Saturday 9th July – Above the Volcano
We flew to Catania with BA, David mourning his last flight as a lounge-using Silver card holder. The flight landed around sunset and we had clear views of Mt Etna and the plumes from the summit.
Arrived in Catania to smell the humid sea air and were at the hotel by 10pm – prearranged taxi was great idea. The Asmundo di Gisira Art of Living Boutique Market hotel is a pallazzo showcasing quirky pieces of art.
10pm was just in time to have dinner nearby at A Casa di Pino for an authentic tasting of Sicily. The first and best caponata of our trip.
Sunday 10th July – Of Elephant and Castle
The hotel was close to a central landmark, the Elephant Fountain and from here we could walk the area of the historic city.
Catania has the feel of a university town built with basalt and in the shadow of the volcano. We saw the cathedral, where St Agatha had her boob hacked off and the locals have been eating cakes to commemorate it ever since.
Where Isis the river goddess, had been worshipped by the Romans at the same site beforehand.
It was a likeable city, much safer feel than Naples or Genoa. A young vibe, cheap bars and food but not stinting on the quality. Some places were nothing more than yards with shabby coloured wooden chairs and fairy lights but we ate and drank well.
There was a hipster or Camden type of atmosphere, street art blending with historical buildings. Cleaner than we had expected.
We visited the Teatro Greco di Catania first which is a quite well-preserved Greek Amphitheatre from the 2nd century AD discovered after an earthquake under medieval and more recent houses.
David had his first daily arancini which was from Prestipino. 10/10
Aperitivi at Vermut had a free table and the drinks and snacks were good. Tostadas with swordfish and mortadella. Lots of interesting people watching in the main bar street of Catania in a slightly edgy and alternative setting. Posters up objecting to the use of a mafia asset (taken by the state) being turned into a social housing project – locals objected but students supported. Apparently €1.5 million is available to the winning project for reuse.
Dinner was booked at Be Quiet. Not the best meal; in retrospect we should have just tried our luck in Via Filomena. We finished the evening with a huge €4 ice cream from Don Peppinui, eaten on the steps of the Elephant.
Monday 11th July – The belly of Catania
Many more street sounds today as Catania woke up after the weekend and the market below us set up. We joined guide Hanna for a Food tour, starting at the market.
We stepped past the fish to the nuts and brittle.
Then cheeses and hams followed by fritto misto and horse meatballs.
We walked up to the park past the street where aristocratic nuns hid away and up to the Roman theatre. Then the arancini of the day which was from Spinella. 8/10. Some small onion and cheese pastries later and we were done, time to get a taxi to the airport to collect the hire car.
Our next stop was the Relais San Giuliano in Viagrande, a hotel on the foothills of Mount Etna. We spent the afternoon relaxing by the pool and catching up.
Tuesday 12th July – Montebello
None of the expensive tours to the summit appealed to us so we drove to the Crateri Silvestri. The whole area was crowded by 10am. Cars, tour buses, at least two UK school trips. We walked around these craters and then the Superiori one.
There are great views over the coast before the cloud cover built up through the day. We only needed a light jumper and could have managed without any but having trainers was a good idea.
I wanted a few more winding roads with hair pin bends so we went on to Zafferana Etnea where we stopped for a drink and arancini ( 8/10) in the main square. The café granita is a real hit between the eyes of caffeine and sugar.
Sicily comes across as a poor place that externally is run down. The paint is peeling and faded, the cars are generally older than the mainland and towns look tired. To counterbalance this, the interiors can be amazing, the people are generally warm and friendly and the prices affordable.
Wednesday 13th July – Montalbano
We have been fans of the Italian detective series Inspector Montalbano for years. We could do it as a Mastermind subject. It was the inspiration for this trip and we were keen to start spotting the locations so we drove to Modica.
For the various locations, we found this link useful Montalbano Locations.
We took a tourist train (trenino) as we thought it might stop periodically and let us get some photos but it ripped around the narrow streets. There were two rival companies and a lot of hard sell. The whole tourist train business was a puzzle and we wondered if it may have some sinister connections…
Off to check in at our apartment (AirBnB) on the sea front of Marina di Ragusa which was charming and could not have been closer to the sea. We could even see the light house of Punta Secca. Although a 45 minute walk to the town centre, it was quiet and at sunset a little aperitivi van called Girasole sets up for cocktails and snacks on the rocks.
Thursday 14th July – Marinella and Vigata
Both towns are fictional, of course. We went to the locations, starting with Punta Secca where Montalbano lives in the stories. It was a thrill to walk beside the lighthouse and under the balcony of the famous house. The beach seemed a popular spot for locals but not commercialised.
The next stop was Scicli ( “Vigata” in the programme ) for the police station and mayor’s office. The TV series brought a lot of tourism to the town and put it on the map. It seems to be fading in popularity as it has been some years ago now. It is clearly a reasonable earner for the local municipality who own the buildings. The young council worker who gave us a tour admitted he had never seen the show himself, nor read the books. The tricks of the filming and the props which were still visible were all fascinating to us.
