The other day I read that the almond trees in Agrigento were in blossom and my thoughts returned to the marvelous archeological zone near the city called the Valley of the Temples. The name always struck me as odd because the famous Greek temples are high on a ridge overlooking the sea a few miles away. But there are temples galore.
The almond blossoms had fallen by the end of May last year when we were there and the trees were laden with green almonds.

 Ancient contorted olives trees add to the beauty of the scene.

The area was settled by Greeks around 580 B.C. and followed the same pattern of conquest and culture as most locations in the area: Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans and the rest. The Greek temple builders named it Akragas. The name changed over time until 1927 when Mussolini decided that it should be Agrigento.

We began our walk at the top of the hill on a hot day to traverse the Via Sacra which parallels the remains of the original city walls, honeycombed in places with the remains of Byzantine tombs.

The first golden-hued temple is the Temple of Hera of which not much remains but lonely pillars reaching toward the sun.

Next is the magnificent Temple of Concord, the best preserved of all Greek temples outside of one in Athens. It was supposedly named Concord in honor of couples who came to worship on their wedding day to ensure a peaceful marriage. The temple owes its state of preservation to the oddly named 6th century bishop of Agrigento, Saint Gregory of the Turnips, and was only restored in the 18thcentury. I thought the tourists should be wearing Greek-style clothing like those on painted vases to complete the picture.

Nearby, a bronze statue of Icarus by Igor Mitoraj lies on the ground as if he had just tumbled from the sky when the sun melted the wax that held his wings together. Beware of flying too close to the sun as his father, Daedalus, the legendary founder of Akragas, warned. The statue seems a perfect foil to the temples, stripped bare of their ornamentation but still standing defiant after 2500 years while the heedless Icarus died. What buildings of our day will last that long or will some of ours fall to earth for failure to heed warnings?

The nearby Villa Aurea has a memorial to a Captain Alexander Hardcastle in the courtyard. He showed up in 1921 to provided money for excavations in the area and restored the villa as his home. He lived there with his brother until he went broke and died in an insane asylum. The villa is now used for exhibitions but I dreamed of living there in the midst of all this beauty.

The Temple of Herakles is a heap of enormous building blocks, and following that is the remains of the Temple of Olympian Zeus, once the largest Doric-style temple in the Greek world. Not much is left but a few columns and a gigantic statue (telemone), one of many that once stood along the sides of  the building. All but this one and one in the museum, now swept away by time and history.

As we left the Via Sacra portions of a temple called Castor and Pollux shimmered in the sun. The only guard was a sleeping dog.

The “temple” was in fact erected in 1836 from leftovers, and despite its unauthentic provenance, it is the perfect vision of the romanticism of the Classical world. and the symbol of the city.

The wonderful archeological museum contains the finds from the temples along with finely painted Greek vases, statuary and marvels from the Romans and Byzantines who all had their day in the sun but ultimately fell to earth.

All photographs copyright Judith Works 

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We returned from our travels to Sicily, not with salt of the earth but salt from the sea. But we began the visit to the far western part of the island in the, tiny walled town of Erice 2500 feet above the salty sea. The town was founded by about 1200 BC but developed by the Carthaginians around the 6th Century BC. After which its history followed that of the rest of Sicily with one culture after another taking over. Now it’s nearly deserted in the winter when snow falls, but filled during the warmer months with tourists, mainly those from elsewhere on the island who come in the summer to escape the heat. 

Long ago, it was known all over the Mediterranean for its temple dedicated to the goddess of fertility known as Astarte, Aphrodite, or Venus to the Romans who supported it with taxes. The cult was bound with sacred prostitutes who, as the story goes, began their “careers” at age 13 and retired at 21. They dined on milk and honey to become pleasingly plump and were much in demand as wives after they left the temple.

We didn’t eat any milk or honey nor was there anything much to see of the temple, but we made the modern obligatory and fattening stop at the justly famous Pasticceria di Grammatico Maria, who use the same recipes and ingredients as those of cloistered nuns in the 1400s. We didn’t resist the enticements like “sighs,” “beauty-ugly,” “mother- in-law’s tongue,” and the inevitable cannoli. All divine. I could visualize myself becoming pleasingly plump if we hung around too long.

