I did this drawing in Belgium, summer 2021.
From the Valli dei Templi we drove to the town of Marinella di Selinunte. The town as well as the archaeological site on its door step sit on the coast. We were looking for a B and B called Arcos. After a few hours drive from Agrigento through some lovely scenery we found the street but were unable to find the house. We called while idling in the parking lot at the hotel at the end of the road. I spoke to him but had a hard time understanding. He may have a heavy Sicilian accent, to which I am not accustomed, or he was speaking Sicilian, which even some native Italians have trouble deciphering. We retraced our steps and when we got to the stop light, I told him we were at the ‘semaforo.’ That’s Spanish for stop light. Perhaps it is Italian or Sicilian as well as he then knew where we were, and said he’d come out to the street. We turned around again. There he was a few hundred meters away. We saw that the house had no number, that there is indeed an arch, albeit to nowhere, but it sits behind the gate, invisible from the road. So how are you supposed to find the place? Why would he not resolve the problem- could it have something to do with legal requirements? Italians are notable for the ways in which they avoid taxation, so I would not be surprised that this was exactly the case, as later he refused to provide a receipt for the night.
It’s a lovely place our elderly host has although there’s just one bathroom for the 7 of us. He had to use the same one, thus 7 and not 6, unless he had a facility aside from the one in the house.
As we were unloading our bags in the rooms he told me that he could not find one of the remote control for the air conditioning in one of the rooms. We decided to take that room. I thought that by nightfall it would be cool enough. That proved to be true. Also this way we would not worry about our friends being unable to sleep.
He continued looking around for the remote control. In the process he came back into the room. He asked to enter but before I could say no, he came in. I had no clothes on. Not a huge deal. But a minute later he came in again, without even knocking. I was rather miffed. Then not but five minutes later one of our friends walked in without knocking, as the door was open to allow some air to circulate. I was starting to have a difficult day.
Dinner that night was in town. There were more challenges to come. We managed to drive in the wrong way on a one way street, turned around by people sitting on their front porch facing the port. Then we managed to park too far from the port, where we had just been while going the wrong way, forcing our somewhat hobbled compatriot to walk much farther than necessary. At least it was downhill.
The streets along the way were hacked into the hillside in a maze-like fashion. The route to the sea was not marked. We had to ask a woman who was sitting with neighbors outside in the evening’s cool. She gave us perfect instructions. Keep going down.
We settled on a restaurant in the public square when we finally got there, eating and drinking for an hour or so. As we sat there a priest started to conduct a mass nearby, outdoors and in front of a sort of manger. A small crowd gathered. Perhaps it was a blessing of the fish or some such rather than an ordinary ‘culto.’ At any rate what he was doing could serve for any run of the mill hocus pocus.
Afterwards we went to a nearby restaurant run by a local. His family has had this place for years. He’d spent some time in Australia, spoking English quite well. Good typical Sicilian dishes on a lovely Sicilian coast line night that cooled nicely as the sun set.
The next morning we came to a breakfast table set just outside the ample kitchen. There was coffee – the Italian version, not the American, our host pointed out. It’s a difficult adjustment for people accustomed to a beverage that has a lot more water in it and is not roasted to such a black color. As happened the day before each person had a pastry stuffed with ricotta, a very Sicilian breakfast. Its a far cry from, say, a Dutch breakfast, with hearty bread and slices of cheese and various meats.
The archaeological park is just a few minutes drive. It’s large. On our last visit we were deterred from a complete visit by the distances, so we all selected to take the transportation on offer. You have to walk to the small museum to board, passing by Temple E, one of five temples here. The museum does not have much to offer as almost all the goodies are in the The Antonino Salinas Regional Archeological Museum in Palermo, of which more anon. On our last visit, just two years ago, there was an excellent video that played upon the Greek columns they erected in the large hall, and on the wall behind. This was no longer available, a major disappointment.
Selinunte was an ancient Greek city. There were some 30,000 people at its peak around 490 BCE. There were also Phonecians and native Sicilians in the area. We know quite a bit of its history. Check out the wiki at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Selinunte
The Acropolis is at the far side of the park overlooking the sea, a gorgeous location for a temple or any other structure.
Our next stop was Palermo. We have a place near one of the main music halls. It’s a beautiful ride. Our place was very easy to find.
