Having taken the scenic route from Trapani, admiring the hills covered in vines and surrounded by wind turbines on all sides, we arrived at our waypoint of Selinunte Archaeological Park late morning. We were met with a long queue for tickets so deliberated whether to go. Given our check-in at Agrigento was only scheduled for late afternoon, we figured there was no rush, so joined the line. Once we were in the park, we realised that we had arrived at the same time as the people joining the guided tour. Given the area of the park, there was plenty of space for everyone and there were times we were exploring the temples and ruins in solitude.
Selinunte Archaeological Park is the largest archaeological area in Europe. Steeped in myths, legend, history and culture, it’s a coffer of treasures from far away millennia yet still alive. Living history. 270 hectares that tell about one of the most flourishing classical civilizations of the Mediterranean area.
The park is set on the site of a Greek city dating back to the 600s BCE. Selinunte was a rich and extensive ancient Greek city on the southwestern coast of Sicily in Italy. It was one of the most important pieces of land for the Greeks in Sicily at that time, and they butted heads with both the Carthaginians and the Elymians, who came from the Segesta to the north and are one of three native peoples of Sicily. It was a thriving city in what we now know as southwestern Sicily, that is until Carthage sacked it, razed it, executed many of its inhabitants, and then re-occupied it in 409 BCE. It was then taken by the Romans in the Punic wars, but by then it was largely uninhabited.
Selinunte is a good reminder that this part of the world has a variety of influences, and has been occupied by several different groups of people throughout its history, all of whom have left their stamp on it in one way or another (though, it should be noted that some of those stamps – particularly the architecture kind – were wiped from the face of the earth with the earthquake in 1693).
There are two parts of the park. The first was a series of temples of varying sizes and differing states of disrepair.
We chose to walk over the bluff to the second part (we could have paid a few Euro for a lift on a golf buggy) which housed the acropolis, more temples, and the remains of houses from thousands of years ago. The oldest temple dates from the first half of the 6th century BC. We marvelled at the beauty of the temples and the effort made in building them and had fun envisaging what life would’ve been like in times gone by.
On our way to Agrigento, we took a detour via the popular tourist spot of “The Scala dei Turchi” (Turkish stairs). We stopped our car along the road above the cliffs and admired the beautiful white rocks cascading into the turquoise water. Whilst we could go to the beach, climbing on the “steps” was banned as of a few weeks ago so we satisfied ourselves with a photo op.
Agrigento is a hilltop city on Sicily’s southwest shore. It’s known for the ruins of the ancient city of Akragas in the Valley of the Temples, a vast archaeological site with well-preserved Greek temples.
Our arrival was not quite what we expected. Even from afar, we did not find it particularly pretty, and as we got closer, it did little to redeem itself. Unfortunately, we had some drama on arrival too as there was a problem with our accommodation as the room we had booked wasn’t available. Brothers, Giuseppe & Benji conversed excitedly over the phone trying to resolve the issue. Giuseppe and Glenda were just as animated in their Italian / English in-person conversation. After an hour or so, we’d managed to come to an agreement and were settled into our room with a small terrace overlooking the central courtyard.
Our evening walk through the town did little to improve our view of the town. That said, we did see a number of quirky restaurants and aperitivo places starting to come alive. In the end, we found a pizzeria overlooking one of the numerous churches – Glenda’s pizza with smoked scamorza and pistachio was particularly tasty. By the end of our stay in Agrigento, we would determine that the food scene was probably the best part of the place.
The following morning, Benji prepared us breakfast on the rooftop terrace. We enjoyed fresh products from the area whilst overlooking the Valle dei Templi that we were going to visit later in the morning.
The Valle dei Templi or Valley of the Temples is an archaeological site. It is one of the most outstanding examples of Magna Graecia art and architecture. Much of the excavation and restoration of the temples was due to the efforts of archaeologist Domenico Antonio Lo Faso Pietrasanta (1783–1863), who was the Duke of Serradifalco from 1809 through 1812. During the 20th century, archaeological excavation was mainly funded by Captain Alexander Hardcastle. He permitted excavations within the archaeological park including the straightening of the eight columns on the south side of the Temple of Heracles. The term “valley” is a misnomer, the site being located on a ridge outside the town.
Following the comprehensive app of the park, we started with the temple of Juno. Built in 450-440 BC, it is partly preserved and partly rebuilt and is considered one of the most important examples of Doric architecture.
Next in line were what would have been the south walls of the city of Akagras. Among the oldest in Sicily, they were about 12 metres long. The first stage of construction dates back to the middle and end of the 6th century BC. Along the walls was a newly developed paths of tributes which included Italian poet Dante Alighieri and Giovanni Falcone, an Italian judge and prosecuting magistrate who spent most of his professional life trying to overthrow the power of the Sicilian Mafia. He was blown up near Palermo on May 23, 1992 – we’d seen the main monument to him at the bomb site on our way to the airport.
On our way to the beautiful Temple of Concordia, we stopped at the headless and armless statues from a temple built in the Roman period.
The Temple of Concordia is more than 42 metres long and more than 19 metres wide. At the end of the 6th century AD, the temple was converted into a Christian church. It is said that the bishop consecrated the ancient building to the apostles Peter & Paul after expelling the two pagan demons who lived there.
The temple of Hercules, made of calcarenite is the oldest among those guarding the walls of Akagras. It was built around 510 BC in the archaic Doric style.
At the time of its construction, the altar of the temple of Zeus was the largest altar in the ancient Greek world. One exceptionally original feature of the temple of Zeus was the presence of colossal stone giants called telamons which had decorative and possible even structural function.
The final end of the Valle dei Templi was entirely occupied by a large shrine dedicated to the worship of the chthonic deities, extending across three contiguous terraces. The oldest remains of the shrine are on the second terrace, featuring the few remaining columns of the temple of the Dioscuri. Originally, this structure had 6 columns on the facades and 13 on the long sides.
As we’d decided to drive to the site, we had to backtrack. This gave us the opportunity to enjoy it in reverse and to be grateful we’d arrived before the crowds. We also stopped off at the café for some panini and arancini.
The highlight of our stay in Agrigento
Our original accommodation had a kitchen, meaning we could self-cater. Our change in room ended up being a blessing in disguise. On Benji’s recommendation, we booked at table at Sal8. After watching the sunset from the rooftop of our accommodation, we strolled to the other side of town. The tables cascaded down the steps of the roadway. In what we’ve come to see as typically Sicilian, the juxtaposition was obvious. Outstanding service and tastefully decorated tables alongside piles of garbage and apartment entrances. The wine was reasonably priced and the food was the best we’ve had in Sicily so far. We\ both ordered the swordfish coated in pistachio and it was out of this world. Good thing we had a walk back to the other side of town to get “home”.