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Montalbano sono!

Updated: Aug 30, 2019

There is nothing like Commissario Montalbano to chase away the late-winter blues, and here in Italy we have been lucky enough to see two brand new episodes of the much-loved series. The first episode made headlines for its direct engagement with the migrant crisis, but this was more media hype than real polemic. Andrea Camilleri has never portrayed Sicily as a place out of time or history, and from the beginning his books dealt with subjects surrounding immigration and refugees. Followers of the books and series will know that Livia and “Salvo” were guardians of Andrè, an Algerian refugee smuggled to Sicily as a child, and some of the books have centered on the criminal organizations that exploit vulnerable people looking for a better life.

Immigration is as much a part of Sicilian history as emigration. My own grandparents were born in Sicily, which might explain my deep connection to the place. There is something about the light, the landscapes, the smells, and the tastes of the island that always make me feel like I am home. Olives, lemons, figs, dusty bougainvillea, grey green oleander, hot white stone, and dark cool interiors--all of these bring to the surface deep-seated, maybe even inherited, memories that call to mind my roots here.

Thankfully, Vigata--the setting for the Commissario Montalbano stories--is fictional; otherwise, it would be overrun by devotees of the series on commercial pilgrimages, like the Godfather tour in Palermo, or The Da Vinci Code tour of Paris. Commissario Montalbano is filmed in a number of sites sprinkled all over the southeastern part of Sicily, which is home to some of the most evocative landscapes in Italy, so Montalbano tourists can’t really overrun one place. Some of the places are Ragusa Ibla, Siracusa, Modica, Scicli, the coast near Punta Secca—Baroque jewels with ancient Greek histories, all bathed in an impossibly beautiful golden light.

Ragusa Ibla

The opening sequence of the Montalbano series captures some of the beauty of Ragusa Province, but even those vertiginous shots can’t do justice to the color and dimension of the cream-colored towns spilling over rugged hills into the sea. Images can’t replace the combination of light and scent that defines this part of Sicily.

During my last trip to Sicily, I stayed at the Eremo della Giubiliana, an historic estate just south of Ragusa in the heart of the Val di Noto. The estate dates from 12th century and was variously an ecclesiastical hermitage, an Arab fortress, and a way station for the Knights of the Order of San Giovanni traveling to and from nearby Malta. In the 18th century, the Eremo was acquired by the Nifosì family, wealthy landowners who had come to Sicily in the 13th century from Picardie. The estate is still managed by the Nifosì family, with Donna Vincenza Jolanda Nifosì holding court by a grande fireplace in the central sitting room, surrounded by large dogs and small children. Her son Salvatore Mancini Nifosì, who is serious and dashing, seemingly from another time--or from a Hemingway novel--manages the estate and its various holdings.

Eremo della Giubiliana

I first met Salvatore as he was working on his plane in a small hanger off the airstrip that is located on the estate. Adjacent to the airstrip are a series of low bungalows, all exquisitely kitted out for the flying classes, where one can park one’s plane on the grass field, retire to a luxurious cottage with stone floors, beamed ceilings, fireplaces, and a beautiful garden, and enjoy views of the Val di Noto that sweep across the sea to Malta and the north African coast. Salvatore was in a pair of greasy khakis, wiping his hands on a well-worn utility vest and wearing no shirt. Without saying who he was (I thought he was a mechanic), we chatted about the countryside and the history of the property. He then closed up the airplane, jumped in, and flew off to Malta to buy gas, as it is apparently much cheaper there and well worth the 20-minute flight. The little plane sputtered to life, bounced down the runway, circled the estate once, and, quite literally, flew off into the sunset. Later that night, arriving for dinner in the great hall, Salvatore was there to guide guests to their tables, nearly unrecognizable from our earlier meeting, in a perfectly tailored blue blazer and crisp white shirt, now discoursing on the estate wine and olive oil.

A stay at the Eremo di Giubiliana is only topped by a leisurely paced drive through the places of Montalbano. The little towns on the route don’t make much mention of Montalbano, other than Punta Secca where a handful of tourists gathered to take selfies in front of Montalbano’s “house” (now a B&B) by the sea and in front of the lighthouse on the lungomare. Otherwise, in Modica, Ragusa Ibla, Scicli, and Siracusa, there is just too much antiquity to cater to a flash in the historical pan like Commissario Montalbano.

Sicily is steeped in literary associations, dating back to the Greeks, so one needs to choose what literary touchstones to pursue. Aside from Homer, Aeschylus, and Cicero, which would be enough, there are Coleridge, Goethe, Hemingway, Capote, Freud, Durrell, and many, many others. And that does not begin to cover the Italian writers. My literary touchstones are almost always Homer, Leonardo Sciascia, Giovanni Verga, and, always, D.H. Lawrence. Now, there is also Camilleri. Lawrence will have to wait for another post.

La casa di Montalbano

I have to admit that I had to see Montalbano’s house. Setting out from the Eremo di Giubiliano after breakfast, you head southeast towards the sea, over dusty, patch-worked hills. The little town is basically a fishing village, but it boasts a lovely lungomare that takes you to the marina and the lighthouse, which was build in 1857. The beach in front of the house is free, but the B&B is for guests only. Not far from the house is the Torre Scalambri, built in 1500 by Giovanni Cosimo Bellomo, a Sicilian noble from Siracusa. He constructed the tower as part of defense system along the coast to guard against the Turks and the Saracens. Not far from the lighthouse is Enzo a Mare, the sunny restaurant right on the water that often appears in the series.

The lighthouse near the small port at Punta Secca

From Punta Secca, there is another winding drive to Scicli, a white-washed little town, gorgeously occupying a wide valley, its houses sprinkled throughout steep and narrow alleys that run up the sides of the surrounding hills. The municipio serves as the exterior for Montalbano’s office at the Commissariato, but not to be missed are the baroque churches of San Bartalomeao Apostolo and San Mateo, which stands on the highest part of the city. Scilci is a bomboniera of a town, few tourists and lots of history; its baroque effusions carry beauty almost to extreme point. The centro has been a UNESCO world heritage site since 2002, but it is so far off the beaten path that you must make an effort to get there.

The municipio in Scicli, the exterior is used for the commissariato in the Montalbano series

Next post, Ragus Ibla and Modica.


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