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Sicily’s connection with the real-life underworld once acted as a deterrent to foreign visitors. But now the island’s link to fictional crime is luring a new wave of British tourists fascinated by the sun-drenched, riddle-strewn world of Inspector Montalbano.
Since they started showing on BBC4 in the coveted Saturday-night slot last year, the television adaptations of Andrea Camilleri’s novels have brought the adventures of Italy’s most popular detective into hundreds of thousands of British living rooms.
Now increasing numbers of fans are heading for the parts of southern Sicily where the Montalbano books and TV dramas are set. As Italy’s seemingly relentless recession takes its toll on domestic tourism, they are living proof of how cultural exports can help refill the coffers.
“We are living a very hard and heavy economic crisis in Italy and I was afraid that the season would have been no good for my business,” said Ivana Micciché, manager of the Casa di Montalbano bed and breakfast in the village of Punta Secca.
But his guest house has a starring role in the television shows as the inspector’s seaside villa and now Micciché’s worries have been offset by the arrival of visitors from overseas, and particularly the British, who she estimates will make up about half of her foreign guests this summer.
For the first time in the bed and breakfast’s nine-year history, they started making up “a good percentage” of her guests in September last year.
“They want to live the same atmosphere they feel when they watch the programme. When they arrive they tell me they found it,” she said.
One guest who was enticed to Punta Secca by BBC4 was Fiona Slevin, a business owner from Dublin who took a distinctly Montalbano-accented holiday with her partner in April for her 50th birthday. “We are people of a certain age who have nothing better to do on a Saturday night at 9 o’clock than to click on BBC4 and watch the latest episode,” she said. The pair enjoyed the balcony where actor Luca Zingaretti is often shown staring out to sea – on one notable occasion spotting a dead horse on the beach as he sips his coffee in a pale blue dressing gown.
“There are loads of photographs where I insisted on my partner adopting the stance,” said Slevin.
Another guest, reviewing the B&B on the TripAdvisor website, appeared to have had a similar experience. “I enjoyed our stay despite being badgered to stand in for Montalbano in my wife’s photos,” he wrote. “I played ball just to make her happy, but I drew the line at donning a swim cap and re-enacting the swimming scene from the title sequences.”
Far from being confined to Punta Secca, the Montalbano tourist industry has spread across parts of south-east and south-west Sicily taking in, respectively, the places used in the television shows as well as those that Camilleri had in mind when he first brought the character to life in 1994.
In 2003, Camilleri’s home town, Porto Empedocle, took the second name of Vigàta in honour of its fictional alter ego.
Montalbano is much loved in Italy, with the books still selling well and the latest episodes of Il Commissario Montalbano shown on public broadcaster Rai attracting audiences of about 10 million and an audience share of about 35%. In recent years, its success has become more international. The Rai series has been bought by channels in more than 65 countries, including Japan, the US, Australia and the UK.
A new series showing the detective in his youth, The Young Montalbano, is due to be broadcast, also with subtitles, later this year on BBC4.
Michele Gallo, a guide at Sicily TravelNet, said he had seen a notable increase in British tourists coming on his Montalbano-themed tour, one of several operating on the island. Their arrival, he said, was of great benefit to local businesses. But he bemoaned the popularity of the TV locations as opposed to Camilleri’s literary landscape.
“It’s a shame that few come to see the places in the novels, which are not the places in the TV show,” he said. “The ‘real’ Montalbano is that of the novels.”