On a sugar high from the pastries and a couple shots of espresso, we headed down (way) down to the salt pans near Trapani,  The city was founded at the same time as Erice and served as its port in ancient times.

Beyond the city lie the salt pans near an area interestingly called Nubia. We wondered if the name was a coincidence or from Africans who settled in the area at some point. The area is now mostly a nature reserve with flamingos and herons, the salt trade having declined over the years. 

The ponds are filled with sea water in late winter, and the winds and sun slowly evaporate the water until the crystals become reddish from algae. When the algae dies the salt is at the correct salinity to be harvested. It’s then washed and raked into piles to drain before packaging.

In the distance we could see an old watchtower, a relic of the days when the Saracens raided.

Despite the overdose of pastries we didn’t want to miss lunch, so we stopped at the Trattoria del Sale (sale is Italian for salt), a restaurant surrounded by the salt works. The food was good  but the museum associated with the restaurant was fascinating.

Windmills were built in medieval times to help pump the sea water, but judging by the museum the process must have been beyond backbreaking until recent times when machinery came into use. 

Between courses we looked at the salt-encrusted wood Archimedes screws to pump water, a frame for a windmill sail, and the rakes and wagons, and wondered how the workers survived such labor in the burning sun while here we were relaxing with food and wine without a care. 

It’s strange that so many places of past misery are now tourist attractions where the traveler can take a quick look, contemplate for a few minutes, and then ponder the next meal. Especially in Italy.


All photos copyright Judith Works

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What a delight! The small town perched high on a hill above the Ionian Sea in the shadow of snow-dusted Mt. Etna is just right for walking. And of course shopping and eating. This visit we were on a day trip to take another look at the marvelous Greek theater and stroll the streets to visit gardens, Roman ruins and medieval buildings. And of course do some shopping. The narrow and winding road from the seaside to the town winds around lovely homes, small plots with vines and citrus, and luxury hotels until it reaches the parking lot. From then on it’s time to stroll on the cobblestones licking a cone of gelato and oogling the mouth-watering marzipan treats in bakeries and bars, and sampling the luscious Sicilian citrus.

Like almost every town in Italy Taormina has a long history, in this case, really long. It was founded by the Greeks in 392 BC and they pushed even earlier inhabitants out. Of course the Romans came along and then everyone else who has tramped through Sicily. In more recent times Kaiser Wilhelm II decided to winter there in the 1890s and other royals and their hangers-on soon followed. Some of these men were overly interested in the local population and one impoverished baron made a living photographing doe-eyed youths with their water jugs and baskets or in togas with flowers in their hair often in mildly erotic poses. Others went straight for pornographic. After World War II, Taormina was rediscovered and the rich and famous flocked there. Truman Capote, Winston Churchill, Orson Wells, Cary Grant and the off and on-again duo Elizabeth and Richard honeymooned there – twice.

The first item on our agenda was to return to the marvelous Greek theater where the ancients sat watching plays performed as part of their religious rites. What is most visible today is Roman reconstruction; instead of plays they had gladiator competitions. The acoustics are so good that the theater is now used as a venue for concerts and big names regularly appear there in the summer.

The central gathering point for the inhabitants and tourists is the Piazzale IX Aprile an ideal spot for an iced coffee before visiting the lovely public gardens. Massimo, the postman was taking a break too.

The gardens, full of subtropical plants were created in 1899 by a civic-minded Englishwoman, Florence Trevelyan Cacciola. In true English style there are follies and fountains and benches to rest in the shade. And, as always in Italy, there is a monument to the town’s dead in the World Wars. On a happier note we watched a photo shoot with Miss Sicily who my husband said looked like a winner to him.

Footsore, we headed back down the main shopping street, the Corso Umberto, with its tempting shops, flower-filled balconies and medieval alleys to the Odeon, a small Roman theater incorporating earlier Greek elements. 

