Welcome to the land of Montalbano

trav-sicilymontalbanoTHE Sicilian Baroque masterpiece that is Ragusa Ibla would be a crowd-puller come what may – but its dusting of showbiz glamour means it packs a double-strength punch in the tourism stakes.

Ibla, the smaller, older partner of Ragusa Superiore, has been the location for many films in recent years but is now most famous as the location for many of the scenes in the fictional TV detective series Montalbano.

And even the briefest glance around the historic centre, especially its beautiful Piazza Duomo, is enough to make you realise why it was plucked from a tourism bit-part role and elevated to stardom as the Inspector’s fictional home city of Vigata.

trav-sicily4I won’t pretend I could instantly visualise the stocky super-cop strutting, bow-legged but confident, around Ibla’s handsome streetscape, brilliantly solving the latest murder mystery; his backdrop could equally have been any of the Baroque gems in this south-eastern corner of Sicily.

But the knowledge did add a little extra to my visit. The young man in the ice-cream parlour boasted with a proprietorial pride about it all. Next time I watch the great, infallible detective on TV, I’ll keep my eyes peeled for familiar sights. (Not all the scenes are shot in Ragusa Ibla, though. The police station in the series is actually in the town hall at nearby Scicli, while the character’s beachfront home is further south at Punta Secca).

Ibla’s history is interesting, too. In 1693 eastern Sicily was devastated by a massive earthquake, and Ragusa, Noto, Modica and much of Catania were destroyed. When rebuilding got underway, there was disagreement over where to locate the new Ragusa – so two towns were constructed.

Ibla was rebuilt on the original site, on a ridge at the foot of a gorge, and it was not until 1926 that the two halves were officially merged to become the new provincial capital, replacing Modica.

trav-sicily3The jumble of Baroque houses, palazzi and churches, piled together against the walls of the gorge, help make Ragusa Ibla such an eye-catching spot. It is part of the Val di Noto Unesco World Heritage Site and 18 of its buildings have special Unesco protection.

A few hours in Ibla were among the highlights of my recent visit to eastern Sicily. My base was Syracuse, close to the Umbertino Bridge that links the old city with the ancient island of Ortygia.

trav-sicilyGreek and Roman influences give this part of Sicily a unique feel and it has plenty in its locker to enthral visitors; its climate is certainly a bonus and while the north of the island was still reeling from recent snowfall, Syracuse in the first week of March had the sun on its back.

The city made a perfect base to explore the Baroque cities nearby. And while Noto, arguably the best-known, teemed with visitors, the golden streets of Ragusa Ibla were all but deserted. Maybe Montalbano was on vacation . . .

Dave Eidlestein