I dropped the car off at the rental agency and returned to explore our abode for the next few days. Apparently it stretched between two buildings judging by all the ups and downs in such a comparatively small space. The kitchen is in what must have been a closet. It might have been an afterthought. Other than a microwave it had all the basics. The basics were not in great shape. The moca pot’s handle was broken. The teflon on the pan had been scratched off. These and a few other things would be inexpensive improvements yet our friendly host hadn’t bothered. Soon we were out and about in this busy, friendly and down in the heels ancient city on the sea.
This is near the Acropolis at the Selinunte Archaeological Park, the largest archaeology zone in Europe.
The Valli dei Templi sits upon a hill, not a valley. You can take a taxi to the top and walk down through the ruins. We walking in the past under the bright sunshine of a mid-September with temperatures around 30c /86f. What you find here are the best ruins of Ancient Greece, aside perhaps from the Acropolis in Athens, but here there are more of them. As for recovered art, there is none here. The Antonino Salinas Regional Archeological Museum in Palermo has a superb collection of what was similar to what was here , but from Selinunte, about which a post is to follow, while Athens has a fabulous museum at the foot of the Acropolis.
It’s reasonable to wonder why the ancients built so many large structures in a such small area. It’s just 500 meters/1600 feet or so from the entrance to the exit. Nor would one think that the local population was so large that it would require so many places of worship. I think the answer likely lies in their motivations. They were polytheists. To honor gods who performed distinct duties and were each capable of causing havoc if they were displeased with their subjects they would need a temple dedicated to each of those whom they considered a danger on the one hand and a formidable ally on the other. One would need to be careful not to sleight any of them by providing an inferior structure let alone none at all.
I can imagine the crowds on special days when priests would make a sacrifice to this or that god or gods. After the ritual killing there might have been a large barbecue. Most everyone in Agrigento and environs would have turned out. It could have been quite the feast- the gods don’t actually need to eat, apparently, they just need to have their ego stroked. I seriously doubt they just discarded the dead animals. Fire up the barby, Giuseppe!
The Temple of Concordia is the best preserved, having been used as a church starting in the 6th century, 1000 years after its construction, in use until 1785, over 2000 years. Aside from the Pantheon perched on the Acropolis in Athens it is the best preserved building of ancient Greece. As with the Pantheon in Athens, this building was partially reconstructed. Like most Greek temples, it is east-west oriented.
Here’s a website with additional information https://www.hisour.com/temple-of-concordia-agrigento-valley-of-the-temples-55964/
The Temple of Juno dates from the 5th century BC, set afire and heavily damaged by the Carthaginians.
The Temple of Hercules is the oldest temple. It was destroyed by an earthquake. There are eight columns left.
Temple of Zeus (480 BC) celebrated the city-state’s victory over Carthage. The Temple of Castor and Pollux has only four columns remaining.
The Temple of Hephaestus is from the 5th century BCE while the Temple of Asclepius was a special destination for those looking for cures for ailments.
The official website of the archaeological site is https://www.parcovalledeitempli.it/en/
An hour and a half or so from the Etna’s slopes lies the port city of Siracusa, dating to 2500 BCE. The entire city is a Unesco World Heritage site. Most of Sicily is or should be, unless clean streets and regular trash pickup and street sweeping count- there its cities are failing.
Once in town we found a parking place for our van entirely due to the efforts of a local. He was leaving so he took us to where he was parked, in front of a sign that said no parking. After I parked he came back to make sure we understood that parking there was ok. He knew the sign was no longer valid, but would give us cause for concern as we are ‘stranieri,’ (foreigners) and unfamiliar with the way things actually work. Or don’t. Things are rather idiosyncratic in Italy, making local knowledge of great value. Locals, however, sometimes disagree loudly about what really is and is not permissible.
Back in Time
In the evening we walked to the old town from our lovely 6 person/3 bedroom flat. It was a journey from the fairly new, across the bridge, then onto the island of the very old. Here the city began, ideally situated for access to the sea.
The old island was full of people walking, sitting on benches, drinking and eating, taking photos and what not. They came on scooters and buses mostly as finding a place to park can be somewhere between difficult and impossible.