There’s not much there now and it is incongruously abutting the back of a 17th century church. 

Far more interesting is the Palazzo Corvaja which combines a 10th century Arab structure and a 15th century Catalan Gothic design. Inside the building is a museum with traditional Sicilian handicrafts including puppets.

The mix of Baroque church, Greek/Roman theater, and Arab/medieval design all within a few paces of each other encapsulates the flavor of the town. 

All photos except the young man are copyright Judith Works. The photo of the young man taken about 1900 is from Wikipedia   

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We arrived in Sicily deep in the bowels of the large ferry that transports the train from the mainland to the island. Now we returned for a day of sightseeing, this time on one of the many car ferries that cross the straits from Messina back to the port near Reggio Calabria.

The straits, so feared by the ancients, are only two miles wide at this point but are still full of hazards: cargo and cruise ships moving at high speed day and night, along with strong tides as the waters flow back and forth between the Ionian and Tyrrhenian Seas. But we didn’t see any terrified ancient Greeks or Romans rowing frantically while on the lookout for Scylla, the mythical monster, a rock shoal on the mainland side, or Charybdis, a terrifying whirlpool off the Sicilian coast. Both these monsters were said to be women; Scylla had 12 arms and 6 heads on long snaky necks; Charybdis belched water three times in an out. Homer says Odysseus decided to steer closer to Scylla and lose a few sailors rather than chance going near the whirlpool and risk losing the whole ship.

The memories of the ancients live on: Our first stop after disembarking was the small town of Scilla, Now topped by Castle Ruffo, the fearful rock named Scylla still looms over the little seaside town. But as in Sicily, none of the women looked at all like the myths and I wondered why the ancients determined they were women.

No one we saw looked terrified either. In fact, the town was quiet and nearly empty with only a couple of restaurants and bars open and a few sunbathers trying out the early summer sun.

We watched several workers painting and scraping to get everything cleaned up for the coming high season. Others set up two cabins, one with a truly bizarre logo on the side: a man trying to look over a barrier to watch women changing their clothes. Not very inviting to me.

The only other sign of life beyond the few workers and the restaurant and bar next door where we had lunch and coffee was a sword fishing boat, the lookout swaying back and forth high atop the mast. No a job for those prone to seasickness.

The meal was excellent but there was no point in lingering after we enjoyed an iced coffee while looking far out to sea where the distant shapes of the Aeolian Islands shimmered in the haze.

Our goal for the afternoon was the famous Riace Bronzes now in a museum in Reggio di Calabria, at the end of Italy’s boot. The unfinished museum is still nearly empty after years of construction. All we saw besides the bronzes was a small gift shop, and a large hall with three sculptures at the far end.

 A separate climate-controlled room houses the two bronzes plus three bronze heads all set on high-tech earthquake proof pedestals. Tourists are let in in groups of about twenty after a wait in a decontamination room designed to clean the air. We waited our turn behind a group of giggling grade schoolers in their matching outfits.

The museum, empty though it is, was more than worth the journey. The two Greek bronzes were found by chance in 1972 when a snorkeler noticed an arm sticking out of the sand. Not some poor drowned soul but a statue. The second one turned up nearby. They are an astounding example of workmanship. Most likely cast around 450 BC, the larger than life-size figures probably represent two warriors, one a young hero or god conscious of his own beauty and power, and an older more mature hero with a relaxed pose.

The eyes are calcite, their teeth silver, lips and nipples are copper. It is unknown exactly where they came from. One theory holds that they were plunder when the Romans occupied Greece and then were lost in a shipwreck on the way to some emperor’s villa or palace,  although no ship remains have yet been found. Wherever they came from they are worth a visit to southern Italy and a stunning reminder of the skills of the ancient Greeks who didn’t need computer programs to produce masterpieces unequaled until the Renaissance.

Back on Sicily, our day of marvels was completed with Mt. Etna spilling fire while we dined at a small seaside restaurant. Nature and man combined to produce an unforgettable experience.

