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.