The Roman ruins that abound on mainland Italy are fascinating but it’s the architecture of the Greeks that really sparks my imagination. After all, what the Romans built was in large part derivative of the masterpieces their Hellenistic predecessors constructed, no? Sicily has its share of outstanding Greek ruins so, anxious to see some precursors of what we’ll experience once we land in Greece, we headed straight for Agrigento’s renowned Valle dei Templi.
Perhaps my captivation with Greek architecture stems from so easily being able to picture myself strolling around the temples with Caroline, the two of us lithe and bronzed (remember, this is my imagination and I can appear as I like...) with flowers in our hair, bedecked in diaphanous draped Grecian gowns and golden leather sandals, blithely discussing philosophy (or more likely the latest fashions). But the real reason, I’m sure, is that I was fortunate to have had a simply wonderful Classical Art and Architecture professor in college, so very intelligent, albeit more than a little loopy, who was passionate about her subject, taught me so much in her classroom and helped the past come alive in a very real way. Knowledge reveals worlds previously unknown; it breeds understanding and if you’re fortunate, appreciation, and in my case, as concerns all-things-Greek, it brought life-long fascination. I read the writings of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes and have reread my favorites over the years (Antigone, Electra, and of course, Lysistrata). I would so love to transport myself back to the glory days of Greek theater to witness the performances of the playwrights’ great works with their contemporaries in incomparable open-air theaters. And perhaps early on a summer morning, I would join a lively conversation between Socrates and his acolytes about the meaning of life and the critical issues of the day. Given the bitter tenor of current debate in our country, I often think we could use an infusion of reason from the golden age of Athens: Pericles, where are you when we need you?
We rented a car for two days and while we did our best to see as much of Sicily as we could, the distances are significant and we only managed to scratch the surface of the large island. The ruins at Agrigento, Siracusa and Taormina made our list; the sites at Segesta and Selinunte will have to wait for a future visit. The over three-hour drive to see the Greek temples at Agrigento’s Valle dei Templi took us across the island’s center, up and over hills and through black lava outcroppings, reminders of the island’s volcanic beginnings. The drive was uneventful, other than the inherent madness of the Sicilian roads, until we began the initial descent on the autostrada down towards Agrigento and the southwestern coast. Alone on the highway, we sped into an extended mountain tunnel and instantly plunged into pitch-black obscurity with not a single lamp to light our way. Joe jammed on the breaks as we drifted in the dark, frantically searching for the headlight control in our unfamiliar rented Renault Clio. It seemed like minutes but was likely only seconds until the lights clicked on, illuminating the underground shaft. Disaster averted, hearts back in our chests, we emerged from the tunnel and continued to the coast.
So unlike the white limestone Parthenon and Acropolis, Agrigento’s beauties are crafted of warm, honey-colored sandstone. First spied from afar, they appeared to be miniature cardboard models but as we approached their monumentality became clear. The great row of golden-hued structures actually sits in the middle of a park on an elevated plateau below a ridge on which the modern city lives, and not in a valley at all. The seven Doric temples of this Sicilian acropolis, constructed when Agrigento was founded as the Greek colony of Akragas in the 6th century BC and then became one of the greatest cities of the ancient Mediterranean world, are some of the largest and best-preserved classical temples outside the borders of Greece itself. They’re surrounded by groves of almond trees, in beautiful pale pink bloom during our visit (a much-welcomed sign of the approaching spring), and look out over the Mediterranean Sea and an immensity of Sicilian blue sky. Miniature brown lizards preceded us up the stepped path, dryly skittering into nooks and crannies in the rough stone wall, and spindly wind-bent cypresses lined the trail as we approached the crest. The first temple, that of Juno, rose majestically above us with the others in file behind it down the hill, including the remarkably preserved and almost intact Temple of Concordia. As we drew close, the stunning view drew gasps and then left us speechless with mouths agape as we absorbed the architectural grandeur of the ancients. During the Carthaginian invasion in 406 BC, Agrigento was set aflame and if you look closely, signs of the fires that ravaged the temples is still visible since sandstone turns red when heated. Just amazing...we were able to witness forensic evidence from over 2,400 years ago. Next along our walk was a twisted, thick-trunked olive tree, still thriving and bearing fruit and reported to be over 1,000 years old on our way towards the Valle dei Templi’s largest structure by far: the mighty Temple of Olympian Zeus. Had its construction been completed it would have been the biggest temple ever built -- almost large enough to fill a regulation soccer field. Earthquakes and stone-robbers have reduced the structure to rubble but there is still an enormous Doric capital in the pile and just like Gulliver lying prone in the land of the Lilliputians is a copy of one of the temple’s unique elements. Now featureless and badly eroded, a 25-foot tall stone telamon – a carved architectural support in the form of a man – is fast asleep on his back in the dust.
Just as when we’d visited elegant, eerie Pompeii from our base in Sorrento ten days earlier, both the enduring and the ephemeral competed for my attention. I was effortlessly able to envision the citizens of ancient Akragas, much as it had been easy to conjure up the ghosts of frozen-in-time Pompeii while ambling the grid-patterned streets of the excavated town in the shadow of ominous Vesuvius. Pompeii’s intact brick ovens so like modern day pizza ovens and the colorful mosaics, including one in a residential entryway that warns “Cave Canem/Beware of the Dog,” and Agrigento’s excavated gymnasium are the human, everyday details that bring the ancient sites alive and make visiting them so poignant. Whether sitting on the foundation stones of what used to be Pompeii’s forum or a grand ceremonial altar in Agrigento, both experiences released feelings of personal insignificance and led to melancholy reflection on the fleeting nature of individual human lives. What were they like, these inhabitants of metropolises so very lovely but so long ago abandoned? The people of so very many generations past are long gone while the remnants of what they constructed remain and the permanence of the land, as always, prevails.
