Visit the home of Inspector Montalbano - seductive southern Sicily
As the Sicilian detective returns to BBC4, Patrick Mulkern investigates Salvo's patch, Greek ruins, unspoilt villages, glorious beaches and Mount Etna
In both Inspector Montalbano and the prequel, the Sicilian detective rarely lets the minor matter of a murder impinge on his daily swim in the Mediterranean or his simple but mouth-watering lunches.
In the original TV series, he lives in a beautiful beachside apartment in Marinella and works at the police station in Vigata – both fictional places. In reality, Marinella is the quiet fishing village Punta Secca, while much of the action in Vigata is shot in a photogenic little town called Scicli and further inland in Ragusa, a stunning, Unesco-listed baroque town spread across two hilltops.
If you’re planning a proper Montalbano homage tour, the other location worth visiting, a few miles away and open to the public, is the imposing Castello di Donnafugata with its enormous terrace, which often appears in the original show as the residence of the elderly, reformed Mafia don, Balduccio Sinagra.
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Salvo Montalbano’s beat is the southern tip of Sicily. But, of course, there’s so much more to the island, whether you’re on a driving, cycling or trekking tour, or just basing yourself in one place.
Sicily has a history stretching back three millennia. It was settled by the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Arabs, Normans… and the landscape is peppered with reminders of their presence, while the mixed blood of these peoples flows in the inhabitants today.
Moving northwards up the coast, you come to Syracuse (once home to Archimedes), which has an 18th-century Duomo (cathedral) with a baroque façade, but more interestingly the ruined Temple of Apollo, an impressive archaeological park and a museum stuffed with relics from around the island.
The town of Catania is another baroque gem – but really now there’s no competition as Sicily’s most impressive landmark, Mount Etna, looms into view. It is vast – at almost 11,000 feet, it’s the tallest active volcano in Europe. When it’s not shrouded in cloud, you’ll often see smoke belching from its summit; occasionally, there are eruptions of ash and lava.
The view from Taormina - the white, smoking peak of Mount Etna
One of the best viewpoints for Etna is from Taormina. A sprawling town, it’s built into a hillside, with a beach far below at its base but climbing way up to a peak. The town centre is largely medieval, car-free, with narrow streets, intriguing shops, decent hotels and restaurants. It can be a bit of a tourist trap but is a great base camp from which to explore the island. (The writers DH Lawrence and Truman Capote both lived here for a spell.)
Taormina’s highlight is its ancient open-air theatre. High up on a hillside, it may be crumbling but it’s still in use; opera and other musical concerts are regularly held in the summer. Sting performed here in July 2012. It’s open during the day to visitors and has unparalleled views across the island and towards Etna.
If you’re still in the mood for location hunting, the largely unspoilt villages Forza d’Agro and Savoca just outside Taormina were used in The Godfather trilogy. Much further round the northern coast near Palermo is Bagheria, the birthplace of director Giuseppe Tornatore and where he filmed his nostalgic 1988 classic, Cinema Paradiso.
Palermo is the bustling capital, a cultural hub, its landmark buildings a fascinating blend of Islamic and Roman Catholic architecture. The daily Vucciria market is a must and the closest Italy gets to a casbah.
Completing a circuit of the island, on the southern slopes you should visit Agrigento. It has a medieval centre, ornate churches and another important museum of archaeology. Just outside the town lies the Valley of the Temples, a complex of ancient Greek ruins dating back to the fifth century BC. The Temple of Concord is startlingly well preserved and one of Sicily’s gems.
If you just want to relax, Sicily has glorious beaches (especially at San Vito Lo Capo on the north-western tip), and if you like a glass of wine, the island has more vineyards than any other region of Italy. You can book day-long tours that take in a couple of cantine (wineries). Head west to Marsala for the town’s famous fortified wine, or look out for Etna Rosso, a velvety red born on the volcano’s fertile slopes.
Inspector Montalbano is on Saturday 19 May on BBC4 at 9pm