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Sicily, tracking Inspector Montalbano


Random choices with no expectations are sometimes the best. On the way to Palermo, choosing a last minute read at the airport, we were both attracted by the distinctive, bright cartoon covers of Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano books. Perfect for a holiday, they turned out to be so much more.

The inspector we have come to know and love is Salvo, the charismatic yet irascible protagonist in this series of Sicilian detective novels. He has also unwittingly become our tour guide and gastronomic guru. We have since discovered that Camilleri’s books top the charts all over Europe and Salvo’s popularity has led to a very successful Italian television programme which has made the actor, Luca Zingaretti, famous.

With the gift of intuition and his heartfelt humanity, Inspector Montalbano lives to solve crime from his headquarters in Vigata. Great, we thought, let’s go! However, looking for Vigata on a map proved fruitless. Camilleri created a fictional universe for the detective but if you dive beneath the surface, the author’s childhood experiences of growing up in the southern Sicilian town of Porto Empedocle become apparent. He used memories of many real locations as the backdrop to Salvo’s investigations. Even if you are unfamiliar with the books, what better way to discover the jewels of this area than following in his footsteps.

At the heart of Porto Empedocle is the charming, tree-lined avenue, Via Roma, home to the inspector’s favourite eateries. Caffè Albanese often appears in the novels and is famed for its fresh ricotta cannoli. It has recently changed its name to Bar Vigata and is a regular meeting place for the Camilleri Fans Club. We took up residence at one of the outside tables, sipping espresso and savouring a selection of pastries. Chatting to the barman, we shared our opinions on Montalbano’s love of food, a subject that never fails to stir up Sicilian emotions.

Strolling down Via Roma, we manage to bump into the man himself – that’s to say the recently commissioned statue that depicts the inspector as a congenial, moustachioed figure casually leaning against a lamppost – an open invitation to have your photo taken with him and one we couldn’t resist. The interpretation is based on the very scant physical descriptions given by Camilleri and bears little resemblance to the actor, Luca Zingaretti who, for most Italians, is Montalbano.

Perplexed by his cases, Salvo likes to clear his head by taking a walk out to the lighthouse to sit on his favourite rock, sometimes taking a bite to eat. The port is easily reachable from Via Roma, so we decided to take a closer look at the attractive marina, avoiding the more industrial excesses of the working dock. To the left of the port, an expanse of scrubland stretches to the sea – this is Camilleri’s Pasture where Montalbano’s childhood friend, Gegè, operates on the other side of the law, mixed up in prostitution and drugs. In reality, the area is full of typical Mediterranean flora and fauna. Opposite the Pasture sits an old chemical works, a fitting analogy for Sicily’s schizophrenic nature – a Caravaggian mixture of light and dark.

Fed up with paper piling up on his desk, Salvo often abandons his office for a long lunch and, being a gourmand, not just anywhere will do. His restaurant of choice is the Trattoria da Enzo, which required a walk uphill to the higher part of Porto Emepedocle. We were rewarded by the surreal sight of a grounded ship perched by the roadside. Having worked up an appetite, this was our destination – Da Enzo’s Osteria Al Timone restaurant.

The Turkish Steps

To get a panoramic view of the town and walk off lunch, we headed along to the Belvedere which is a few minutes walk away. From here you can see across the rooftops of lower Porto Empedocle out towards the fingertips of both docks. Look to the right, and the brilliant white coastline spreads away past the detective’s home towards the impressive Scala dei Turchi or Turkish Steps.

Montalbano lives in a beachside house in the suburb of Marinella. The coastal road cuts across the dried Salsetto riverbed to the Lido di Marinella. The café here sports a brightly painted sign which conjures up the inspector’s illicit but innocent meetings with the stunning Ingrid, his much put upon Swedish friend. Walking along the beach, we noticed that any of the houses along the shoreline would fit Camilleri’s description of a small dwelling with a little porticoed terrace bordering directly onto the ocean. As we looked across the vast expanse of beach with the wind whipping the waves and rippling the sand, it wasn’t difficult to imagine Salvo cutting through the surf with a graceful crawl – clearing his head and venting his frustrations.

The coastline to the right of Marinella, heading in the Trapani direction, is characterised by marl cliffs, in particular the aforementioned Turkish Steps which decline slowly towards the sea. You can swim from the sandy coves or marvel at the view from the roadside above; either way, a sight not to be missed. Camilleri uses this vicinity as a clandestine meeting place away from prying eyes.

Not far from Porto Empedocle is the bigger town of Agrigento. The road leading there takes you through Villaseta and passed the house once owned by the Nobel prize-winning playwright and author, Luigi Pirandello. The house and gardens are now a museum and took us down an alternative literary route for a few hours.

Camilleri takes fragments from Agrigento and reassembles them as Montelusa. One of the most iconic districts is the Rabatu. Originally built by the Arabs, it still retains a Moorish feel. Sweeping up to the Church of the Addolorata, we were able to explore some dwellings carved from the rock on the opposite side of the road. Beyond this, tiny houses cling to the hillside, intersected by narrow passages and ramshackle courtyards. The author describes it as an area full of tortuous alleyways where, in fiction as in reality, many an immigrant has found a home, adding to this exotic mix.