All photos copywrite the author with the exception of the two statues in one photo which are from Wikipedia

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The Rome airport was in chaos because of a fire. Our one-hour flight to Catania in Sicily, where Glenn and I were to begin a two-week tour, was cancelled and we were unable to rebook by computer or in person. Our only alternative was to take the train, a ten-hour journey.

After fruitless efforts to book on-line, we headed to the crowded and pickpocket-ridden Stazione Termini to get tickets from an agent who could advise on schedules. But when we saw the number 578 on the slip from the take-a-number machine, there was nothing to do but confront the row of hostile vending machines known to eat victim’s credit cards and refuse to produce tickets. Many were “guasto,” the ubiquitous word for “broken” or “out of service.” I found one that appeared to work and gingerly stuck my credit card in the slot. A whirring noise and two tickets for Catania and my card miraculously appeared.  

The next day we dragged our luggage to the station to find our carriage. It had an old-fashioned arrangement for second-class trains: three seats facing one way and three the other in a compartment with a sliding door opening onto a corridor.
It didn’t take long to find out who our companions for the ride would be when a huge African man dressed in a blue tunic and trousers looked through the door and then down at his ticket. He entered, hauling a folding trolley and two bulging plastic garbage bags and heaved them up on the luggage rack above the seats before sitting knee to knee opposite Glenn. Then a young man with an Adidas sports bag plopped down. My opposite number entered: another young man but with a dog in his arms. The animal was about the size of a small terrier and bald except for tufts of hair on the top of her head, end of tail and around the ankles. The bald part was pink with black polka dots. The young man was beaming with pride but his pet hid her wistful face in the man’s jacket. I wondered if it was from embarrassment at her appearance.

 As the train glided out of Rome, past the ruined Temple of  Minerva Medica and crumbling aqueducts, the compartment door slid open and our last companion arrived: a man with receding hairline, a grey ponytail, flowered shirt, and gold bracelets and necklace.

When you are stuck together with other travelers for ten hours on a train with no restaurant or bar car the only thing to do is talk. Everyone introduced themselves. The man with bundles was a Senegalese street vendor who spoke Italian and French as he talked about his family left behind as he sold knock-off handbags on the streets and beaches. The dog man told us about his timid Chinese Crested dog; the man sitting next to Glenn was a lawyer from Catania, also stuck on the train because of the airport fire and subsequent cancellations. One of his conversational offerings was his name, Gaio. Although the female equivalent, Gaia, Earth goddess, is common, the masculine equivalent is nearly unknown. (I thought his mama must have known how good-looking he would be because he did indeed look like a god.) The man with the ponytail was originally from Uruguay now living in Parma and on his way south to visit his Italian mother. He entertained us with stories of his recent heart surgery after we admired his scar. We volunteered some about our past years living in Rome before asking why there was no bridge to Sicily. The two Italians responded with shrugs and mumblings about corruption.

And so the time passed in conversation conducted in three languages as the train chugged through economically depressed southern Italy, a land where much of “what might have been” is evident with every crumbling and empty factory, fallow field, and one-story house with the rusting re-bar for a never-built second story protruding vainly into the sky. So much beauty in the landscape, so difficult to earn a living. 
Eventually the Senegalese gathered up his goods and got off. Instead of making the expected remarks about street vendors, who are widely seen as a nuisance, the other three began to discuss the tragedy of economic conditions in Africa that forced men to emigrate to support their families with menial work in a foreign country.
The train finally reached the Straits of Messina where it was loaded section by section into the bowels of a ferry.

After a half hour in the dark, we emerged in the city of Messina with a small sense of bonding with our fellow travelers, who we would never meet again, and a large appreciation for the empathy of Italians who recognize the struggles of so many desperate migrants washing up on Italy’s southern shores.

All photos from Wikipedia Commons   

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Surely it is a breakfast suitable for the Greek gods who formerly inhabited this lovely part of Sicily: gelato in a fresh and soft brioche accompanied by ice coffee – cold, creamy, sweet and strong enough to keep me awake for at least 18 hours.

