Yes, we know we’re in Sicily, but …
September 4, 2008
SICILY ” We knew where we were. We were in Sicily. The largest island in the Mediterranean. The football being kicked by the toe of the Italian boot.
Of course we knew. We’d bought the plane tickets, made the hotel reservations, read the guidebooks. And, above all, we’d made the long trip there ” changing planes in Rome and landing in Catania.
So, yes, we knew exactly where we were: Sicily. Italy.
And yet, some corner of our minds kept thinking we were in Greece.
We kept bracing for that anxious thrill that comes when you have to deal with people speaking a completely incomprehensible language in a place where you can’t decipher a single word ” even a single letter ” in the signs that surround you.
Every time, of course, everyone was speaking Italian. But the thought that we were in Greece persisted.
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That feeling of geographical dislocation came after we drove for hours through a rugged countryside, where small villages dotted the tops of rocky hills and the only truly memorable signs of humanity on the landscape were the stunning ” haunting ” Greek temples.
The towns we passed through along the way, modern or medieval, in the heart of the country or along the coast, were nondescript. Even the ones widely touted as don’t-miss gems. Nothing really caught our attention or captured our spirit.
But the Greek temples … that was another matter altogether.
For those who, like me, neglected their history lessons: Sicily ” now a semi-impoverished backwater, known mostly as the home of the Mafia ” was once a rich prize. To the ancient world, it offered fertile farmlands and a strategic outpost at a crossroads of the Mediterranean. Over the centuries it was fought over and conquered, in turn, by the Greeks, the Romans, the Vandals, the Goths, the Byzantine Empire and the Arabs (“the Emirate of Sicily”) … and that busy cast of characters only brings us up to the year 965, more than 1,000 years ago.
One result of all this historical to-ing and fro-ing, with successive waves of conquest sweeping away the previous conquerors, seems to be that no one had time to make much of an impact after the Greeks (who controlled the island for about 500 years) and Romans (who were in charge for another 700 years after that).
So the ancient ruins ” and most particularly the Greek temples ” are what really stand out. And they are not only the most impressive sights on Sicily; they are some of the most impressive Greek ruins in the world. They are better than much of what you will find in Greece itself, surpassed only, perhaps, by the Greek ruins in Turkey.
In any case, the combined impact of the rugged, largely unsettled countryside, the unimpressive modern towns and the overwhelming Greek temples left us with that back-of-the-mind feeling that we must be in Greece.
When I thought back over our itinerary, I was actually surprised to realize that the total time we spent involved with Greek ruins in Sicily was less than a day and a half out of the week we spent on the island. It was really much less than 36 hours ” and that includes hours spent driving, eating and sleeping ” and yet it made by far the deepest impression of anything in Sicily.
That impression was forged in the hours we spent in three places: Agrigento, Selinunte and Segesta.
All three have deep, deep historical roots ” Segesta, it is said, was founded by Aeneas (hero of Virgil’s “Aeneid”) as a home for refugees from the fall of Troy around 1200 B.C. (as recounted by Homer in the “Iliad”). That’s a pretty good historical pedigree. Selinunte and Agrigento, the new kids on the block, can’t quite match that lineage; they were founded around 600 B.C.
Two of the three ” Segesta and Selinunte ” had violent histories and were ultimately reduced to rubble … or less. Agrigento fared somewhat better; it was battered over the centuries, but never destroyed. As a result, its ruins are somewhat diminished in impact by a city of some 50,000 people that looms over the archaeological site.
And yet, for all that, for all the ruin and rubble and modern encroachment, that feeling kept returning: We must be in Greece.
The feeling struck first in Agrigento, after a half-day’s drive through the heart of Sicily, from Siracusa southeast to the ocean.
Agrigento was founded by the Greeks around 580 B.C. Like the rest of Sicily, it changed hands time and again and the existing city is nondescript and generally considered well-worth skipping, despite some medieval touches. The best any of the guidebooks could say about it was that it is “not without a certain charm.”
But at the edge of the city, on a low ridge, stands a breathtaking row of Greek temples.
Most of the temples are in ruins, but two are surprisingly intact and, although directly below the modern city, the temples stand apart ” separate and powerful against the Greek … I mean, Italian sky.
The ruins are known as the Valley of the Temples, even though they stand on a ridge. (I guess maybe that’s very Italian in spirit.) During the summer season, the area is fiercely hot, as well as painfully overrun with tourists. But our visit was in early April, so the temperatures and crowds were manageable and the wildflowers were in bloom.
