Agrigento’s Valley of the Temples, with a Pit Stop in Noto

Agrigento’s Valley of the Temples is the most amazing place you’ve never heard of. At least I had never heard of it, until I began planning a trip to Sicily a few months back.

Turns out Sicily’s south coast has an ancient Greek temple complex said to be the most outstanding outside the Acropolis in Athens (and unlike the Acropolis, it has the advantage of feeling undiscovered).

But first came Noto, above, a half hour from Syracuse, a hill town of quiet (except for the church bells) Baroque beauty. For lack of time, we breezed in and out. Noto had to stand in for Modica and Ragusa, which are surely worth extended visits as well. Can’t do it all, I kept telling myself.

Noto’s long, elegant promenade, the Corso Vittorio Emanuele, is centered on — guess what? — a grand and glorious Duomo, built or re-built, as were all the towns in the southeastern corner of Sicily, in the early 18th century following a devastating earthquake in the 1690s.

An hour’s stroll through Noto’s relatively un-touristed streets, a pistachio/almond granita in a café, a peek into a few of the town’s fifty antique churches, which were more restrained on the inside than their intricate stonework façades would suggest, and we were on our way again.

Choosing (blind) one of several routes suggested by the GPS, we ended up taking a three-hour drive to Agrigento, which encompassed everything from ugly urbanity (Gela, an industrial port) to heart-stopping beauty, deep in the countryside. There were fields of wildflowers, infinite sea views and agriculture on a grand scale — greenhouses filled with tomato plants, olive orchards, wine grapes reaching over the hills into the distance.

We arrived after dark at the Villa Goethe, below, in Agrigento’s historic center. The B&B is so named because the German poet actually stayed in the building in the 18th century as a guest of the then-owner, a baron.

Though the old town has a bunch of highly rated restaurants one can’t possibly sample in a two-night stay, Agrigento draws visitors mostly for those 5th century B.C. temples, seven of them in total. Each was dedicated to a different god or goddess, not all known, but Zeus, Heracles and Juno (or Hera) were among them.

The temples are strung out along a mile-long walking path, interspersed with 500-year-old olive trees. They are in varying states of preservation, from barely to incredible. All have now been stabilized, a feat made possible in recent years with the help of EU funding. Needless to say, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Visitors are now able to scramble over most of the ruins, without a guard in sight, though not over the Temple of Concordia, the least ruined of them, above, which vies with Athens’ Parthenon in terms of preservation, scale and grandeur.

The bronze sculpture, below, depicting the fallen Icarus is a monumental contemporary work.

The Agrigento temples were built of an ochre-colored, locally quarried limestone, not the white marble of the Parthenon. Otherwise, they’re architecturally similar.

A couple of the temples are little more than fallen stones against the perfect Mediterranean sky, overrun in Sicily’s full-on spring with wildflowers of purple and yellow, rosemary and other fragrant herbs.

The Temple of Zeus was the largest of them, once held up by telamon, or figures that are the male equivalent of the caryatids of the Acropolis. One — at least 30 feet high — remains at the site, below, lying horizontal on the ground.

Another is displayed at Agrigento’s extraordinary archaeological museum, an absolute must to round out an understanding of the temple sites and the culture that produced them.

The museum has a vast collection of Greek Attic pottery from the area that the Met must surely covet. The scenes on the red-and-black vases, exquisitely etched and painted (and signed, often by both painter and potter) offer a trove of detailed information about life in that era.

If all that’s not enough, the Valley of the Temples also contains a sunken garden of some 12 acres called Kolymbethra, below. It’s set in a deep pool, dug by Carthiginian prisoners of war in the 5th century BC, but later filled in and used for agriculture.

It’s now an Edenic citrus grove where we gorged once again on stolen fruit, from bitter citrons tasted and quickly thrown away to the sweetest blood tangerines.

Rarely have I been so reluctant to end a vacation. A final day of roaming in Rome, mostly camera-free, was a nice and necessary buffer. We stayed at the faded grand dame Hotel Quirinale, enjoying its vintage cage elevator and Negronis in a 1950s ballroom-turned-guest-lounge.

