The picturesque cities of the Sicilian province of Ragusa form the backdrop to the popular television series, Inspector Montalbano. Many of the sites where the scenes from the series were shot are open to tourists.
A narrow road winds between drystone walls, around hillsides over steep ravines; the fields are the colour of parched straw, and dried thistle and wild fennel wilt in the summer heat beside the tarmac. Dusty trucks are pulled over into side roads where dark-skinned men in overalls perform tasks whose nature you cannot precisely discern. Cars accelerate suddenly into the rear-view mirror before shooting past, and fly around blind bends on the wrong side of the road. You feel like you might have wandered into a mafia telemovie.
In fact, you almost have: this corner of south-eastern Sicily, in the province of Ragusa, is home to many of the locations featured in Inspector Montalbano, the popular Italian TV series based on the books of Andrea Camilleri.
While Camilleri's books are set further west, around Agrigento, the TV series uses locations near the more picturesque cities of Modica, Noto and Ragusa, which were all rebuilt in high baroque style after a catastrophic earthquake in 1693.
In the small town of Scicli, half an hour south of Ragusa, the office of the mayor doubles as the office of the chief of police in the fictional provincial capital of Montelusa, where Montalbano, played by Luca Zingaretti, is regularly summoned to get the benefit of the chief's misguided wisdom on a case. The mayor of Scicli has twice had to vacate the office: at first temporarily, when early series were in production; and now permanently, as the local council offers guided tours of the room for €2 a head.
The guide delivers her patter about the production of the series and the history of the building as you stand before the massive desk. She points to the door where Montalbano enters the room ("Not the one you have just come through."), noting that the dark 19th century furniture was all purpose-made, and you can't help feeling a little sorry for the mayor, exiled from this space full of the pomp of his office – the flag and star of the Italian Republic, the painted ceiling, the lustrous dark timber, the lounge chairs and coffee table in one corner – and now working from a much humbler room.
The building's facade plays the exterior of the police station at Vigata, where Montalbano arrives and departs in a tiny Fiat with tyres screeching – inside you're in Montelusa, outside in Vigata, a little postmodern trick of television.
As we sit over short blacks at the cafe tables in the piazza, two Carabinieri wander over in their distinctive blue shirts and red-striped trousers, just like they'd stepped out of the fictional police station for a quick coffee themselves.
In nearby Ragusa is the church of San Giorgio, a baroque beauty in soft local limestone set at the top of a sweeping staircase; it features in numerous episodes as the church of Vigata, with Montalbano meeting people on the staircase after funerals and weddings. When the gated steps are closed off you'll have to content yourself with an aperitif at a table on the sloping piazza out front.
Then there's the house where the inspector "lives" at Punta Secca, a pretty little seaside town that is full of holidaying Italians in summer. The casa di Montalbano, helpfully signposted, sits right on a rocky beach. You can walk up and peer into the balcony where the inspector entertains various female characters over moonlit bottles of local nero d'Avola. Women pose for photographs on a low wall in front of the house, possibly imagining themselves on that moonlit balcony (Zingaretti, with his soulful lost little boy's eyes, is a sex symbol in Italy).
The house hosts a bed and breakfast – you can sleep in Montalbano's bed and drink coffee on the terrace where Montalbano drinks coffee after his morning swim.
But with locals using the downstairs balcony as a towel rail and crowding the beach on summer days, you'd have as much chance of peaceful enjoyment of the house as the famously harassed inspector himself. Which might mean entering just a little too deeply into the fantasy.