Having parked our car, bought our tickets and marched past the souvenir stands, we were suddenly walking almost alone on the pathway leading down the row of temples.
The first we encountered was the Temple of Concordia. It stands on a rocky outcrop, looking as if worship might begin at any moment. The scale is both intimate and awesome, somehow both a jewel box and an enormous edifice.
I know it’s easy to go too far, to read too much into mute stone buildings. Our modern appreciation for the classic, austere, pure white Greek temples and sculptures, for example, is deflated when we learn that most sculptures and buildings were originally not pure white at all; they were painted boldly in colors that we would now consider gaudy.
But still, looking at these temples, I found myself contrasting them with the soaring architecture of Europe’s grand cathedrals. Some of that difference, of course, has to be attributed to improvements in architectural engineering over the intervening millennium. But just as certainly there is this: Christianity’s cathedrals seek to inspire. Their soaring spaces draw the worshippers’ eyes and spirits upward, toward a celestial “Heavenly Father.”
But the Greek gods were far more human in form and thought and behavior than the monotheistic God of the Old and New Testaments. The Greek gods fought among themselves, walked among men ” and seduced women. And the temples that honor them are more earth-bound, solidly rooted, human in scale. The columns soar, but they never break their bonds with the earth. They don’t want to.
And with that connection to the earth and humanity comes an evocation of the people who built these temples and, somehow, a flickering sense of the lives they lived.
At the Temple of Concordia, I had an awareness that this sacred building was built by human beings ” people essentially exactly like us, despite the more than 2,500 years that have passed.
The other temples along the ridge are not in such nearly perfect condition. Near Concordia is the Temple of Hera, perhaps the next best preserved ” but still battered. The Temple of Hercules is not much more than a handful of columns ” and the rest are little more than jumbled piles of stones, with a column occasionally still standing.
And yet, all together they remain powerfully eloquent.
We walked through the temples in the late afternoon. The next morning, we woke before sunrise to see the temples illuminated against the slowly lightening sky. (Actually, I woke before dawn to see the temples. My wife muttered something about taking my word for it, rolled over and went back to sleep.)
Later that morning, we drove some 60 miles along the coast to Selinunte. (Do I need to say again that our route took us through a series of uninspiring towns?)
Here again, the power of the ruined temples is astonishing.
Founded around 650 B.C., Selinunte was once a proud, prosperous city on a bluff overlooking the Mediterranean. But it got caught up in the endless vicious wars among the various city-states on the island and the mainland, and, in 409 B.C., an army of 100,000 from Carthage marched in, slaughtered some 16,000 of the city’s 25,000 residents, enslaved most of the rest and left the place pretty much in ruins. A century or so later, the Carthaginians, fleeing a Roman invasion, destroyed what was left so the Romans couldn’t have it. Just for good measure, a violent earthquake sometime around 800 A.D. scrambled the remaining rubble.
Of 10 or more temples that once stood proudly in Selinunte, only one is now much more than a pile of broken stones and fragments of columns ” and that one is a 1950s reconstruction from the scattered pieces of a once-massive structure.
This monument is known only as Temple E ” there was a serious lack of imagination on the part of whoever named the Selinunte temples: A, B, C, D … you get the idea. It is far larger than Agrigento’s Temple of Concordia, but it is still strongly rooted to the earth, massive but still human. It was dedicated to Hera, queen of the Greek heavens, both sister and wife of Zeus. She once rebelled against him and immobilized him by tying him to a couch ” as noted, these gods and goddesses were very human in their motives (often questionable), behavior (even worse) and limitations (surprising ” the Supreme God of the Olympians tied to a couch?).
The ruins of Selinunte are isolated in an “archaeological park,” so (at least in the less-crowded spring) they maintain a certain clarity and presence. Some of the remains of the city itself have been uncovered ” though not much restored ” but it was the temples that held continuing power and the ability to again evoke the presence of those long-ago Greeks.
Our third stop was Segesta, the most isolated of all. Agrigento has a modern city and Selinunte has the nearby town of Marinella. But all that remains of Segesta are two spectacular ruins ” a temple and an amphitheatre ” that stand, pretty much alone, pretty much in the middle of nowhere. While Agrigento survived and Selinunte was destroyed, Segesta apparently just faded away.
Segesta was deeply embroiled in the Greek city-state wars and was often pitted against Selinunte. In fact, the army from Carthage that destroyed Selinunte in 409 B.C. had launched its attack to support Segesta. But, if Selinunte was brutally destroyed by an ally of Segesta, almost exactly a hundred years later Segesta itself suffered an even more savage fate. A brutal dictator, Agathocles of Siracusa, attacked Segesta and slaughtered virtually the entire adult population of the city, perhaps some 10,000 in all. Many were tortured to death and some were launched, by catapult, into the ravine that borders the city.
