21 February 2012

Venice Carnival 2012

Today is the last day of the 2012 Venice Carnival. After freezing weather in Venice a couple of weeks ago, the temperatures improved for Carnival and there have been some lovely sunny days. Crowds flocked into town at the weekend - as many as 100,000 per day to enjoy the atmosphere and admire all the costumes on display.

One of my favourite aspects of Carnival is walking around Venice and seeing random costumed carnival-goers, like passing an elegant eighteenth-century couple on a historic canalside. It's like going back in time to Venice's past.

As usual, there were some inventive costumes and many traditional ones. My favourite was a man dressed up as Van Gogh (right), complete with sunflowers and chair. A group dressed as an eighteenth-century tribute to Wedgewood were pretty good, too. Today, for the last time, the costumed participants (competing for a prize) will be parading in St. Mark's Square in the sunshine.

In 2013 Venice Carnival will be back, taking place 2nd-12th February.

> See Carnival 2012 photo gallery
> More about Venice Carnival

18 February 2012

Venice against cruise ships

There was a party atmosphere on the Zattere waterfront in Venice yesterday afternoon. Stilt-walkers and people in Carnival costumes gathered around, along with Venetians of all ages clad in their dark winter coats. Chatting with friends, stopping on their walk, accompanied by their little dogs. There was music, mulled wine and a convivial atmosphere.

But there was a serious theme underlying the Carnival gathering. This was a demonstration, one of many planned for this year, against the giant, monstrous cruise ships churning up the waters in central Venice. A stall manned by volunteers handed out information leaflets detailing the damage these ships are doing to Venice's historic buildings and to the fragile eco-system of the town's lagoon.

The numbers of huge cruise ships is growing each year, and so is the size of the vessels. Some days in Venice, with six or seven cruise liners moored close to the town centre, 30,000 people may spill off their cruise ships, filling up the narrow lanes of the ancient town. 2 million cruise ship passengers visited Venice in 2011. This is in addition to the tens of thousands who arrive for the day by train and coach. Venice has a population of under 60,000, which gives you an idea of the impact this daily invasion has. Occasionally the ships are even moored in front of residents' homes.

The excesses of tourism which turn Venice into a Disneyland - picnicked on, shambled through, littered then abandoned by evening - are a major problem. At present these protestors are not addressing this complex issue, but focussing on a simple one: the presence of ships in the lagoon. They are not even asking that ships stay away from Venice, just that they moor in the sea outside the lagoon.

Local politicians and government ministers have been warned by UNESCO and have accepted  there is a serious threat to Venice from cruise ships, and the current project is to build a vast new canal, deep enough for these monsters of the deep, right through the southern lagoon, giving them a new route to their moorings in western Venice. This would prevent them cruising through the city canals and keep them away from the sensitive waterfront of  St. Mark's, but it would obviously take a long time and cause further immense damage to the lagoon environment. What residents would prefer is for the ships to dock in the sea outside the lagoon, and to ferry their passengers in by smaller boat.

Many times I've walked along the waterfront in Venice as a cruise ship is passing by, its cheesy music and commentary jangling out, its movement causing the stone paving to shake underfoot, and heard tourists saying in horror 'It's just not right!' or words to the same effect. If you see a cruise ship sailing past the heart of Venice, you will understand immediately how wrong it is, even without knowing the physical damage they are doing. The ships are totally disproportionate to Venice's scale, and it is patently demeaning to a great art city to have these floating palaces looming overhead, passengers peering down at the monuments as they sail out of town - often with minimal contribution to the city and not having had the time to appreciate it.

At the demonstration yesterday we were waiting for the cruise liner MSC Magnifica to leave town. The Comitato No Grandi Navi (No big ships) has vowed to greet every ship's arrival and departure with banners and protest. Despite the costumes and mulled wine, as the ship began to move, its delayed departure failing to daunt the crowd, the mood darkened. 'It's moving! It's coming!'. Sirens wailed and whistles blared. A protestor with a megaphone shouted out the statistics, detailing the damage and sheer consumption of the ship.

There were at least a hundred protestors, despite the fact it was a working day, but the cluster on the waterfront seemed pitifully small compared with the might of the ship, carrying thousands off for their low-cost winter cruise.  Thanks to the megaphone and banners, though, the Venetians made themselves heard. One or two of the passengers lining the rails waved hopefully, then as the message they were hearing sunk in, they stood like silent little dark shapes, thousands of them, high above us, watching.

In Italian and English the message was clear: "You are too big for this city. Go away. You are destroying this city. Destroying palaces, destroying homes. It's not a postcard, it's a town." Some protestors just stood, others raised their hands in the classic Italian 'cornuto' gesture of hostility. The two largest banners read: "Grandi navi fuori della laguna" (Big ships out of the lagoon) and "Big ship you kill me". There were chants of "Fuori, fuori" (out, out).