Montelusa is also home to the regional Police Headquarters and Salvo’s dreaded boss Bonetti-Alderighi who often summons him for a dressing down. Wanting the same feeling of trepidation, we headed for Piazza Aldo Moro where the real building is located. Luckily, it is a short escape from here to the Valley of the Temples, one of the finest sights dating from the Ancient Greek era, which bears a more than favourable comparison to the Parthenon in Athens. The archaeological remains are surrounded by olive groves and almonds. It is under one of these millennial olives that the Inspector likes to sit and ponder his cases. The books refer to this venerable gentleman as a Saracen tree, one with an incredibly gnarled trunk and drooping boughs.

Porto Empedocle Marina (visited earlier)


Stretching beyond the confines of these two main locations, the characters often have cause to roam a little further along the coast to settlements such as Palma di Montechiaro, and we needed no excuse to take up the trail. The little baroque town has aristocratic connections to Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, the Duke of Palma and author of that classic Sicilian novel The Leopard. The princely Matrice Church, built by one of his ancestors, sits elegantly atop its imposing stairway. Having climbed to the top, we were in time to see an ornately decorated horse-drawn carriage appear, together with locals in their finery – a suitably Baroque sight for an impending wedding.

To the east of Agrigento province lay the locations for the television series, episodes of which have now been shown in the UK and Australia, as well as being an enormous hit at home in Italy. To further feed our habit, having run out of books, we turned to the DVDs. We quickly realised that the director had decided to use the incredibly cinematic towns of Ragusa Ibla and Scicli to stand in for Vigata and Montelusa. Salvo’s television house, with its unmistakable balustraded balcony, looms over the beach at Punta Secca, near to Santa Croce Camerina.

Punta Secca is the Mecca for all fans of the TV programme and as we approached the little piazza by the sea, we were met with the sight of many Italian followers, keen to have their photo taken in front of his home (yes, we did!). If you want to live the fantasy, the house is available as a bed and breakfast. Apart from the restaurant next door offering Montalbano’s Arancini – the orange shaped rice croquettes beloved of many Sicilians – the area remains remarkably free of Montalbano kitsch.

After a day on the beach, we drove up to Scicli through a maze of stone-walled fields scattered with olive trees. The town and its neighbour, Ragusa Ibla, are both UNESCO World Heritage sites, being the finest examples of Sicilian Baroque. Scicli’s town hall in Via Mormino Penna hosts the Vigata police station whenever the film crews are in town. A little notice by the entrance describes the street as a lounge for the town, which is very apt as families gather to stroll and take coffee, all under the gaze of some of the island’s most beautiful Baroque facades.

Ragusa Ibla is no less inspiring; the cathedral dominates the hillside with streets spilling down in all directions from this high point. Only a dedicated guide book could do justice to all the sites in town, but as in Venice, perhaps the best way to explore is simply to wander. Don’t keep your eyes at street level; we had to remind each other to keep looking up, otherwise we would have missed some of the most intricately carved balcony sculpture in Sicily. For an evening meal, there was only one place to go – the Trattoria La Rusticana in Corso XXV Aprile. The patterned arches inside make an unmistakably regular appearance on television as Salvo’s favourite restaurant. He enjoys simple but authentic home cooking and this is precisely what La Rusticana prides itself on. Take a trip to the bathroom to see a photo gallery of Luca Zingaretti and cast with the restaurant’s employees.

A trip to Camilleri’s Sicily would not be complete without a visit to Palermo where Montalbano takes his long-suffering girlfriend, Livia, on holiday. On one excursion he persuades her to accompany him to the Vucciria food market in the heart of the city. Inspired by the atmospheric descriptions we couldn’t resist a visit of our own. Although past its heyday, the stalls still present an abundance of local produce. Lined faces full of character sell pungent spices, silvered fish, offal and far more besides. The surrounding poverty yet wealth of comestible riches make for a confusing but heady mixture.

Away from the clamour of city life, further around the coast to the west, the couple also pay a visit to Mazara del Vallo. To get there from Palermo, the coastal road eventually weaves alongside a stunning landscape of saltpans and windmills with the water almost lapping up to the roadside.

Camilleri paints a picture of Mazara itself as a piece of Tunis found in Sicily. The Kasbah district has been gentrified; the alleyways are tiled with multicultural motifs and quotes from the likes of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. As well as hearing Arabic spoken, we passed the Tunisian Social Club, Halal butchers and shops selling North African pottery.

Salvo has proved to be a faithful guide, revealing the hidden gems without concealing the fools gold and showing us Sicily at a deeper level. Like the seemingly simple flavours of Montalbano’s favourite meals, the more you begin to savour, the more complex and characterful things become.

More sites about Sicily and Andrea Camilleri – though mainly in Italian – at www.sikania.it and www.vigata.org.

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