On our way back to the hotel, Antonio took us to see San Gregorio del Eremiti, or Saint George of the Hermits. This is a medieval mosque of the 7th or 8th century, complete with minaret, which was turned into a Christian church by the Normans, and given to the Greek Orthodox congregation in the city. It’s also possible that it was a synagogue at some point, before the Arabs appropriated the building. Hmmm. The domes on the outside of the building are painted red, and have arabic-style quoins and stonework like that I saw in Spain in 2000. The arches inside are almost Mozarab in their shape.
We said farewell to Antonio at the airport, where he showed us pictures of his two kids. Daughter looked very Italian, with black hair and olive complexion. Son was blond, with blue eyes and freckles. Could have been English, or northern French. No fat cheeks, like mine, though. He plays football — soccer to us Americans, and is mad for the game, apparently. Rented a car, and drove through Palermo with our eyes half-closed, panicked we were going to be run over, run down, or run through. Reached Villabate without much trouble, and then took the road to Agrigento that runs through the Sicilian interior.
This road runs roughly from the northwest of Sicily to the south center, and unlike an American highway, touches on no towns at all. The towns are usually several kilometers off the highway, often high on the steep slopes of the hills above. Usually an exit consists of an off-ramp, a ruined farm house, and (if you are very lucky) a ruined train station.
The whole country looks farmed. A few ruined castles or fortified houses perch on the steepest crags. Once we saw a monastery. On the whole, though, it looked very much like an agricultural backwater is supposed to look. The farmland was divided into neat plots without obvious fencing between them (though occasionally walls of concrete blocks or sandstone), and even more rarely trees. There were large grazing spaces for cattle and sheep, and we saw several herds and flocks. There were also olive and orange groves. Nearly every house had an orange or lemon tree, and usually a vineyard just outside the back door. Most houses also had two or three olive trees. Where there were olive trees, there were usually also almond trees, in full bloom while we were there, as beautiful and bountiful with white blossoms and pink pistils as cherry trees are. Grassy fields will eventually give way to wheat, but the plows had not yet gone out. The soil looked rocky.
The valley has a shape to it not unlike the cross-section of a shouldered Greek bowl. It has a narrow bottom, with widely spread ridgelines above. Steep cliffs rise as rugged escarpments on every side of the vale. There are many folds and undulations within the valley, and houses are confined to villages. Occasional farmsteads came to light as neat and orderly compouds of tiled-roof houses, stuccoed orange, pink or white. More often, they were mossy-tiled-roof buildings with walls of bare concrete or occasionally stone. More often that that a few such houses had caved-in roofs or walls. More houses seemed abandoned than seemed occupied. Most houses have shutters, as well. The only sure sign that someone really lives there may be laundry hanging out to dry.
The towns we see consist mostly of high-rise apartments, which suggests that the construction boom led by Mafia interests has moved everyone out of the country and into the towns, so that more farmland is available. The houses that are actually only two or three stories high usually have courtyards or private gardens within: a holdover from the days of the Roman atrium and peristyle. Even the apartment blocks seem to turn inward, rather than focusing on the street. Old buildings have some charm but the apartment blocks are utterly without decoration, at least on the outside.
The public realm seems much ignored in Sicily. Many of the piazzas and streets had a lot of garbage in them. As we drove through the interior, I saw a series of train stations set on the rail road tracks. There were probably twelve or fifteen such stations. Few had roofs, and all seemed further neglected or insulted. They all needed at least paint and plaster; not one looked operable. Many of them looked burned.
We passed the anti-Mafia memorials again on our drive through town, and out to the airport. One wonders if these stations are so neglected because of attacks on Mafia personnel or attacks by Mafia personnel. The stations were probably quite charming when they were built, since they seem like elegant neo-Classical structures.
Eventually, we arrived in Agrigento. Along the way, we ate the oranges I’d bought in the Vucchiria, and stopped to piss under a railroad viaduct near Casteltermini. WE came in under a bridge and arrived in the upper city, the medieval town built on the old city’s acropolis.
Agrigento was called “the most beautiful city of the mortals” by the poet Pindar. It’s a warren of narrow streets in the upper city, today. High-rise buildings with little charm vie with neo-Classical palazzi for space. Semi-crumbling churches wth 17th century bells not unlike America’s own Liberty Bell stand on every piazza. My father followed every gut instinct about where the hotel was. We get lost twice, before coming back to the same piazza in front of the train station. Dad stops and asks for directions from an old woman walking with a young woman companion. The woman screams at the heavens, and in a pleading voice asks us not to bother her. She and her companion cover their faces with their scarves. It is around three in the afternoon, and no one is on the streets, it seems, except for her.
Dad tries again to navigate the city. He decides the hotel is on the pinnacle of the city, and so takes every turn he can to go up, higher and higher. Wrong Way signs, a red circle with a white horizontal bar, frustrated his efforts. We return to the piazza in front of the train station. Again.
This time there’s a Bar open, the Bar Nobel, where he sends me for directions. It turns out that our hotel is down on the beach, three Km away. It turns out that the hotel’s name is the Dioscuri Bay Hotel — I discover again that Dad will cheerfully ignore information that benefits him once he gets his heart set on an idea. Dioscuri Bay would suggest a beachfront hotel to you, wouldn’t it? So why did he want to go up? Beats me. We go down the hill.
Suddenly, we’re in ancient Akragas. The Valle di Templi. The Temple of Juno sitting on its crag to the distant left. The almost-complete Temple of Concordia. The temple of Olympian Zeus, merely a pile of rubble from the Carthaginian sack of the city in 409 BC. The temple of Hephaestus. A couple of medieval churches thrown in for good measure. A half dozen houses set among olive and almond trees. A smell like… olive oil, roasted almonds, and the sea. A whole valley filled with the ruins of a city of 300,000 people spread before us like a carpet.
We found the hotel, unpuacked, and since it was raining like hell, we went to the Agrigento Archaeological Museum. More on that anon.