We also visited the Farmacia in the same street with lovely old wooden cabinets with various toxic chemicals.
Then on to the “tuna factory” which is the old brick factory (Fornace Penna). Quite atmospheric.
On the way back we as we drove through Cava D’Aliga we saw a beautiful bay which was not busy and stopped there for a rest and a swim.
Dinner was at Ristorante II Delfino – Da Vince’ right on the beach with a cocktail along the way at Sottosale.
Friday 15th July – Montelusa
The town of Ragusa has many Montalbano locations so it was next on our list. We opted to Starting with the steps of Santa Maria delle Scale, an iconic spot. It was sad to see it had been neglected and not kept clean. We decided to walk the upper town today and save the more historic Ragusa Ibla for a cooler evening visit.
Beach break after this was on the main area of Marina di Ragusa which was busy but comfortable. We were grateful for the beach chairs and sturdy parasol provided by Maria, our lovely apartment owner.
Saturday 16th July – The Snack Thief of Punta Secca
A morning on the beach of Punta Secca. Great for watching the local people settle in to chat with their “cumpari”. There is a set schedule, it appears. Claim your place by 10am with small chairs and parasols. Chat, play with kids, have snacks. Then at 1pm the entire beach clears off for lunch. Some leave their places, others pack up. Around 5pm the beach fills up again, this time a younger crowd and more ball games played.
The drama of the day was the snack we had at the Tower café, Torre Scalambri. Next to the Casa Montalbano. It was clear that they set out to con the tourists who have come to see the famous house.
Menu given to locals only : https://www.toscatorrescalambri.com/public/menu_italiano.pdf
Evening trip to Ragusa Ibla, the old town.
We walked around the old town looking at dinner options and considered the Trenino again but the driver was giving no commitments on departure times. We checked out a few more Montalbano locations: the Giardino Ibleo, Duomo di San Giorgio and a restaurant A’Rusticana which we booked for dinner.
The Trenino was full when we arrived back in the main square so instead we went to a bar near the Duomo to watch a big wedding taking place whilst we had a non-alcohol aperitvo – I was driving. Lots of amazing dresses and blokes in blue suits, with trainers.
Dinner at A’Rusticana was fun with the photos on the wall of cast and film crew. Una hunted out the rude Montalbano t-shirt worn by the waitress. Found in a local shop.
Sunday 17th July – Syracuse
We reluctantly checked out of our beach-front apartment in Marina di Ragusa and stopped at Fontane Bianche on our way to Syracuse. It was not a great choice as it was weekend-busy and the beach was unpleasantly crowded.
Off to Ortigia and the Talete car park we had identified outside the ZTL. The bridge we needed to cross was closed due to the ZTL so we did a circuit of Ortigia island before crossing the other bridge into the zone then round the narrow streets several times (Google is bad in pedestrian zones and knows nothing of ZTL). We and others needed help with the machines as the card readers didn’t work on all.
We were not fussed about Ortigia and Syracuse. Too touristy and crowded, spoiled by souvenir shops and no local feel. It was chosen as a way of breaking the trip back to the airport but we wished we had stayed in our beach terrace apartment for another night.
We did a circuit round the closed fish market, spotting Caseifico Borderi (“most famous man in Syracuse”) who apparently makes fantastic sandwiches. Then Voglia Matta café for an excellent set of ice creams in cool air conditioning.
Our bed and breakfast, Porta Marina Ortigia was OK for one night and a good location.
We walked around Ortigia, admiring the super yachts. Two were called Lady A and Lady C. We discovered they cost $700k/week excluding staff and fuel – it takes almost $500k to fill up the tanks.
We surveyed several dinner options and decided to reserve Le Vin de l’Assassin Bistrot having a change from Sicilian food. Worth doing so as it was fully booked when we came back to eat at an early 19:30.
Aperitivi was Verga Courtyard with an interesting selection of well-made drinks. The platter of cheeses and salami proved too much with all the extras included.
Monday 18th July – Home to UK Heatwave
We tried to get one of the famous Borderi sandwiches to take for the flight home but it did not work out. We hung around as the staff keep promising they would start making them and we realised we needed to leave for the airport. After being told serving would start in 10 minutes a few times, we went instead next door to La Salumeria Fratelli Burgio which made excellent sandwiches any time you like.
The airport was tolerably busy and we had no issues either end with our BA flight.
Overall, an excellent trip and this Montalbano Pilgrimage had been postponed twice due to the pandemic. It was fantastic to be able to do it at last and combine it with Catania. I think we could have happily skipped Syracuse. We plan to return to Sicily and explore the west side next time.
Good background reading was Matthew Fort’s “Sweet Honey, Bitter Lemons “and the interesting “The Land where Lemons Grow” by Helena Attlee. Plus, our old friend, the Lonely Planet Guidebook.