Two of the stars of the Italian TV series, Inspector Montalbano, are the landscape and the food. Rupert Parker takes a trip to Southern Sicily looking for clues.
I’ve always suspected that television has a tendency to glamorise and no more so when depicting the seascapes of Sicily. I’m braced for disappointment but my flight lands in darkness in Palermo and there’s nothing to see as I make my way to Cefalu, around 100km to the East. My hotel, aptly named Hotel Tourist, is right on the shore and I fall into a pleasant sleep to the sound of breaking waves.
Next morning I look out onto a long sandy beach and realise that I’m in a bustling holiday resort. In the distance the medieval town centre nestles under a towering crag and I spend the morning wandering the steep narrow streets. The Norman cathedral dominates and the interior is decorated by Byzantine mosaics, dating from 1148, well worth a visit. The beach is pleasantly deserted in early October but it’s still warm enough for a quick dip so I join the handful of people braving the water.
Next day I’m on the road to the South, climbing through the mountains in the mist, passing hilltop towns like Geraci Siculo and Petralia Sottana, houses clinging to the heights. I drop down to the motorway and within two hours am in Valle dei Templi in Agrigento. Originally called Akragas, this was one of Sicily’s richest and most powerful Greek cities and now only the 5th century BC Doric temples remain. They’re exceptionally well-preserved and their position, on a low ridge, means they tower above you as you approach. Of course it’s necessary to see them up close and as I walk through the archaeological park I get a glimpse of my first Montalbano location.
Porto Empedocle, six kilometres away, is the birthplace of Andrea Camilleri, the author of the Montalbano novels and was the model for his fictional town of Vigata. It’s a rather unimpressive industrial port, dominated by a huge cement works, and the director of the TV series wisely decided to shoot it in Ragusa. I set off East along the coast and spend the night in a rather delightful olive farm, Azienda Agricola Mandranova. It’s harvest time and truckloads of the ripe fruit are arriving to be crushed in the mill. As you’d expect, food here is excellent, local produce to the fore, and all is accompanied by their glorious green olive oil.
This is the heart of Sicily’s dreamy south, with little development, and I pass tomato greenhouses, in various stages of decay, and abandoned farm houses before arriving in Punta Secca. This tiny seaside village is home to the TV version of Inspector Montalbano and the house where they shoot is now a B&B. It’s in a glorious position, right on the beach, with a large terrace opening out to the sea. He always begins his morning with a swim so, of course, how can I resist? The water is warm, slightly choppy, but very refreshing. In the summer this place is packed but today it’s almost deserted.
My next destination is Scicli, half an hour inland, where the town hall doubles as the police station. This is one of the South’s famous baroque towns, rebuilt after a devastating earthquake in 1693, and it’s the location for many scenes in the TV series. Driving here is a nightmare, since the streets are so narrow, and the GPS takes me down blind alleys as I try to make my way to Hotel Novecentro. This is a restored Palazzo with just a handful of rooms and mine has a magnificent painted ceiling, with a balcony opening to the street. It’s a good base for exploring the town, so I abandon the car and set out on foot.
Above the centre is a limestone ridge, the site of the original settlement, crowned by the abandoned church of San Matteo. As defence became less of a priority, the town gradually moved downhill to its present site, although people were still living in caves in the side of the cliff until the 1950’s. As you’d expect, the views are spectacular and rambling overgrown paths lead past deserted cave dwellings to the church of Santa Maria della Catena, itself built into the rock.
Back in the centre, the Municipio or town hall is at the head of the pedestrianised Via Momina Penna. Two immense columns frame the entrance and there’s a grand balcony above flying the flags of Italy, Sicily and the EU. It makes for a very impressive police station and you can easily imagine Montalbano leaping out of his Fiat and climbing the steps to his office. The street itself is a long assembly of ornate churches and palazzi with tables outside for that early evening aperitif.
On my last night here, I suddenly spot a generator and filming trucks but there’s no sign of the Inspector. Later, as I’m enjoying an excellent seafood antipasto in Osteria Tre Colli, overlooking the Piazza Italia, I spot a likely suspect. He has his back to me but there’s no mistaking the shaven head and his companion is an attractive blonde. I’m about to go over and ask for an autograph but he suddenly turns and I realise it’s a case of mistaken identity. Unlike Inspector Montalbano, I don’t always get my man.
Prestige Holidays (01425 480400) is offering a five night break in Sicily for £489 pp. It includes flights with Ryanair from Stansted to Palermo, a hire car (Group A), two nights at Hotel Tourist on HB, one night at Mandranova on BB and two nights at Hotel Novecento on BB, then flights back from Comiso to Stansted.
One week’s Meet and Greet airport parking at Stansted Airport with Airport Parking and Hotels (APH) costs from only £63.32.
Italia has information about the country.