We sat outside a café on the waterfront near the Fountain of Arethusa along with the locals who were analyzing the latest political and soccer news. I was analyzing a guide to the part of Syracuse known as Ortigia. The Greeks founded their city here in 733 B.C. and it gradually grew to rival Athens before the Romans took over in 211 B.C. 
The freshwater spring, which flows into a pond full of ducks and feathery papyrus, is named for a young woman named Arethusa. When a Greek river god fell in love and pursued her she plunged into the sea to escape. She reappeared in Ortigia where the goddess Artemis transformed her into the lovely spring – not a bad fate I thought.

Needing to walk off our breakfast, we strolled toward the bridge linking the island to the main city to contemplate the ruins of the Temple of Apollo, built not long after the city’s founding, The architect’s name, Kleomenes, is still visible chiseled into the ancient stone. Could he ever have dreamed that he would be still remembered 3000 years later?

Daily life goes on no matter how many ruins surround the inhabitants, and there is no better way to see it than in the mouthwatering market. Oh the tomatoes, the tomatoes!

Of course we were hungry afterward. I ordered a salad with the tomatoes mixed with oranges. green and black olives, red onions and topped with a sprig of basil. Divine.

Then a stroll along the seaside to the Castle Maniace built in 1212 by Frederick II to protect the harbor.

Fortunately we had two more days to explore the area so we finally subsided at a sidewalk café across from our hotel, the Antico Roma, to watch the evening passeggiata with lovers embracing, tourists with guidebooks, exuberant children, and elderly couples walking arm in arm to enjoy the warm evening. And a future Formula One driver!

The marvelous Duomo was our first goal the following day. The Baroque façade faces the Piazza Duomo which is ringed with golden- colored Baroque buildings including the Town Hall and the Archbishop’s Palace.

At the far end of the piazza is the church of Santa Lucia alla Badia now housing a Caravaggio painting titled The Burial of St. Lucy. Unfortunately the painting is very dark and set so far back from the viewer that it was difficult to see.

The Duomo’s foundation was begun in 480 B.C. when a tyrant of Syracuse, Gelon, was victorious in a war with another Greek city. In celebration he decided to build a temple to Athena which was filled with ivory, gold, white Parian marble from the island of Paros and considered the best in the ancient world. The Doric temple was famous throughout the Mediterranean world and sailors were guided by the sun reflecting on Athena’s shield above the entrance. The riches were looted by the Romans and have long-since disappeared but 24 of the original 36 columns are still standing.

First converted to a church by the Byzantines, changed to a mosque during the Arab times, the Normans made alterations and the Spanish added a ceiling of chestnut wood. It was rebuilt in its current form after 1693 when it began to crumble due to earthquakes. 
We lingered in two chapels in the Duomo. One is dedicated to St Lucy who was martyred in 304 and supposedly had her eyes gouged out. The very odd Baroque marble plaque shows her eyes on a stand with a sword symbolizing the manner of her death. No surprise to find out she is the patron saint of the blind, those with eye infections, and aptly, us long-suffering writers. (And I thought the sword looked like a pen.)

The Cappella del Crocifisso with a splendid painting of the founder of the church, St. Zosimus, attributed to Antonello da Messina.

Below is a reliquary with many of the saint’s bones. I always wonder how the bones so frequently displayed in churches were obtained, and if they really belong to the person venerated.

In the evening it was time for a change from the sacred to the profane – a traditional puppet show with knights, Moors, and our heroine, Angelica. The theater had a small museum and a workshop where disembodied heads and other body parts hung from the ceiling.

Rather disconcerting until we saw the amusing puppet of a horse pulling a traditional Sicilian cart – the horse has both right legs off the ground, quite a balancing trick.

When the performance was over and all ended happily it was time for an evening prosecco and a discussion of which bar we should try for our morning coffee and gelato. More chocolate or something more daring like pistachio?

All photos except The Burial of St. Lucy and the gelato copyright Judith Works. Photo of Burial of St Lucy is from Wikipedia Commons. Photo of gelato is courtesy Margaret Jessop.  

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