, who was really doing a lovely job.  We were about to enter l’Ufficio del Questore, the room where Montalbano regularly battles with his interfering and unsympathetic boss.

An unlikely combo – Cherubs and Mussolini.

Unlike Montalbano’s Villa (previous post) the Superintendent’s Office was just as it appears in the movies.

We entered through a grand door on the right. In the series, to create a more dramatic effect,  Montalbano storms in and out of a door behind me.

In ‘Making Montalbano:  Behind the Scenes’, a fascinating documentary by MHz Networks, Alberto Sironi, Director of the series, is interviewed with views of Scicli in the background.

From the balcony, a view that seems custom-made for a movie director.

“In the beginning”, Sironi explains “we did all the filming in Sicily.  It was so much easier then to get rid of cars, road signs and ads.  The places we were filming in were much less visited by the public.  Even by Sicilians.”

The documentary is on Youtube and the interviews are in Italian and English with subtitles in English – even when the people being interviewed are speaking English.  If you are already familiar with MHz, this probably won’t come as a surprise, but it took me a while to figure out what was going on.  Sironi, like Luca Zingaretti, the actor who plays Montalbano, speaks in Italian.  You get the sense he can speak English, but to explain his work he prefers his native language.  Translating, as I’ve mentioned before, is not an easy task and I have a great deal of respect for those who choose to do it.  Creating subtitles is in a way even more challenging because of the limited space you have to work within. Having said that, the subtitles, although not as colourful as the original, are an accurate reflection of what the speaker is saying.

Sironi is also filmed against another view of Scicli that will be familiar to fans. La Chiesa di San Bartolomeo (St. Bartholomew) and on top of the ridge, la Chiesa di Santa Maria della Croce (St. Mary of the Cross).

Except for one phrase that occurs while Sironi is standing with the view below in the background. He is talking about the early days of filming when “Everything was più puro, più sognato” (more pure, more dream-like) and how it was “desueto, talmente poco abituale fare quello che abbiamo fatto noi, che è realistico e non è realistico“.  Here the translator stumbles, for he – or she – translates ‘desueto‘ as ‘deserted’ and ‘poco abituale‘ as ‘uninhabited’ when instead desueto means ‘archaic, no longer used’ and poco abituale means ‘not the habit, uncustomary’.  You see how awkward things can get?  What Sironi is saying has nothing to do with the area being deserted.  He is saying that what they were doing was so beyond the realm of what others were still doing, so out of the ordinary, it gave them the freedom to create something that was realistico and not realistico.   (Realistic and not realistic.)  More real than real?  What is Sironi really saying?

“We were able to create something that was realistico – e non realistico.”  (Alberto Sironi)

Like all the principal actors (apart from Catarella) and crew, Franco Lecca, the director of photography, is from Rome.  When he talks about the light in Sicily, it’s like listening to poetry.  For him it is una luce (loo-chay) crepuscolare (twilight), and yet also eccessiva, a light that suggests molta solitudine (great solitude).  At times, he admits, he wants to ramp up this light, make it even stronger, more intense, but Sironi insists on a darker tone, more in keeping with Sicily’s dark interiors. Maybe it’s because I’m visiting after a long winter of endless dark, gloomy skies, but I am glad for the intense light.

Balcony along Via Mormino Penna in May.

A few doors down from the Municipio is Palazzo Spadaro, Scicli’s Pinacoteca Comunale (Art Gallery) and, as our guide tells us, the setting for Le Ali della Sfinge (Wings of the Sphinx).  One more episode to check out when I got back home.

Balcony over the entrance to Palazzo Spadaro.

Paintings cover the walls of  the Salone delle Feste where concerts and other artistic events are held.

The Chiesa di San Giovanni Evangelista (Church of St. John the Evangelist) was not on our Montalbano tour but I stepped in for a quick look.

A lot going on here.

Detail of the wall to the left of the altar. There is so much going on it’s hard to know where to look. Was that the point? To be overwhelmed?

Parts of Via Penna looked almost too beautiful, too perfect to be real.

Our little group continued down the street – although street doesn’t seem the right word. Lane or alley seem too small, and avenue too large.  It felt more like a long piazza. Perhaps it was because the whole thing is a pedestrian zone. It was so relaxing. And so unreal.

So many churches for a town of just 26,000 – and a lot fewer when all these churches were built.

The last of the three sites on our Montalbano tour was at the far end of Via Marmino Penna.  I was a bit skeptical when our new guide – a different guide was stationed at each site – admitted straight off that although many scenes had been filmed in front of the Chiesa di Santa Teresa, none had been filmed in the interior.  Hmmm…

At the end of Via Mormino Penna, the Church of St. Teresa makes a few appearances as background.

The interior was like so many I’d already seen in Sicily.  And so was the light – a challenging combination of what Lecca described as crepuscolare and eccessiva that made getting a decent photo difficult.

Once again I had the saints mixed up. The objects held aloft on the platter are not the breasts of Saint Agatha, but the eyes of Saint Lucia. Equally gruesome.

To the left of St. Lucia, lower down, is a less gruesome, but equally moving sight. The unadorned area within the small, baroque frame was once the door of a Ruota degli Innocenti. Wheel of the Innocents.  I had only ever seen one before in Florence, in Piazza Santissima Annunziata.  (‘Taking a Break – Una Passeggiata a Firenze’ – Part I, April 20, 2013)  Mothers who could not, or did not want to care for their newborn babies would place them on a revolving wheel to be cared for by the nuns.

This simple, easily overlooked space marks a bygone scene of misery and heartache.

It was all very interesting of course, but I couldn’t help wondering what the rationale was for including this church on a tour of Montalbano sites.  The rationale, I eventually concluded had nothing to do with Montalbano.  It was a ruse – perhaps too harsh a word – to entice visitors to a Mostra Affreschi.

