My Sicilian adventure: discovering Inspector Montalbano’s Sicily

by Jun 24, 2024Italy

Ragusa Ibla Sunrise Glow Sicily

Southeastern Sicily is famous for its UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Baroque architecture, food and chocolate. And it’s also famous for a certain Inspector Montalbano — as I was about to find out on my Sicilian adventure.

I have wanted to travel to Sicily for as long as I can remember. The region held an enchanting allure to me with the promise of famed cuisine, relaxed lifestyle, sun-drenched Mediterranean landscapes, and amazing architecture. So, when the opportunity arose to spend three days traveling with a guide around Southeastern Sicily, Therese and I jumped at it.

I was thrilled. I imagined ancient houses carved out of caves, pristine rocky beaches, colorful homes crawling up steep valley walls, magnificent churches and buildings, and olive groves and vineyards dotting rolling green hillsides interwoven by white stone walls. I thought of cheeses and wine and pasta and amazing seafood. Not once — and I checked — did the itinerary for visiting the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Punta Seca, Scicli, Modica, Ragusa, or Ispica ever mention this Inspector Montalbano guy.

Modica Rooftops Gioietta Sicily Inspector Montalbano

The labyrinth streets and terraced hillside of Modica.

And yet here I was, one hour into our visit, standing on a rocky coastline just like I had imagined, being told that the house in front of me, the one with the crowd of people outside, was famous because of an Inspector Montalbano. Thinking I had perhaps slept through the Inspector Montalbano lecture during the Italian history section in my world history class in college, I had to ask: Who the heck is this Inspector Montalbano?

Turns out Inspector Montalbano is a much beloved Italian TV series, adapted from a series of crime fiction books by Italian author Andrea Camilleri, featuring a detective named Salvo Montalbano. During each episode, he solves crimes that happen in the fictional town of Vigata, Sicily. The episodes, which feature breathtaking Sicilian landscapes and quaint village streets, are filmed in an around the towns of Punta Seca, Ragusa Ibla, Modica, Scicli, and Noto.

Friends of ours — Americans now living in Sicily — told me that Inspector Montalbano was a stereotypical cast of characters that resemble an Italian family with all its dysfunctions and underlying love, which is one reason it is so popular. Another reason for the popularity is, “the show is formulaic. Montalbano always gets the perp, he always disappoints his girlfriend, he always struggles with his staff of sometimes slapstick co-workers, and oh, he’s very handsome.”

The show is immensely popular, not just in Italy, but also in Europe and, to a much smaller degree, in the United States (it can be found on Amazon Prime for a subscription fee). Meaning the places where the show is filmed have become tourist attractions.

As happened with TV shows such as Breaking Bad (filmed in Albuquerque) and the Walking Dead (filmed in Senoia, Georgia), and Game of Thrones (Dubrovnik and many other locations), Inspector Montalbano created a tourism boom in this formerly very quiet, very scenic part of Sicily. Fans want to see where he lives, where he works, where he chases down perps. And to be honest, after watching an episode, I get it. Inspector Montalbano showcases this southeastern part of Sicily as well as any destination marketing promotion could ever do.

So, if you will indulge me, a newly minted admirer of Inspector Montalbano, allow me to be your guide as we discover, together, Inspector Montalbano’s Sicily.

Punta Secca

Inspector Montalbano Home Punta Secca

This is the home of Inspector Montalbano, and the terrace, where the small crowd is gathered, is where he enjoys a morning espresso.

The quaint seaside village of Punta Secca provides the setting for the fictional home of Inspector Montalbano. In the books by Andrea Camilleri, the town is called Marinella. Fans of the show know this home and village well as it is here that Montalbano sits on his terrace, drinking espresso and talking on his phone following a morning swim.

Looking at the house now, currently a very popular B&B where fans book nights to stay in Montalbano’s home, it is hard to imagine this is where a sardine factory once stood. In 1904, Giovanni Di Quattro purchased the warehouse and factory site and in turn, constructed a family home. The home that is now Montalbano’s.