The cathedral was built on the site of a temple to Athena from the 5th century BCE. The latter’s still visible columns were used to build the walls. What stories they could tell if they had lips! T. The roof of the nave is Norman, as are the mosaics, the people who brought into my family our blond, blue eyed Sicilian uncle. Fewer structures anywhere can transport you so far back in time without you having to budge much at all.
A big reason to come here is to visit the archaeological park. There are huge caves chiseled from the hills, from where oracles gave their predictions. As will all such sites, it helps to have some familiarity with the ancient cultures to enjoy the visit so you can imagine the smoke and mirror shows that went along with all the hooha. The park contains not only a Greek theater but a Roman as well. The Greeks did plays, the Romans watched blood sports. Tell me who was more civilized than the other.
It was lunch time by the time we left so we looked for a restaurant that is more or less on the way back to our apartment, as we were on foot and not all of us capable of lots of hoofing. I found a place that looked good and with just one minor navigation boo boo went right to it. The chef greeted us with enthusiasm at a volume all Sicilians seem to enjoy. Loud. It is equated with being genuine. It’s all about drama, theater, expressiveness. We have run across this often in our past journeys, and as I grew up with Sicilians, I can do a clever imitation my own self.
Well all was fine and dandy despite our expressive albeit friendly cook who came to greet us. Americani! He was thrilled. There have not been many of us lately and he’s off the beaten track so even in normal times there are few. But then I made a major mistake. The house antipasto had a bit of everything so I ordered one for the table. The waitress took that to mean one each. In the meantime everyone had ordered either a primo (pasta) or a secundo (meat or fish). Then the antipasti arrived. And arrived and arrived. It was too much food but fantastic, so we had a great time. We had the other dishes for dinner and were so so at best. In the end, I’d done it right, by mistake. It was about 30 euros per person, not terribly expensive especially given the quality and quantity.
The Necropolis of Pantalica is close by, less than an hour or so in the van. We went the next day. You drive through windy roads and a dusty village or two perhaps before you get a view of the burial caves. We never got close up but you could certainly see the openings on the side of the cliffs. I wondered how they reached some of these, as they were well off the ground and far from the cliff’s top. These were dug between the 13th and 7th centuries BCE. It’s a dry, rocky landscape but a stream runs through it. Life must have been as hard as the rocks they lived on.
Modica and Noto
Noto and Modica are short distances from Siracusa and each other so we visited both on the same day. Noto is most noted for its Baroque church, completed in 1776, and Modica for being built on both sides of a steep, wide gully. Noto as well as Modica is a World Heritage city, their origin in Roman times. Like many others it was conquered by the Moors before falling to the Christians in 1091. Each was also severely damaged in 1693. In Modica there was a population loss approaching 50%. Modica was rebuilt in a homogeneous fashion, giving it a special charm.
This is our second visit to Modica. We stayed just outside town in the summer of 2000. We were living in Rome at the time. We stayed with the nephew of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, the author of The Leopard, a well respected and famous novel written in the early 1950’s, and made into a film in 1963. It’s story of the joining of Sicily to the just unified Italy, led by Garibaldi and company in the events termed Il Risorgimento.
“The more you want things to remain the same the more things must change,” he wrote. My sense is that Italy and Sicily particularly are trapped in deep, enduring ironies such as this. It is extremely rich in heritage in form of architecture, art (at least until the Baroque), antiquities, music, film, theaters, science- Marconi invented radio, for instance. Maybe you have heard of him. Italians were instrumental in the European expansion into the Americas. Maybe you have heard of the famous Italian Cristoforo Colombo. He was born in Genoa. Then there’s Giovanni Caboto, John Cabot to us anglophones. How about Amerigo Vespuci?
In addition to the many contributions to civilization, Italy today is among the 10 largest economies of the world. Yet when you visit many cities the streets, buildings and public spaces look third world. They have trouble getting unemployment below 10%, although who knows, really, given how readily people can move between being on and off the books. And the Italians go through governments as they go through pasta, twice a day.
We departed Siracusa after three nights in a lovely place with two large bathrooms and a tiny kitchen and a huge living room that no one used other than as a 4th bedroom. We were heading for Ragusa, before landing in a B and B for the night.
Want some super views and an old castle on top of it all? Nearly get stuck while trying to get your van out of town? Come to Ragusa where a little over 70,000 people are spread between two steep hills full of narrow roads. Do not follow the one that says “Residents only.” I did and nearly had to back out of the whole town.
