In July 2019, one of my favourite men in the whole wide world died. Italian Andrea Camilleri created the character Salvo Montalbano and when Camilleri died, so did Montalbano. A lot like Colin Dexter and Inspector Morse, except that the actor who plays the TV Montalbano – Luca Zingaretti – is still very much alive.
I’ve not seen the final Morse episode on TV and I hope that the Italians prolong Montalbano’s demise, too. That said, I don’t know what Camilleri did with him in the final novel in the series because I’ve not read that either.
Camilleri published the 27th Montalbano novel, Il cuoco dell’Alcyon, in 2018. The final novel in the series was written 13 years ago, but has been kept in his publisher’s Palermo offices for safekeeping. “When I get fed up with him or am not able to write any more, I’ll tell the publisher: publish that book. Sherlock Holmes was recovered … but it will not be possible to recover Montalbano. In that last book, he’s really finished,” he said in 2012.
We’ve been threatening for a while to visit Sicily and track down the places that Montalbano has made famous. He lives in the fictional town of Marinella and works in the equally fictional Vigàta, which is based on Camilleri’s home town of Porto Empedocle. The town changed its name in honour of its famous son and since 2003 has called itself Porto Empedocle Vigàta. But that wasn’t the Vigàta I was interested in. I wanted the TV version. Before that though, we had to find Marinella.
On TV, Montalbano lives in a waterfront villa which is in the real village of Punta Secca. His villa, when not being used in a shoot, is a B&B, but it doesn’t open off-season. We got as close as dammit though, renting the ground floor of the villa La Vite Americana just 32 metres from his pad. And as it was off-season, we pretty much had the village to ourselves.
Across the walk from his is a fabulous sixteenth-century watchtower, now home to the only coffee shop open in February. Torre Scalambri. Back in the day, it was part of ‘the defensive sighting system for Turkish, Saracen, and Barbary ships‘. Built by Giovanni Cosimo Bellomo in the 1590s, the tower was restored in 1747 and moved to private ownership at the turn of the twentieth century. It had another, sympathetic facelift in 2013; its ground floor is now a café. Here, the lovely Gregorio, who hails from Venezuela, tends bar, makes a mean coffee, and knows how to fix a cannolo. He’s in Italy courtesy of his Italian grandparents and has a birds-eye view of the happenings with the TV peeps are in town. The place is open from 6 am but give him 10 minutes to get the coffee on and maybe 40 to get the croissants out of the oven. I’ve been eating my weight in cannoli and his is near the top of my list.
We had intended to eat in Enzo’s, a place Montalbano goes to eat when Adelina, his housekeeper, isn’t cooking up a favourite. Even if he has company, he likes to eat in silence. The man loves his food, but by all accounts, real-life Enzo’s ain’t the best place in town to eat. We didn’t have much choice, of course. Did I mention it was off-season and mid-week?
Instead, we ate at Scjabica Cuoco Pescatore, the culinary home of chef Joseph Micieli. Micieli describes himself as a cuoco pescatore, a fisherman chef, and indeed, he sometimes catches what he cooks. He grew up with hooks and nets and boats and has what he describes as a ‘morbid’ love for fish and the culinary traditions of Sicily. The menu was simple. The food, too. But the simplicity was beautiful. He sources locally and uses only quality ingredients from those like him who share his belief in authenticity and freshness.
Il mare è dentro me, cerco solo di portarlo in ogni piatto per farvi provare quell’emozione che dà dipendenza. [The sea is inside me, I just try to bring it to every dish to make you feel that addictive emotion.]
I doubt I’ll find any fresh sardines to stuff when I’m back in Hungary and I know for sure I won’t find any fresh clams for my linguine, but I plan on giving his eggplant caponata a go.
There wasn’t much happening in Punta Secca by way of nightlife, or any life at all. But it didn’t take much imagination to see what a very different town it would be in the summer. Many of the houses are holiday houses for those living in cities like Palermo and Catania; the resident population in 2011 was 226. I doubt its much more now.
The Capo Scaramia lighthouse was built in 1859 and is still in operation today. Standing 34 metres high (112 feet), the lantern flashes twice every ten seconds – it’s quite mesmerising. The light can be seen from a distance of up to 30 km (18 miles). Of course, I was familiar with both the lighthouse and the tower from the TV series. Seeing them up close and personal though – that was special.
Punta Secca is a lovely little town, a place I’d like to come back to and use as a base for further exploration of this part of Sicily. The sunsets are magical and the sea is like an artist’s palette. It’s a gorgeous spot. Off-season.