We wandered the streets, checking on the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, Piazza Navona and other greatest hits, just to make sure they were still there (they were, and crawling with tourists). One highlight: an outdoor lunch of pasta with cheese, pepper and truffles at La Maretta, a restaurant in the Regola neighborhood where most of the patrons were actually speaking Italian.

My Kind of Place: Syracuse’s Ortygia Island

I’ve found a spot I could make my base for a period of time some winter, when I’m not rushing through Sicily as fast as I can in the time allotted: it’s the island of Ortygia, a labyrinthine medieval quarter connected to the city of Syracuse by two or three short bridges.

I can see myself settling in for a spell and enjoying many a cup of espresso on its sun-splashed cinematic piazzas; taking walks along the embankment overlooking the calm, circular harbor on one side of the island and being lashed by serious winds off the Ionian Sea on the other.

Maybe I’ll read some Homer, take the sun on a bench overlooking the papyrus garden known as the Fount of Arethusa, buy fresh fish in the market alongside the remnants of the 6th century B.C. Temple of Apollo, above, whose remaining segments of fluted columns just sort of sit there, with no fanfare, in a commercial part of town.

I’ll cook up that fish (and pasta al dente, natch, with tiny clams, shrimp and chopped pistachios in a light tomato sauce) in a rented pied à terre with a roof terrace, do some hand washing and hang it out to dry in about five minutes on that roof terrace, swan around in the linen tunics and beaded jewelry they sell in the chic shops on Via Roma, chat with the artisans working in wood and leather in the rear of their shops, enjoy interesting conversations with people from exotic places like Tunisia and Cambodia, and spend time in one of Europe’s great public spaces, the searingly white, uncrowded Piazza Duomo.

If I lived in Ortygia, I might not pay 2 euros to peek into the duomo, one of the largest in Sicily, with a Baroque facade but built on the site of an ancient Greek temple, whose Doric columns were repurposed along both sides of the nave and are still visible inside and out.

If I lived in Ortygia, I might not visit the archaeological park just outside of town any more than New Yorkers visit the Statue of Liberty, but as visitors we surely did — first the well-preserved Greek theatre of 2,500 years ago, below, and then the Roman amphitheatre of half a millennium later, along with the nearby quarries from which the limestone to build them came.

Mulling over how, at the Greek theatre, acoustically perfect though built for 15,000 people, Aeschylus’s plays were staged (his “Women of Aetna” premiered there in 467 B .C.), while at the Roman theatre, animals and men mauled each other in a pit for the amusement of the citizens, I began to be convinced I preferred the Greeks.

Ortygia worked its way into my heart all the more when I remembered reading that there is a mikvah (Jewish ritual bath) there, pre-dating the expulsion of the Jews from Sicily at the beginning of the 16th century, and that one-quarter of the population of Ortygia was once Jewish and that several streets — among the narrowest and most picturesque of them — were the Jewish quarter, still labeled as such today.

“Second alley of the Jews”

We walked to the address at which the mikvah was located and were met by a young woman who led us down about fifty feet of dark, dank stone steps to a vaulted, columned room, where four small pools are still filled with spring water and there’s a Hebrew inscription on the wall.

Even without the mikvah (“miqwe” in Italian), Ortygia is my kind of place. I left there feeling: not for the last time.

Central Sicily in a Day: Hill Towns, Mosaics and Unbeatable Views

We were reluctant to leave Palermo without visiting its renowned archaeological museum, below, so we squeezed in an hour there on our last morning. Seeing the magnificent sculpture and decorative arts of millennia past always helps put things in perspective.

Much of the museum’s permanent collection centers on architectural salvage from Selinunte, a Greek city on the southern shore of Sicily with a vast complex of five temples, which I never even heard of before this trip. Seems the city didn’t last long: it was largely destroyed by the Carthaginians around 405 BC, never rebuilt and abandoned a century or so later. Left behind: sculptures of stone, marble and terra cotta, grave goods, friezes, sarcophogi and more.