Segesta survived that massacre and, though it never regained its character and prosperity, it actually lasted another 700 or so years before it disappeared from the map.
And yet, somehow, the echoes of that painful moment of hideous violence still seem to live, even in the bright wash of sunlight on the hilltop where Segesta’s temple stands.
That temple, never finished, for reasons no one knows, seems untouched by the ravages of time. There is no rubble. There are no major pieces missing. But in the shadow of the trees on the slope leading up from the temple to the edge of the ravine, it is hard not to think about those desperate, savage times.
Of course, I know, if I hadn’t read the history, I would have been sitting in the shade of those trees contemplating the wonderful serenity of the spot, the carpet of wildflowers leading to the nearly perfect ancient temple, the glorious view out over the surrounding countryside. Knowledge can be annoying. But still, knowing what I knew, I could only think of the violence of that ancient world. And then, sadly, the violence that still lives in our modern world, where men are no less cruel and killing is so much more efficient.
We hiked down from the temple and then up the adjoining steep hill to the amphitheatre.
It is famous for its privileged spot and its view, even more impressive than that from the temple ” out over miles of green and hilly countryside to distant mountains and the sea.
But somehow the weight of the horror of the slaughter at Segesta ” and Selinunte ” would not quite dissipate in the sunshine.
So we hiked back down the mountain, shook off, for the last time, the feeling that the people we encountered would speak to us in Greek, got into our car and drove another hour to the very simple, very Italian fishing village of Scopello. There, hiking in a nature preserve and swimming in a perfect, hidden cove with a white-pebbled beach, we left the shadows of ancient Greek violence behind.
And what stayed with us was a feeling of wonder at the power ” and humanity ” of the Greek temples of Sicily.
Extensive research in guidebooks and on the Internet had left us with the distinct impression that there is nowhere pleasant to stay in Agrigento. But our plans left us with no choice; we had to spend a night there.
Finally, we crossed our fingers, ignored a slew of scathing reviews, and booked a room at the Hotel Domus Aurea.
We were prepared to grit our teeth and put up with expensive, substandard rooms, but we were pleasantly surprised ” pleasantly stunned might be more like it.
The hotel is a converted villa in a patch of open country outside the town and safely isolated from the tacky coastal development. Although it is close to a major highway, it is protected by a row of trees and we didn’t hear a sound all night.
The original villa looks to be at least a century old. Our room, though not large, was pleasant and clean and nicely decorated. A pair of French doors opened out onto a tiny balcony with a view across the fields to the Valley of the Temples. During the day, the temples themselves were somewhat lost against the city on the hill above them; but from dusk until dawn, the spot-lit temples floated magnificently against a sea of black.
The hotel restaurant has pretensions of excellence and almost lives up to them. The dining room was luxurious, but felt a bit sterile ” perhaps because, during our April visit, the hotel was almost empty and there almost no other diners. We suspected that in high season meals are served on the pleasant outdoor patio with a view of the temples.
The major drawback is the price. Given the current weakness of the dollar against the Euro, doubles at the Domus Aurea cost around $400 a night ” and up. Frankly, the hotel ” and its somewhat too casual staff and service ” doesn’t quite measure up to that price. But almost all hotels in Europe are painfully expensive these days and few can deliver appropriate value.
One final note: Domus Aurea is almost impossible to find. The address listed on the website doesn’t seem to bear any relationship to the hotel’s location. The driving directions on the website are confusing, but if you follow them carefully ” and refuse to be confused ” they will actually take you directly to the hotel.
Hotel Domus Aurea
Phone : 01-39-0922-511500
Fax : 01-39-0922-512418
After our long day on the road traveling from Agrigento to Selinunte to Segesta, we wound up in the tiny seaside village of Scopello. And there we found what turned out to be our favorite hotel in Sicily: Pensione Tranchina.
This is a wonderful, simple, friendly and blessedly inexpensive place to stay, run by the husband-and-wife team of Marisin and Salvatore Tranchina.
Our room, a third-floor walk-up, was extremely simple, but comfortable.
Marisin cooks wonderful dinners every night, centered on superbly fresh fish (as befits a pensione in a fishing village). And there is always some of the pensione’s own olive oil pressed under the Tanchinas’ supervision from their own little grove of olive trees.
A true delight!
– Andy Stone