Presuming you are not just here to revel in all things Montalbano, take the time to wander the streets and along the harbor and coastline of Punta Secca. In the center of the village, you will see a tall, white lighthouse that stands over the main square. Designed by engineer Nicolò Diliberto D’Anna in 1857 and built in 1858-59, it stands just shy of 115 feet tall (35 meters).

Punta Secca Lighthouse Waterfront

Looking back toward the lighthouse in Punta Secca as storm clouds begin to gather.

Next to Montalbano’s home, is a multi-level tower. This is the Scalambri Tower and was a coastal military observation point built in the 16th century. Other defensive towers in the region include Torre di Mezzo in Santa Croce Camerina, Torre Vigliena in Punta Braccetto, and Torre Cabrera in Marina di Ragusa.

Donnafugata

Sunset Starburst Castle Donnafugata

Donnafugata castle. A fitting home for a Mafia boss, don’t you think?

On our way to Modica, where we would spend the night, we stopped into Castello di Donnafugata. Fans of Inspector Montalbano will recognize the castle as the villa of Mafia boss Balduccio Sinagra, featured in several episodes. Of course, this is not why we visited, learning only after entering the grounds that this was a Montalbano tour destination.

The castle itself can be traced back to the 10th or 11th centuries when Arabs discovered a water spring there and built a fortification around it.

The rooms and view from the castle walls are wonderful enough, but frankly, for me, the real reason to visit is the garden, which is spectacular. Do make sure to allow yourself sufficient time to explore the grounds. And don’t get there too late, as we did, since the guards will follow you around trying to lock gates behind you.

Donnafugata Garden

The garden at Donnafugata castle.

Modica

Located a mere 40-minute drive from Punta Secca, Modica is visually dramatic chiefly because it is built on a terraced hillside with numerous rocky limestone promontories. The maze of alleyways, connected by steep staircases that climb the hillside, are both mysterious and wonderful. Viewpoints are numerous. And the town is celebrated for its many beautiful churches and Baroque architecture. Little wonder that the producers of Inspector Montalbano chose Modica as a setting for the fictional town of Vigata, where most of Montalbano’s investigations take place.

Duomo Di San Giorgio Modica Siciily

View of Modica looking at the famous Duomo Di San Giorgio church which appears in several Inspector Montalbano episodes.

But Modica’s charm extends well beyond architecture and natural beauty. The town is also famous for chocolate – called, of course, Modica chocolate, crafted using an ancient Aztec recipe. Each year, in early December, the town plays host to Chocomodica, a festival celebrating all things chocolate. The festival is absolutely the perfect reason to visit Modica to learn more about Montalbano AND indulge in a chocolate that has received European Union protection so imitators cannot try to make knockoffs.

Chocomodica Chocolate Carving

Chocolate carving during Chocomodica.

Scicli

This town is characterized by its picturesque setting in a valley surrounded by limestone hills. Scicli’s Baroque architecture blends seamlessly with its natural landscape, creating a unique and intimate atmosphere. Fans will recognize that when Montalbano drives up and parks his Fiat Tipo car in front of the Vigata police station, he’s actually pulling up in front of the Town Hall of Scicli.

Via Francisco Mormina Penna Scicly

The view down Via Francisco Mormina Penna from the balcony window in the Mayor’s office.

Walk inside for a brief tour, and you will be able to see the mayor’s office, which in the television show is transformed into the office of Montalbano’s chief, Bonetti Alderighi. Thousands of fans flock to this room to get their photos taken behind the desk or standing in front of the windows to the balcony overlooking Via Francisco Mormina Penna.

Along Via Francisco Mormina Penna, an architecturally and stunningly beautiful street, a quiet stroll will take you past the churches of Santa Teresa, San Michele, and San Giovanni, plus the Palazzo Comunale with its Baroque painted interior. Montalbano fans will recognize the inside of Palazzo Comunale as the setting for the Vigata mayor’s office.

