A Tale of Two Cities

In order to visit the ruins of Selinunte and keep to our plan of no more than 30-40 miles of driving per day we spent the night in Sciacca, a small town right on the coast about halfway between the ruins and Agrigento.  It was a lovely spot with basically nothing to do but walk around, eat well, and observe daily life for the people who live there.  We enjoyed it very much and everyone was super friendly.   The next day we made the one long trip we needed to do (3 hours in the car mostly on the autostrada) to get back to Catania where we will be ending our stay in Sicily.

When we were planning this trip, everyone we talked to about visiting Sicily said we had to visit Taormina.  It got to the point where I could finish people’s sentences…you have to visit Taormina.  So we saved Taormina for last as it’s fairly close to Catania.  We probably should have known better or maybe we’ve just traveled too much but we spent exactly one hour in Taormina including parking, taking a bus to the center of town and back to the parking garage.  I think it’s like people telling you they’ve seen the best movie ever, it’s just never as good but this was one of the worst.  You’ll see from the one picture I took of the town to see that if you are ever thinking of coming to Sicily do NOT go to Taormina even if it has the most photographed Greek theater on the island.

It’s Greek to me

We left Agrigento and drove north along the coast to see Selinunte, overlooking the sea has some of the most awe inspiring Greek temples.  Selinunte was founded in the 7th century BCE by Greek colonists.  The city was a flourishing trading post and artistic center.  It was brutally destroyed by Carthage in 409 BCE and then struck by a devastating earthquake in the 6th century CE.  There are still excavations going on and major restorations were done in the 20th century.  It’s a protected archaeological park but sadly most of the artworks were removed to Palermo and since we aren’t going there we’ll just have to use our imagination.  Just to give you an idea of what was here, one sanctuary, the Malaphoros, held 12,000 votive figurines. So use your imagination and think about the grandeur that was Selinunte.

Temple of Zeus

For this one needs a good imagination but models and remains are definitely helpful.  Think of a soccer field and think of a temple 100 ft. high and you’ll begin to comprehend what this was and what was lost.  Not sure what gets the most tourists anymore but if this was intact it would definitely be up there for tourist attraction.  Aside from that, the Greeks were truly amazing in their artistic endeavors and in so many other ways.

Temple of Concord

This temple, in the middle of the Sacred Hill is among the most perfectly preserved Doric temples anywhere in the world, and has been an inspiration to architects, painters, and in the 19th century all those making the “Grand Tour” as it was easier to go to Italy than Greece. This is the most prominent feature on the sacred hill and can be seen from all around.  You’ll see why it’s so impressive.

Small temples and remains

The Temple(s) of Castor and Pollux are so named because there are remains of two temples in one location.  As we’ve talked about in my classes attaching names can be a tricky business, tied more to the finder than to any basis in fact.  Right now we can only see these remains from afar as they are working there and the Temple of Vulcan (seen in last post) is also not available for visiting.  It’s funny to me that the Temple of Castor and Pollux gets so much attention- tourist brochures and subject for painters when it is the least intact.

On the grounds of the museum (confirming that all of Italy is an archaeology site) an agora (meeting place) was found along with a small temple that had been converted to a church when the monastery was built.

Temples of Hera and Herakles

The temple of Hera dominates one end of the sacred hill and on the other side of the Temple of Concord is the Temple of Herackles.  Both were badly damaged in the siege by the Carthaginians in 406 BCE and then by a severe earthquake in the 8th century CE.  Both have been restored to some degree.

Agrigento: Valley of the Temples

We are now in Agrigento, and staying in a hotel overlooking the Greek Temples that drew us to Sicily in the first place.  What a magical place this is, and of course when you drive around the curve towards the water you realize immediately as you look up the temples built in 600 BCE, that they are not in a valley at all, but actually on a small acropolis, like the one we  know in Athens.  It became known as the Valley of the Temples because the city of Agrigento grew up above this point and looks down on the temples.  We can see them from our hotel.