The museum’s holdings, along with such treasures as a basalt stele with exquisitely detailed Egyptian hieroglyphics of four thousand years ago, make it abundantly clear that these ancient civilizations were well-organized and highly educated, and parts of their societies, at least, lived far more graciously than we do now. We think we have such an advanced culture? Ha. It’s chauvinistic to think our modern civilization has much, if anything, on the ancient ones.

Human dysfunctions like war and slavery haven’t gone away in modern times, but I got no sense that women were particularly subjugated in ancient Greece and its outposts, perhaps because they worshipped goddesses as well as gods? The tidbits of knowledge I pick up on a trip like this never fail to generate more questions.

We hopped a bus to the Palermo airport to pick up our rental car and headed down through the center of the island. The day — Tuesday — was clear and bright, with puffy clouds, as we drove through a portion of the Madonie mountains and through cultivated hills of olive and cherry trees. I was thrilled to be enjoying such fabulous scenery from a major highway.

We stopped en route in Enna, the highest medieval hill town in central Sicily, but it seemed in our hour-long pit stop that the view of Calascibetta, above, another nearby medieval hill town, was the best thing about Enna.

At an otherwise deserted little bar, the kind woman behind the counter scared up some impromptu antipasti for a pair of American vegetarians who stumbled in ravenous at 4PM. And of course the wine — Nero d’Avola (a dark red) and Grillo (crisp but flavorful white) — like all the Sicilian wines I’ve tasted, were superb.

I had a bit of a meltdown in Enna when our car got stuck on an impossibly narrow street. Trying to follow GPS directions, which told us to turn onto one-way streets that weren’t sign posted and no wider than a single-car driveway, we got boxed in and had to undertake precarious maneuvers to back out, while other cars kept coming around the corner. The Fiat Panda felt like a truck as we tried to turn it around with centimeters to spare, especially while worrying about scratching the brand new car, which had all of 14km on it when we picked it up at the airport.

That was only the first of two such events that day; the second occurred when we were sliding backwards toward a staircase leading down a steep embankment. The stresses of driving in Europe, where the streets are as hilly as San Francisco’s and as twisty as a plate of linguini, and a distance of forty miles can take hours, are not small.

Enna was the first of three central Sicilian hill towns we visited in two days on our scratch-the-surface tour of the island. It seems that by following signs reading Centro Storico, you invariably come to a piazza with a beautiful Baroque cathedral and a belvedere (i.e., scenic overlook), usually a parklike strip with benches and fountains, bars and restaurants — but, if it happens to be between 2:30 and 7:30 PM, not a one open to serve hungry travelers.

Wednesday was socked in with rain and heavy fog. Fortunately we had planned a visit to Villa Romanas des Casales, below, an extraordinary late-Roman villa and UNESCO site that has only been open to the public since 2006.

It was possibly the summer palace of Marcus Aurelius and is now a major draw for visitors who come chiefly to see its extensive floor mosaics, often ‘themed’ to the purpose of the room. Outstanding among them: the 200-foot-long ‘hall of the hunt,’ an encyclopedic pictorial of how wild animals were captured in Africa and transported to Rome; another room depicting young women in bikinis training for athletic competitions; others of children playing; chariot races, banquets and more, all at amazing levels of detail.

Most of the villa was buried under mud for centuries, and only fully excavated, restored and and made accessible to the public in recent years. It has to be one of the remaining wonders of the ancient world.

Still in the rain, we drove up into the atmospheric (as are they all) and charming hill town of Piazza Armerina, above, took a few photos and checked out its requisite Duomo, then drove another half hour to the town of Caltagirone, top. We were interested in its signature ceramics, and also in lunch.We wandered in and out of shops to see the former, as well as climbing its 142-step staircase and admiring its Baroque architecture, but found none of the latter.

Luckily we had half a dozen oranges picked right from the trees outside our room at Vecchia Masseria, below, an agriturismo whose stone buildings have been converted to tourist lodging and where we stayed one cushy night in the area. It’s a luxurious full-service resort as well as a working farm with a lovely candlelit restaurant, where we had joined European couples of all ages for dinner the night before.