As the ship sailed out, past St. Mark's, heading for its next port, the little knot of residents began shifting, shaking hands and preparing to move on. The stilt-walkers picked up their chariot - a large cardboard boat - and prepared for a procession through the city, handing out leaflets and raising awareness of their campaign.

Spotted near the Rialto Bridge

Earlier this winter I wondered if this would be the year that Venice rose up against the impositions and damage caused by excessive smash-and-grab tourism and by the crippling weight of cruise liners. There is a groundswell of opinion stirring, but with fewer residents each year, and lots of money at stake for a powerful minority, it may be too late to save the city from becoming a Disneyland. I found it heartening, and very touching, to see this humble stand against one of the most damaging influences on Venice. The recent disaster off the island of Giglio has been in everyone's mind - there was a protestor dressed as Captain Schettino - along with reflections on what would happen if one of these ships were to veer off course in Venice. The residents may, in this one matter, have their way, though frankly it's hard to see any  satisfactory solution in the foreseeable future.

In the meantime, while port authorities, politicians and the cruise industry debate, the residents of Venice have pledged to keep up their campaign. So if you are planning to cruise through Venice this year, expect to see banners and protests. It's not personal. Just a group of people wanting to save their home and preserve its heritage. If you, too, love Venice, you can read more, follow the latest news and keep up to date at the following websites:
> UNESCO calls for restrictions on cruise line traffic in Venice following Costa Concordia disaster
> Venice in Environmental Peril - Dominic Standish's blog

12 February 2012

Inspector Montalbano locations

The BBC series Inspector Montalbano (made by the Italian TV company Rai as Il Commissario Montalbano) is full of stunning Sicilian locations, from sweeping views to picturesque corners and lanes.

The original Montalbano books, by Andrea Camilleri, are set in fictional locations. Montalbano's imaginary  town, Vigata, is loosely based upon the real coastal town - Camilleri's hometown - Porto Empedocle, and Montelusa, the nearby big town, is based upon Agrigento, famous for its Greek temples.

However, the TV series moves the setting eastwards across Sicily, and it is mostly filmed in the south-eastern swathe of Sicily which is renowned for its architecturally-appealing Baroque towns (listed by UNESCO as heritage sites), some of which can be seen in sweeping overhead shots in the opening credits, including Scicli, Ragusa, Noto and Modica.

Town hall, Scicli - Montalbano's police station
In this article I'll list some of the filming locations for the TV series. Travellers who want to follow in Montalbano's footsteps won't find all the locations in one place, but you can find typical Montalbano atmosphere and scenery (minus the corpses) in any of these attractive Baroque towns. Within easy reach of Catania Airport, they are quite close together and linked by public transport, so it's relatively easy to spend a few days travelling around the area. This is a great destination for a cultural touring holiday, even without the Montalbano connection.

Regular locations

A lot of the locations are in the lovely little town of Scicli. Montalbano's police station, seen in many episodes,  is, in real life, the town hall of Scicli. It is in the pretty, central Via Penna. The mayor's real-life office (the Stanza del Sindaco) is used in the series too, as the Questore's office, and it can sometimes be visited by the public. The Questura (police HQ) building supposedly in Montelusa is also in Scicli, in Piazza Italia.
Piazza Duomo, Ragusa

In more recent episodes, Piazza Pola in Ragusa Ibla, off the main street, becomes the site of the Inspector's police station. Look out in TV episodes for the nearby Circolo di Conversazione, an elegant one-storey building. Ragusa is a picturesque town on two hilltops, surrounded by deep valleys, and it is featured heavily in Inspector Montalbano. The cathedral square Piazza Duomo, a long sloping piazza with a flight of steps leading up to the cathedral, can be glimpsed frequently.   Individual buildings and lanes close by are often used as the setting for Montalbano's investigations and house calls, and viewers will also notice and admire the famous view over Ragusa Ibla, the old town on its hilltop, with flights of steps and a road in the foreground.

The restaurant San Calogero which Montalbano visits often - and where he introduces colleague Mimi to future wife Beba  in Gita a Tindari / Excursion to Tindari -  is really La Rusticana in Ragusa Ibla, where the cast of the TV series have signed the walls.

La Rusticana restaurant, Ragusa Ibla

Punta Secca
Montalbano's home, with its balconies overlooking the beach, is at Punta Secca,  a small seaside settlement with a tall lighthouse, which stands in for fictional Marinella.   'Montalbano's' house is a B&B, helpfully called La Casa di Montalbano, so if you book well ahead you can actually stay here. The little square where the building is located is now rechristened Piazza Montalbano. Along the seafront is a restaurant where Montalbano occasionally enjoys a seafood and pasta lunch on the terrace.

