Exploring Agrigento, Sicily

The landscape between Marsala and  Agrigento is quite typical of the Mediterranean countryside, with a backdrop of golden sun baked hills outlining the various shades of green of the numerous crops – artichokes, olives, grapes, citrus, melon and surprisingly for this time of year, cauliflower.

For lunch we stopped in Sciacca. Like many towns, the unattractive, shabby newer block style construction along the outskirts of the city surround a charming historical baroque style city center. We had a quick lunch at Vecchia Conza, recommend in Lonely Planet as a popular place for lunching locals. At 1pm we were the only customers in the place. I wasn’t too worried, however, about getting decent plate of pasta. From where I was sitting I could see the Italian mama in the kitchen cooking the old standbys we had ordered, pasta with swordfish seasoned with mint and bucatini pasta with sardines. Both well done if not much meat.

Agrigento really is about as ugly as its reputation, with big block 60s-style apartment buildings covering the city hilltop that overlook the ruins and refineries along what would otherwise be a very pleasant beach. Fortunately the archeological site, Valle dei Templi (Valley of the Temples), are a fair distance from the city which doesn’t detract much from the splendor of the ruins. At least not as much as I thought it might from the descriptions in the guide books.

It still amazes me to be driving along and there in front of you is a 5th-century BC Doric Greek temple just sitting on a ridge as it is meant to be.  I wonder if this sight becomes commonplace to the locals. After living in DC for 10 years I’m still impressed by our monuments; I can’t imagine what it would be like to live with 2500 year old temples.

We visited the archaeological museum the first afternoon, an impressive collection of vases and other items found both at the local excavation site and purchased by the museum from other sites. One of my favorites was this crazy little pottery man who was supposed to help ease of the pain of childbirth. Also impressive were the Telamons, giant column like figures with their arms up raised, originally supporting a pediment above their head when the Temple of Zeus was still standing.

After the museum we took a few shots of the temples from the road with the telephoto lens taking advantage of the soft glow of the evening sun.

Visiting The Ruins

The Valle dei Templi (Valley of the Temples) is home to a series of five temples that sit along a ridge overlooking the valley below. An impressive setting that is only somewhat tainted by the views of Agrigento’s unfortunate construction looming in the distance. We got up early to be at the ruins when they opened in order to take advantage of the morning light.

Starting at the far end of the eastern section of the ruins, at Temple of Hera, we worked our way down along the ridge.  The three temples in this section date from about 600 BC to 400 BC and are all Doric in style, meaning that the capitals are the most simplistic in design of the three Greek styles – Doric, Ionic and Corinthian, and the columns tend to be thicker.

I personally am more interested in the aesthetics of a place and a general sense of history in that these are the remnants of past civilizations once great, but now either extinct or in a state of decay. Nature reclaiming what man has built. As such I tend to find temples that are less well preserved but still have some of their original structure more interesting.

Guide books sing the praises of the Temple of Concord because it is one of the best preserved Greek Temples in the world, and I can understand that from a historical perspective, but I prefer to photograph the Temples of Hera and Hercules for their graceful columns struggling to stay erect against the elements. l

Driving Tips for Visiting Valley of the Temples

The park is divided in two sections, East and West with entrances at each end of the two sections. The parking areas are not well marked, but there are two good sized lots at each end of the park, by Temple of Hera in the eastern section and just south of Temple of Dioscuri in the western section, off of SS 115. 

To visit the Archeological Museum, up SS 118, there is another parking lot behind the museum. You can purchase a ticket that allows you one entrance into each of the sections of the valley and the museum, with the option of entering one section one day and another section the next day. However, if you enter either the East or West section from the parking lot and want to visit the other section, you can, but your ticket will not work in the automated ticket reader to allow you to go back through the first section to get back to your car. Ask the guard and he will let you through.

Visiting Selinunte

Selinunte, about an hour and half west of Agrigento, is another Doric temple site dating from about 600 BC. Only two of the eight temples have much of a structure still standing, none the less it is an impressive site. Temple E is the most intact of the lot.

You can walk among the towering thick columns and imagine what this structure once was, stuccoed and colorfully painted as all Greek temples were. For me even more interesting was the heap of fallen columns and stones behind it, remnants of another temple, currently designated as Temple F.

Never have I seen such huge sections of stone columns lying in a massive jumble, a truly impressive display of destruction and decay. The Carthaginians sacked the city around 400 BC and it never really recovered.  Along the water there is a second section of temples, not as impressive as the first with the only section still standing, unfortunately, encased in scaffolding.  However, this second site enjoys a fabulous view of the beach and sea beyond.

Driving Tips for Visiting Selinunte

Selinunte is also divided in two sections, one just behind the parking lot of the main entrance to the park and the other you can see in the distance along the coast. To get to the second site, you can take a path through the country side, about 15 to 20 minutes; pay for guided transport, just inside the main entrance; or drive. The road is at the far end of the parking lot. Note that the ticket for Selinunte is also good at Segesta if used within 3 days.

We had lunch as the not so little Tratoria Athena, on the main road just before arriving at the Selinunte archaeological park. We had a simple lunch of mushroom risotto and my favorite, spaghetti al nero di seppie (spaghetti in squid ink). Man I love this stuff. This time they used quite a bit of parsley and some kind of hot chili which gave it a nice kick but I really prefer the subtle flavor of the squid ink. The mushroom risotto had a rich butter infused flavor, which struck us as unusual, since most of the dishes we’ve had have been very light on cheese and other dairy products.

Scala dei Turchi

On the way back we made a quick stop at Scala dei Turchi, mentioned in Lonely Planet, just a few minutes by car west of Agrigento. A huge clay and limestone rock formation that runs along the shoreline in a sort of layered staircase that climbs up the cliff. Very smooth and chalky. A favorite of sunbathers and spectators alike.

Brioche con Gelato

Back in town, finally got the chance to try a brioche con gelato, the original ice cream sandwich, a sweet bun filled with your choice of gelato, for me that would be chocolate and pistachio. Although it is a popular treat on the entire island – most often eaten at 10:30am – it supposed to even more popular here in Agrigento. Unfortunately, most every gelateria that we passed for the last two days had been closed, for the summer?

For links to all the posts in this series see the Sicily page.

2 thoughts

  1. Beautiful photos! And thanks so much for the reference earlier in the week, unexpected surprise. This part of your trip is reminding me of my journey to the Tulum Ruins in Mexico about 20 years ago. I was so young, but it made a lasting impression on me and gave me a heart (if not always a wallet) for travel.

  2. Thank you for the inspiration. It was your post that got me thinking about how we react to negative situations.
    Just looked up Tulum Ruins and the picture does looked remarkably like a Doric Greek temple, not what I would expect from a Mayan ruin. I still haven’t visited that part of Mexico but it is definitely on my list.

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