Up until now we have been close to the coast (Sicily is an island after all) and could occasionally see the sea but now we are right at the sea and will be until we leave here at the end of the week.  The water is amazingly blue as it was in Syracuse at the start of our Sicily adventure though the big towns are fairly industrial and there’s an offshore oil platform close to here.  Seeing them always reminds me of how fortunate we are to have people working so hard to keep our coast free of these eyesores.

Now a little history of how the Greeks came to be here in the first place.  This port city was home to 200,000 people in the time of the ancient Greeks if you can imagine that.  They called this colony Akragas, the Romans changed the name to Agrigentum, then Girgenti to the Arabs and now Agrigento.  So you can imagine this has a varied history.   This post will serve as an introduction as there is so much to talk about, that I’ve decided to create multiple posts for the general area and the temples. Each post will include objects from the Archaeological Museum with the works included here more general, the others more specific to things found at specific temple locations.


Caltagirone has been a center of pottery making since prehistoric times. This is another UNESCO World Heritage Site built between the Erei and Iblei hills.  This was an active center for Arabic culture and the local potters became world famous even in the Middle Ages.  One sees ceramics everywhere, even in the most unexpected places.

One of the advantages of having a car, is that one can deviate from the travel itinerary at any time and that’s what we did based on the suggestion of our hotel in Modica.  We visited the Villa Romana del Casale in Piazza Armerina and were most happy we did.  It was out of the way for us but truly a gem if you like mosaics.  The only drawback is that this place is totally “discovered” by tour groups and we only saw a fraction of the works since it was so crowded.

One of my classes has been having a bit of a discussion about why photography (flash especially) is not permitted in museums.  It’s become pretty well accepted that it has nothing to do with preserving the art unless you are looking at extremely light sensitive works on paper, but has everything to do with the distraction of people snapping pictures all the time and interfering with those around them.  I especially have an aversion to those giant I-pads that people use as cameras- let’s block everyone’s view so we can get that picture or let’s put it up to some “peasant’s” face and take their picture.  Anyway, enough rant for now.  Of course, in the Villa Romana there was a no photograph sign but most people ignored it and it was annoying.

There is a lot of mystery surrounding the Villa Romana del Casale which was part of a 3rd century CE estate though who it belonged to or what its purpose was is still conjecture.  The reason the mosaics were so well preserved is that they were buried in mud caused by a huge flood in the 12th century.  The villa was discovered in the late 19th century.  The bulk of the work was done in the 1950s-1960s and there is the possibility that other archaeological discoveries are underway now to expand what is already excavated.  By now you should realize that Italy is one big excavation site.

Looking up

Today we are in Ragusa, traveling only 16 kilometers but a very different place from Modica.  Ragusa is much bigger (about 20,000 people more) but from where we are you would never know it.  Ragusa was once two separate cities and in some ways still is.  This ancient city was founded with the Sikels moved into the interior away from the sea to escape from the Greek colonists.  They settled in what they called Ibla, which was as everything else in this area destroyed in 1693.  The town fathers decided to rebuilt higher up on the hills but the nobility wanted to stay where they had been and refused to move.  As a result, funny as it sounds the “new” Ragusa built in the Baroque town plan (very regular) and a bit a dull was created on top and down below Ibla retained its Medieval plan- that is no plan at all.  Lots of tiny alley and lots of stairs going up and down the hillside.  In 1926 the two towns became one and as a reward Ragusa was made the provincial capital.   Since we only have one day here, we decided to skip the upper town and have explored Ibla where we are also staying overnight.

I find myself looking up all the time because the old palazzos have amazing gargoyle like creatures, beautiful balustrades and the churches seem to go straight up.  Of course there are the distant views looking up as it’s quite hilly in this region and the weather is a bit closer to ours.  A bit cooler than we’ve had so far.  Ibla is not like Modica or Scicli that feel “lived in”.  This feels like another tourist only place so while it’s very pretty we’re glad to only be here one night.  We basically explored the whole thing in a few hours.

We skipped a day of touring around and relaxed at a farm/inn (Agroturismo) and were still looking up at the hills, the sunset, and the views all around.