Castello di Donnafugata
Castello di Donnafugata, near Ragusa
In the pursuit of his enquiries a disapproving Montalbano sometimes has to call upon aged Mafia boss Balduccio Sinagra in his sumptuous residence. In fictional Vigata the Sinagra family are the local Mafia clan. In reality the Castello di Donnafugata belongs to Ragusa town council, and is open to the public (and well worth visiting). It's outside the town and can be reached by car or very rare trains. The grounds also serve as the location for a horse race and a seduction in La Pista di Sabbia, and Montalbano finds a couple of corpses in the maze in Gita a Tindari / Excursion to Tindari.

Locations in individual episodes

Ragusa -  In Gli Arancini di Montalbano / Montalbano's Croquettes the detective calls in at a cafe in Piazza Duomo to see his housekeeper's delinquent son. The public park in Ragusa Ibla, the Giardino Ibleo, stands in for a hospital garden in another episode.

Alley, Modica
Alley, Modica (pictured) - On our Sicilian trip we were pleased to come across this spot in Modica, identified by an information board, not long after seeing the episode when Montalbano arrives here looking for a suspect and is served a barrage of foul-mouthed abuse by a little old lady.

La Pazienza del Ragno - Cava D'Ispica - Investigating a ransom case, Montalbano turns up in the rock-cut tombs which are a feature of the Monti Iblei area of Sicily, around Ragusa. A set of these caves can be visited in the archaeological park at Cava d'Ispica.

In Il Cane di Terracotta / The Terracotta Dog Montalbano discovers a pair of long-dead corpses in the Grotta delle Trabacche, another tomb site, located near Ragusa.

La Forma del Acqua / The Shape of Water and  La Pazienza del Ragno - Fornace Penna, Sampiero - this atmospheric ruined brickworks by the sea features in a couple of episodes.

In one episode Montalbano drives into Piazza del Duomo in Siracusa and visits the town hall.

Modica: Ponte Guerrieri - the terrifying road bridge crossing a ravine in the opening credits is this viaduct at Modica. We crossed it in a bus on a rather alarming journey, which continued with the bus swooping down hairpin bends into the town.

Scopello - the stunning bay in the north-west of Sicily is used as a location for Il Senso del Tatto

Other filming locations include Ispica, Donnalucata, Santa Croce Camerina and Tindari.

See the filming
New episodes of Montalbano are still being filmed, so if you are visiting the Ragusa area you may be lucky enough to stumble upon filming for new episodes of Il Commissario Montalbano.

Plan a holiday
>  Sicily destination and tourism information

9 February 2012

Montalbano on the BBC

Ragusa Ibla , a view frequently used in Montalbano
The BBC's decision to show an entire series of the detective drama Inspector Montalbano is great news for lovers of the programme, as well as for lovers of Sicily. Based on the colourful novels of  Andrea Camilleri, the RAI TV series Il Commissario Montalbano is hugely popular in Italy and has already been exported to other countries around the world. You can buy DVDs on Amazon with English subtitles produced for the US and Australia. The BBC has already showed two episodes in the past year, to whet viewers' appetites.

The TV series is filmed around south-eastern Sicily, mostly in the Baroque towns listed by UNESCO.   Principal filming locations include Ragusa, Scicli and Modica. These are picturesque small towns which show the very best of Sicily, and it is no wonder that the TV series has encouraged tourism in the region.  I toured the area last year and you come across Montalbano wherever you go - take-aways advertising the 'arancini of Montalbano', photographs of actor Luca Zingaretti and occasionally an official information board describing a film location. When we saw some filming in Scicli, we were thrilled, then disappointed to learn it wasn't for new Montalbano.

The detective drama is highly entertaining, with lots of colourful Sicilian characters, local dialect, beautiful scenery and convoluted plots. Like the original novels, the TV series captures the infuriating and bizarre aspects of Italian - and Sicilian - culture. From Montalbano's love of food  - check out the meals he enjoys alone at home - to the perpetually unfaithful spouses, the predatory women, corrupt politicians and incompetent professionals, this is an Italy which will be familiar to everyone who knows the country.  Some of the characters and situations are so hilarious you'd think they must be exaggerated... but perhaps not. Frequently the detective and his team are left with  'the Mafia' as the opposing, faceless protagonist. Montalbano is a decent man who sees the best and worst of his fellow Sicilians as he investigates baffling crimes, and makes excuses on the phone to his long-distance girlfriend Livia. Through his eyes the viewer can really enjoy the breadth, drama and humour of Sicilian life.

Shop sign in Modica
You can watch the first episode of Inspector Montalbano on BBC4 on Saturday 11th February 2012, and again on Wednesday 15th. DVDs are also available on Amazon.co.uk, as are the original novels by Andrea Camilleri.

Pour yourself a glass of Nero d'Avola, enjoy the TV show, and maybe you'll start daydreaming about a holiday in Montalbano territory.

> Montalbano locations in Sicily

> Ragusa
> Scicli
> Noto
> Siracusa