Scicli Pharmacy

Inside the historic pharmacy in Scicli.

Be sure to visit the tiny, but historic pharmacy museum. The Antica Farmiacia Cartia di Scicli (Old Pharmacy Cartia of Scicli) was established in 1902 and was also featured in an Inspector Montalbano episode.

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Though it has nothing at all to do with Montalbano, I would recommend that you do take the time to wander up from town to a viewpoint overlooking Scicli at Castello dei Tre Cantoni. The castle grounds are closed now, but the view from here is spectacular.

Scicli Viewpoint Castello Dei Tre Cantoni

The castle grounds are closed, but the view of Scicli from the hilltop is still worth the trip up. You can see the Town Hall in the center of the photo, which serves as the police station in Inspector Montalbano episodes.

Ragusa Ibla

The historic heart of Ragusa, Ragusa Ibla, is perhaps best remembered for its magical labyrinth of narrow, winding streets that lead to charming squares and steep staircases that guide you to breathtaking views of the surrounding countryside. Ragusa Ibla was one of my favorite places in a region filled with breathtaking landscapes and marvelously quaint and historic villages.

Ragusa Ibla Sicily Sunrise View

Sunrise view of Ragusa Ibla with the famous Duomo di San Giorgio church.

Visit here and you will quickly see why Inspector Montalbano producers turned Ragusa Ibla into one of the most used sites for shooting scene after scene. Fans will quickly recognize the Piazza del Duomo, San Giorgio’s Church, the Church of Santa Maria delle Scale, and the Iblean Garden.

And if you are into dining where Inspector Montalbano did, you’ll head to La Rusticana, which in the television show is transformed into Trattoria da Calogero, Montalbano’s favorite place to eat.

Ispica

Ispica is a quaint and very quiet town that boasts a small but beautifully preserved historic center that includes Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, Piazza Santa Maria Maggiore, Basilica dells Santissima Annunziata, and the Church of San Bartolomeo. And yes, Ispica is featured in several episodes of Inspector Montalbano.

Basilica Della Santissima Annunziata Ispica

The Basilica della Santissima Annunziata, a Renaissance-style Catholic church.

While the town is beautiful, for me the main reason to visit are the ancient caves and not a TV show (sorry, Inspector Montalbano). The Cava d’Ispica is a long, scenic canyon and protected area filled with ancient cave dwellings, catacombs, and archaeological sites that date back to prehistoric times. It is an absolute must to visit!

Cava D'Ispica Sicily

Noto

Noto is often referred to as the “Capital of Baroque.” Rebuilt in the early 18th century after a devastating earthquake, Noto’s architecture features grand, honey-colored limestone buildings that appear to glow in the sunlight. Unlike the other Baroque towns mentioned above, Noto is made up of wide streets and spacious squares lined with historic buildings, churches, palaces, and monasteries. The Cathedral of San Nicolò, with its imposing façade and impressive staircase, is frequently photographed and featured in numerous films and television shows, including Inspector Montalbano.

Noto Cathedral San Nicolo

The Cathedral of San Nicolò.

Perhaps not surprisingly, many of Noto’s other notable architectural sites appear in Montalbano’s adventures. The prison of Vigata is set for example in the former monastery of San Tommaso. Other sites include Palazzo Nicolaci di Villadorata, an elegant palace with intricate balconies; Corso Vittorio Emanuele, a main street in Noto lined with Baroque buildings; Piazza Municipio, the central square; and the Church of San Domenico, considered to be a masterpiece of Baroque architecture.

It’s easy to see why Inspector Montalbano loved “Vigata” and why fans continue flocking to this part of Sicily to experience the region Montalbano showcased in each episode. Like Montalbano, you will feel this place in a deeply visceral way. Wild and rambling open spaces, checkerboard vineyards and olive groves, small fishing villages, colorful houses that cling to hills and limestone cliffs, and espressos that are best served on a terrace overlooking the sea. This is Montalbano’s Sicily.

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