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.
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.
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
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
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.