The stolen citrus tided us over until we arrived after dark at the Hotel Gutkowki in Syracuse for a two-night stay. The rain and wind coming off the Ionian Sea was appropriately Homeric, setting us up for further immersion in ancient history, trusty Blue Guide close at hand.

Palermo: Byzantine, Baroque and Beyond

Among my files and folders at home is a yellowed New York Times clipping from 2008, “36 Hours in Palermo,” saved toward the end of the era when we clipped newspaper articles and filed them in folders. I’ve wanted to come to Palermo, in other words, for a long time. I finally made it, and for two-and-a-half days instead of just 36 hours.

Palermo was worth the wait. It is dramatically ringed by mountains, famous for its fresh food and distinctive cuisine, and unbelievably rich in decorative architecture, mostly churches. The historic center’s stone-paved streets are impossibly atmospheric and hopelessly complicated.

I’m here with my wasband, who flew in from New York the day after I arrived by train from Calabria. We’re staying at the Palazzo Pantaleo, a comfortably appointed, tastefully renovated six-room B&B on the top floor of an 18th century palazzo, with wrought iron balconies and a host named Guiseppe whose family has owned the property for 200 years.

Palermo (pop. 600,000) is a lot to take in, and we knew we’d only scrape the surface. We’ve walked 17,000 steps on each of two consecutive days, traversing large chunks of the city’s four central neighborhoods.

Neither day was typical, I now realize: on Sunday, cars are banned from many streets and Palermo becomes one big passegiata, with locals and tourists alike strolling the broad car-free boulevards and filling its cafes, restaurants and stores. Where Italy used to be dead for visitors on Sundays, now it shops like the rest of us.

Sunday lunch at Antico Focacceria San Francesco (it’s in all the guidebooks, a Palermo institution since the 1840s) was pasta with anchovies, plus indoor versions of the famous Palermo street food like arancini, rice and cheese rolled into balls and deep-fried. What could be bad?

Drinks and dessert later at Antica Caffe Spinnata was heartily Italian — I had a Campari spritzer and cassata, a sponge cake soaked in liqueur with candied fruit and sugar icing, and I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.

Today, Monday, people went back to work. What I had forgotten was that on Monday, many restaurants would be closed, others empty. Museums, too, were closed, including the archaeological museum that was on my ‘must’ list. Plan better, if you come.

So we walked some more, admiring many elaborate and massively domed churches from the outside, including the city’s extraordinary block-long main cathedral, a mashup of Gothic spires, Romanesque arches, medieval crenelations and a Moorish mosque.

We looked into churches like the over-the-top La Martorana, decorated by Greek artisans with superb golden mosaics that were later mismatched with Baroque puttis and Renaissance frescoes. San Cataldo, the nine-century-old Norman church next door to it, with three red domes and a beautiful, bare-bones brick chapel, was more to my liking. In its simplicity, you can pray directly, no intercession needed.

Both churches are located on the sun-splashed Piazza Pretoria, centered on an epic 16th century fountain once known as the Fountain of Shame for its marble nudes.

We walked through the Ballaro market, known for the raucous patter of its vendors and the largest vegetables ever. I saw whole octopi proudly displayed and parts of animals I never wanted to see.

The prepared food looked fresh and good, and we would have done well to eat there. We ended up at the soaring, skylit Osteria Ballaro, where we had nouveau Sicilian Slow Food, including a sampler of the local street-food favorites and a mixed seafood plate. Only New Yorkers could spend as much on lunch in Palermo as we did, but the wine was dry and delicious and I’m not complaining.

We even visited the sub-tropical botanical garden on the edge of town, gaping at otherworldly ficus trees, giant cacti and agaves, greenhouses full of bougainvillea, all thriving in the Sicilian sun. The garden’s maintenance seemed scruffy and unkempt, but perhaps I’m being judgey.

Where my Lonely Planet calls out Palermo’s buildings as pock-marked, its pavements broken and neighborhoods decrepit, having just come from Gioia Tauro, Calabria, those things didn’t register. I thought it was all just part of the city’s considerable charm.