Not inclined to simply retrace our steps on the autostrada from Agrigento back to Taormina, we opted for a different route home and new Sicilian vistas along the coast. Once again in the driver’s seat with me, his trusty navigator beside him, Joe reiterated what he’d admitted that morning: “Every time I get behind the wheel in this country, I have to readjust to the disorder and I know I’ll never get used to it.” Little did we know the chaos that awaited us on the road ahead. A well traveled local road on which Sicilian drivers took the art of tailgating to a new level, practically kissing the left corner of our rear bumper before swerving around and giving us another peck on our front left bumper as they cut back in front, took us southwest and exposed us to the less attractive side of the island. In one of those jarring disparities we’ve so often encountered on our trip, after relishing the glories of Agrigento and heading southwest for 50 miles, we came upon Gela, site of the 1943 American landing on Sicily and the beginning of the long advance north to Rome during World War II. It was possibly the ugliest town I’ve ever seen. Gela was a drab and colorless and chaos reigned. Its coast was dominated by oil refinery sprawl and poured concrete buildings, gray, gulag-like utilitarian constructions with no aesthetic relief, lined both sides of the main street, many of them unfinished and inhabited by what appeared to be squatters. The dystopian town was a mess of busted neon signs, an invasion of weeds and unsightly wires and antennae that hung and sprouted from every surface. Its appearance was that of a ghost town yet the streets were alive with activity. Vehicles were everywhere: motorini, cars and ramshackle vans were double-parked all along the road and on the sidewalks. The streets, none with any lane markings, were like NASCAR speedways: it was a driving free-for-all where the rules of the road were optional and traffic signs mere suggestions. The two official lanes of traffic more or less made their way past each other through town but a makeshift lane far to our left on the opposite shoulder was used by cars going every which way along the periphery. If you don’t want to use the road provided, just create a new lane of your own. If people get in your way, simply drive around them, the no-passing signage be damned. One-way street signs mean, ”go ahead and do as you please, just be a little careful as you drive in the wrong direction.” Traffic lights and roadway signs are for tourists only since we appeared to be the sole drivers who read them and paid any attention. Joe repeatedly mumbled, trying to convince himself as a rebel driver yet again cut him off, “The disorder, it’s cultural... I have to understand about the chaos...it’s how they do things here.” I don’t know how we made it through Gela without losing either a bumper or our sanity, but we did manage to survive the bedlam and then escaped with the first left that would take us into the hills away from the coast and back to our hotel in Taormina.
The following day, with Siracusa as our destination, we headed south along the coast past Mount Etna and Catania, Sicily’s capital. As we drove by road sign after road sign, I made a mental list of all the towns that sounded familiar because they were the names of people I’ve known or have heard of and combined the list with those I’d noticed on the previous day’s excursion to Agrigento. There were more names that rang a bell than all we’d seen in almost three months on mainland Italy: Butera, Carrabba, Corleone, Falcone, Iannello, Mangano, Mineo, Pachino, Paterno, Prizzi, Randazzo and Siracusano, just to name a few. The number of Americans with roots in Sicily must be astounding. The first Siracusan site on our list was the archeological park and its ancient treasures. We filled our morning exploring the semicircular open Greek theatre, hewn directly from the hillside rock in the 5th century BC and one of the largest ever constructed; the latomìe, the stone quarries of which the most famous is the vertically yawning cave, the Orecchio di Dionisio (Ear of Dionysius) that winds its way deep into the cliff; the crumbling Altar of Hieron II, the longest ever built; and finally, the 1st century AD oval Roman amphitheater, so different from its Greek neighbor and site of violent gladiator battles and other bloody circus fare.
Our next stop was Siracusa’s island of Ortygia, at the eastern end of the city, inhabited since the Bronze Age and where in 735 BC the Corinthians first founded a metropolis that once rivaled Athens. We crossed the Ponte Nuova bridge over the narrow channel that separates it from Sicily, took the advice of the guidebooks and simply wandered the compact, elegant, graffiti-free island. A rich variety of architectural styles has accumulated over the ages, from the ancient Temple of Apollo to the sunny Piazza del Duomo made of beautiful, light stone, in lovely juxtaposition to the dark, tightly knit lanes radiating from the broad, elliptical plaza. Late lunch on the island, a seafood-centric, leisurely affair under an outdoor awning overlooking the harbor capped our visit to Siracusa.
Our tour of the ancients on Sicily ended in our Taormina backyard. A very well-preserved theater, refashioned by the Romans several centuries after the original was built by the Greeks, sits perched high on the hill in the middle of town, perfectly sited to frame Mount Etna behind its stage. It would have been difficult for me, had I been a spectator, to decide whether to concentrate on the performance or gaze at the smoking volcano backdrop while sitting in the stands.
Have I mentioned that we loved Sicily? The cadence of the language is just a bit more pronounced, the gestures more emphatic, the food delicious and the people genuinely gracious. I’m going to choose to ignore Gela and our post-apocalyptic drive-through and only remember the glories of Agrigento, Siracusa and Taormina. And whenever I need a dreamy pick-me-up, I’ll go back to losing myself in my sun-kissed Sicilian fantasy, Caroline at my side, rambling around the agora with the ancients.
Pictures of our adventures: http://gapyeargirlgoestoeurope.shutterfly.com