The frescoes had originally decorated the walls of the Church and Convent of St. Mary of the Cross, the ruins of which can still be seen on one of the ridges that overlook Scicli.  The complex was severely damaged in an earthquake and after a great deal of discussion, no doubt heated, it was decided to remove the frescoes from the walls.  Even those promoting removal admitted the procedure would be highly aggressivo, but in the end both sides agreed that the alternative – continued exposure to the elements – would have caused even greater damage.

Some of the frescoes were in really bad shape, but others, like this Madonna della Misercordia, were remarkably well preserved.

Next to the Madonna della Misericorda was another Madonna.  La Madonna della Catena.  The catena (chain) – which looked surprisingly modern to me – symbolizes the life-long ties that bind a mother to her child, because, continued our young, male guide, in a manner that suggested he was about to reveal to us some hitherto unknown fact of life, the moment a woman brings a child into this world her life is forever changed.  I burst out laughing. Really?  One of the women in our group – who didn’t strike me as someone who’d had any personal experience with such chains – shot me a withering look.

As well as modern, the chain also looks a lot less ethereal than the Mother and Child it binds.

For me the most interesting part of the exhibit was the series of of six panels that portray the miracles performed by the saint the church and convent were dedicated to. It wasn’t the subject matter of the scenes that really caught my attention, it was the script below them.

At a time when so few could read, a forward-thinking artist had added script.  In Sicilian dialect.

By now I was starving.  It was hot, too hot even for a heat-lover to sit in the sun, so when I saw an osteria, steps from where I had parked my car, with a shaded terrace and view of Piazza Italia, I didn’t look any further.

The table on the left offered shade, a bit of breeze and a front row view of goings-on in the piazza below.

In true Montalbano fashion I ordered a classic Sicilian dish – spaghettoni con fave, pomodori secchi, porcini e menta.

Beans, dried tomatoes and porcini doesn’t come anywhere close to describing how delicious this classic Sicilian dish was.

On the way back to Montalbano’s villa – since this was real life I had to drive back to Punta Secca – I stopped by another filming location, la Fornace Penna, the ruined brickworks on the outskirts of the seaside town of Sampieri.  I drove down a narrow dirt road and parked in the shade of an abandoned farmhouse.  There was no-one around. It was the only time during the three weeks I was in Sicily that I felt uneasy.

A vineyard and the collapsed roof of a farmhouse, long since abandoned.

La Fornace Penna, was built between 1909 and 1912 by Baron Guglielmo Penna.  The goal of the far-thinking Baron was to diversify, a revolutionary concept for that time and place. He wanted to transform his vast holdings from strictly agrarian-based activities to include industry as well. In other words he wanted to bring Sicily – at least the part of Sicily that was under his control – into the 20th century.

A haunting reminder of an earlier, unsuccessful attempt to bring development and industrialization to Sicily.

The site, Punta Pisciotto, was carefully chosen.  The sea off the point was deep enough to allow ships to dock, the railway was nearby and the primary raw material, clay, would come from a quarry a mere 200 metres from where the fornace (furnace) was located.

Punta Pisciotto, the point from which Montalbano gazes out to sea in La Forma dell’Acqua (The Shape of Water).

But what the Baron hadn’t counted on, and what wasn’t under his control was the political environment.  On January 26, 1924 a fire ripped through the complex, destroying it beyond repair.  There was no doubt that the cause of the fire was d’origine dolosa.  Arson. The reason there was no doubt was because the brickworks shut down in the winter months. Rumours of a vendetta involving the Fascists circulated widely.

The complex was abandoned to the forces of nature. In 1989, the upper part of the chimney, which had previously been damaged by lightning, collapsed.

For some reason I felt compelled to check out the bowels of the ruins There were no VIETATO or any other kind of ‘No Entry’ signs, so it had to be safe, right?  It was of course even creepier wandering around the dank, dark interior with its low ceilings and signs of previous, unsavoury visitors.

I read later that the ruins were in uno stato discreto.

It was less than 30 kilometres to Punta Secca and Montalbano’s Villa.  I was looking forward to a nice, long, relaxing walk along the beach.  Maybe even a swim.




The Montalbano Effect

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.

A familiar view to Montalbano’s fans. Even on a rare, stormy evening.

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.

The next morning the sea was much calmer.  And the view more like the one fans are used to.

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.

Breakfast at la Casa di Montalbano isn’t served until 8:30, so I went for a walk along the shore.

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.

The villa of one of  Montalbano’s neighbours sports a modern twist on the Trinacria, the ancient, three-limbed symbol of Sicily.

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.

From the façades of the villas – not yet open for the season – it was clear not only that this was strictly a summer destination, but that there were other ‘characters’ here in addition to Montalbano.

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.

What fun it would have been to see the interior.

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 waves were calming down. Maybe this afternoon, when I got back from exploring other Montalbano sites, I would go for a  ‘Montalbano swim’.

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.

The rather grandly named ‘Itinerary’ of Punta Secca.  Better known by millions of fans as Marinella.

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’.

View from my balcony window. It is at least a five-minute walk – provided you take your time – from the sea to the Faro (lighthouse) at the ‘far’ end of Punta Secca.

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.

Boats in the shelter of Punta Secca’s porticciolo (little port).

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.

Who would have guessed that this essentially unassuming villa would one day become a site known and beloved by millions?   My room was on the far right of the main terrace.

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.

Guests linger over breakfast in Montalbano’s bedroom. It all looked so much smaller in real life.

It meant putting on a sweater and keeping a firm hold on my glass, but I still had the sunset aperitivo on Montalbano’s terrace I had been dreaming of.

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.