Day Tripping In and Around Calabria

There’s plenty of natural beauty in southwestern Calabria, at the tippy-toe of Italy’s boot. Views from on high of dramatic green hills dropping into the glittering Tyrrhenian Sea are a dime a dozen. As for man-made beauty, not so much. The city of Gioia Tauro, where my cousin and I are based for a week, reminds me of Italian neo-realist movies (The Bicycle Thief) of the early postwar years. The city’s state of disrepair makes for evocative photos but grim surroundings.

So — we headed off to Taormina, below, on Sicily’s eastern coast, a posh and popular destination for at least the past couple hundred years. We drove an hour south to board a car ferry across the Strait of Messina, drove a bit more, and made for the town’s chief site: a 3rd century B.C. Greek amphitheatre where Aeschylus is said to have seen his own plays performed. Partly restored over the centuries, to the point where it’s now used for concerts and film screenings, it’s in a stunning location with sea views in all directions. (Mt. Etna, Europe’s largest active volcano, which usually forms a backdrop, was obscured by clouds.)

We climbed still higher into the hills of Taormina in search of a guest house where Tennessee Williams and other literati stayed, finally locating it and enjoying its air of decayed romance, though it’s not yet open for the season. Having made a classic newbie error, we missed lunch at the local restaurants (they close at 3 until dinnertime, which begins around 7). Instead we ordered negronis on the terrace of the fancy Hotel Villa Belvedere, where they plied us with enough nuts and crudités to tide us over.

We strolled through the city’s lush public garden, a curious combination of formal hedgerows with cacti, palms and follies of timber and brick, masterminded in the late 19th century by a Scots woman, Lady Florence Trevelyan, and owned by the city of Taormina since 1922.

We did a little bit of shopping on the main pedestrian drag, which features the usual fine Italian leather and jewelry shops. Bottom line: Taormina is a thoroughly charming place, uncrowded in March.

On returning to Gioia Tauro, we happily discovered (thank you, Trip Advisor) what is surely the most sophisticated restaurant in town, Trattoria Vico Scuro, tucked behind a wine store in an 18th century building with vaulted brick ceilings and archways. We sampled four of their pasta dishes, including a flat noodle with tomato and eggplant sauce; angel hair with truffles; a delicate eggplant parmagiana; and gnocchi with pesto, celery and almonds (which we both found weird), along with a fine bottle of Calabrese red.

We returned there the very next night for swordfish, a local specialty, which we had to pre-order, grilled on an open flame. The youngish people who run the place are sweet as can be, as is most everyone we’ve met.

A long walk through Gioia Tauro, above, affirmed our impression that there’s not much here to see, just a sad sense of unrealized potential. Were it not for the population losses of the early 20th century, when so many Calabrians took off for America, the stranglehold of organized crime on industry and commerce, government mismanagement and new tariff issues keeping the port from operating at capacity, Gioia Tauro might be thriving instead of struggling.

Hopping once more into our red Fiat, we drove down the coast in the afternoon to Lido di Palmi, above, for more gasp-inducing sea views, a walk along the water and a restorative cup of espresso macchiato at the one open establishment.

With two days to go, we were rapidly running out of things to do. Fortunately, we still had Tropea, above, in reserve. A hilly beach resort whose Old Town is full of pock-mocked 19th century palazzos, it’s architecturally reminiscent of Nice, though in much poorer repair. An hour’s drive through valleys of olive groves took us there. No doubt Tropea is more inspiring in bright sunshine. I tried to imagine spirited European families enjoying the beautiful beach in high season, bringing life and color to the scene.

As it was, the town was nearly deserted and we had trouble finding a lunch spot. Our Lonely Planet recommendation was not yet open for the season. We ended up in one of the few operating restaurants, but my fresh pasta — pachetti (“packets”) with the sweet red onions of the region and nothing else (except oil, of course) was scrumptious.

Santa Maria dell’Isola, a monastery on an outcropping in the sea, is an impressive sight. Workmen had set up barricades and it appeared closed; in any case, we didn’t have the wherewithal to climb all the way up and find out. Just walking down to the beach and back totaled 17 flights on my trusty step counter.

Traveling in Calabria is not for the faint-hearted.