After visiting the north coast of Sicily, we crossed the island towards the next destination: the famous Valley of the Temples on the south shore. The route follows valleys and passes west of the Madonie mountains on highways that are often elevated on a series of pillars. It seems to be a bit of overkill and it definitely doesn’t improve the landscape; the concrete and construction companies must have had a field
day, week, year, decade. Interestingly, some of the roads are in pretty bad shape but not much is really being done to repair roads. The road owner closes a lane here and there for a kilometer and doesn’t seem to be in a rush to repair as the weeds are growing around the road barriers.
Agrigento is the place close to the Valley of the Temples. Valley is a bit of an odd choice as the temples are actually sitting on a ridge. It is theorised the ancient Greek colonists chose the ridge so their temples could be seen from the sea as beacons for seafarers.
Old Agrigento itself is partly sitting on a hill. Outside the historic centre, the area is pretty much ruined by a total lack of planning with hair-raisingly narrow, elevated highways. The space is so badly ‘designed’, you don’t even know if you turn into a road or someone’s property sometimes. You can see a mid rise building next to an olive grove, followed by a detached summer home. We stayed in that home…
It was actually a lovely home, but a bit hard to find initially as the bridge we were supposed to cross wasn’t there anymore. We made an enormous detour but it has to be said, despite the chaotic infrastructure, Google Maps (downloaded in advance, as we don’t have a data plan in Europe; the voice directions work off line) brought us right to the gate of our AirBnB.
The next day, we spent a morning at the temples. The parking was actually hard to find despite its World Heritage status; I suggest you go early and park under the trees in the parking lot next to the east end entrance. Be prepared that parking can only be paid cash at a very puzzling parking machine.
Despite the many images on line, we were not really prepared what to expect. It is quite impressive to see a near complete ancient temple against a blue sky and a blue sea in the background. The Concordia temple is mostly preserved, the others mostly collapsed: big blocks and pieces is all that remains mostly. Few columns that are standing. Nevertheless, with a bit of fantasy, it is not hard to imagine how it once used to be.
The Concordia temple was built around 2400 years ago by the ancient Greeks. The reason why it is still standing is because around 900 years (!) after it was built, the early Christians decided to convert the temple to a church by adding some structural improvements and maintain it as a church instead. Let’s face it, as a not-for-profit you have to be careful with your resources. Then there is also the theory that converting the temple to a church was seen as a symbolic win over pageantry.
We spent a lot longer at the temples then we had expected, about four hours, even having lunch under a tree, sitting on parts of the Zeus temple columns, hand carved by some Greek craftsman 2400 years ago.
The next day, we had a long drive planned, so we just enjoyed the afternoon on the edge of the pool that came with our AirBnB and cooked a meal at home to enjoy outside under the pergola at the massive wooden outdoor table. Life is good in spring in Agrigento.
There are basically two ways to go back east from Agrigento. One is back into the hinterland and use the highways to get to Catania or follow the coastal southern road. We decided on the coastal route as we were not in a hurry, but man, does it take a long time.
The roads are all two lanes, so you either hang behind a vehicle or risk your life and pass. We opted for the peaceful option and regularly hung behind old Fiats, 18 wheelers with vegetables destined for other places in Europe or rickety old trucks with watermelons.
The road is not overly interesting. You will pass an oil refinery, lots of plastic greenhouses, lots of agricultural lands and pass some sleepy towns. The route goes through town centres and bypasses others. We noticed there is rarely a traffic light, but dozens and dozens of small roundabouts instead, which is probably a smart choice. It always works.
Possibly the ugliest town was Gela. The town feels like a frontier town with a messy dusty main street with ugly mid rises, unfinished buildings and cheap shops. All traffic passes through this main street.
We stopped at a fruit and vegetable stand and loaded up on fresh goodies. While Ottawa was battling flooding, and suffering near zero degrees, Sicily’s produce was abundant. If you want to eat local food, Sicily is the place to be.
After a long day we stopped briefly in Noto, not far from Regusa, where we started our trip and took a brief tour through the town centre. Then it was off to our destination of the day on the east coast of Sicily, Siracusa.
Siracusa just celebrated its 2600th anniversary that week. Siracusa’s main attraction is probably the old city centre with its narrow streets, views from the city walls over the sea and the theatre. Unfortunately the ancient Roman and Greek theatres were closed so we decided to spend the day in the old town. It is not big, but we really enjoyed just walking the narrow streets, check out an exhibit, enjoy a gelato and a coffee and just watch the world go buy. Off the beaten track, away from the cruise ship tourists and school trip kids, it was a pleasant place to be. It always surprises me that so many tourists don’t even venture out more than 100 meters into a place. Just hanging around on the waterfront at an overprized tourist restaurant is what many cruise ship passengers seem to be content with.
As Siracusa is flat, we immediately saw more cycling, racers in spandex and jerseys on the road and the upright bikes in town. By the way, talking about cycling, the island didn’t appeal to me one bit for cycling. Poor roads, erratic driving, no shoulders. No thank you. Distracted driving and speed are increasingly a cause of the 250 cycling deaths in Italy (2015 numbers).
There appears to be a younger somewhat hippyesque crowd living in the core who are dressing up the area a bit with flowers and decorations. I must say that some of the inner core housing looked quiet dark and claustrophobic though. Still, walking the same streets as Archimedes once did is quite exciting.
The square is nice and car free which is a bit of a relief after always being surrounded by (parked) cars. The police station had a small exhibit on what the national police does. A retired police officer explained the dozen or so blown up photos, all in Italian. I don’t think it ever occurred to him we don’t speak much Italian. As we were the only two people, we couldn’t really slack off so we pretended it was all very interesting. Did you know though, that the police have a Masarati to bring emergency blood across Italy? Apparently at 240 km an hour!
We felt like dining out and we settled on a fish restaurant across the bay form Siracusa. A very local place and refreshing after being surrounded by tourists most of the day. We ended up having a chat with an American woman, who’s brother lives in Haarlem, Netherlands, building harpsichords about a kilometer away from my sister’s…..Go figure.
The next day we set out for Catania. We read about the city in advance.:”Gritty”. Other than the Lonely Planet, which is more favourable to Catania, most descriptions weren’t overly enthousiastic. But we”d like to be surprised.
Next week, the last installment of our trip.
Read the first three Sicily installments here:
Part 1 The southeast UNESCO sites
Part 2 Villa Romana del Casale and Morgantina
Part 3 Castelbuono, Madonie and Cefalú
Part 5 Catania