Ragusa was heavily damaged in the 1693 quake. The residents rebuilt first on a second hill before fixing up the old section. These are called Ragusa Superiore and Ragusa Inferiore. We drove through the narrow steep streets of both. There are great views from the Lombardi castle after you clamber up the boulders.
We checked into an attractive B and B up a short steep driveway, with a small garden in front. After a bit of confusion I caused as I thought there was no a.c. but not for the first time I missed the modern units sitting high on the ceilings. Later we had dinner in a huge restaurant, its large patio occupied by a family celebrating the birthday of a kid who could not have been more than three. They whopped it up as he did a grand entrance on a battery operated car he was barely old enough to maneuver safely. It’s the kind of thing that could turn the kid into a whopping narcissist. What are these people thinking?
The next day we visited Villa Roman de Casale and the following it was Agrigento. The former is a Roman villa from the 4th century CE. There are amazing mosaics covering 3500 square meters. They depict the life of a wild animal importer who provided these poor creatures for Romans’ cruel pleasures. Or maybe, as most scholars now suggest, it was the home of a high level politician. In 1161 it was destroyed by William I, the first Norman king. I figure the Normans invaded Sicily after realizing how bland the food in England was, deciding to look for better restaurants to the south. They chose well. The villa was covered by a landslide later in the century, thus preserving the mosaics. The huge villa is yet another World Heritage site.
After driving around Sicily we are in a tiny basement apartment in the center of Palermo recovering from the 12 consecutive days in ruins and churches, and six months of almost constant movement on Viking that took us from the northeastern part of Netherlands to a small city in France on the Belgium border. We need a bit of a rest, but not before I get some of my memories down.
We started in Catania after winterizing the boat and spending a few days with friends in and around Paris. From Versailles we went across Paris to Charles de Gaulle. It took an amazing three hours, expecting no more than two. They’d changed things since we were last there. It was unclear what the E line from San Lazar was now doing. Did it still always go to Gare d’ Nord? Once we got off at Gare d’ Nord it was hard to find where you would need to go to get tickets for de Gaulle. When you found a machine (no people in ticket booths within sight) there was only one and a line there. In the meantime the clock was ticking. We eventually made it with plenty of time but by then I was well frazzled. The rest of the journey proceeded without incident- Paris to Catania on Easyjet, from whom we have multiple vouchers. Then it was just a matter of finding the apartment we rented for three nights with four other friends. That was easy. We even came upon two of them walking up the hill towards the apartment.
Catania was founded in the 8th century BCE by Greeks. It is at the foot of Mount Etna, which has made many unwelcome visits to the city. The eruptions of 1169, 1669 and 1693 caused severe damage as well as loss of life. There are over a dozen other recorded lava flows into the city. As a result of the 1693 eruption the old town has lots of fine examples of late Baroque architecture, making it a Unesco World Heritage Site. The Cathedral is one of the better examples but there are tons, secular as well as religious.
The original Cathedral was finished in 1093. Basilica della Collegiata was also destroyed and also rebuilt in the Baroque style. Needless to say once you have visited either one or seen the photos, the artistry of both the buildings’ exterior and interior are nearly beyond the imagination, but wait until you see Gesu in Palermo.
The Greco-Roman amphitheater is still with us and a must see. I always find it rather amazing that things of this size were buried. This one was excavated 1500 plus years later, in the 19th century. It seats 7000. Impressive, no? Yet it is fewer than the amphitheaters in Taormina and Siracusa, both smaller cities.
There were 6 of us in a very nice three bedroom apartment. It only had one bathroom so we had to do a bit of shuffling. Also there was only one key, a common practice here that can make matters difficult at times. For example, one person or group plans to arrive before another but then is delayed, leaving the second locked out.
Just outside our door is a tabac- they sell tobacco products, bus tickets, this and that, somehow eeking out a living a euro at a time like millions of other small shop owners in Italy. Out front is a marijuana dispenser. Naturally we were curious so tried to buy some. It asked for a card of some sort, apparently a health card (tessera sanitaria) so presumably the law relates to medical use.
None of us have such a card. No problem. The shopkeeper swiped one for us and out came a product. I avoid inhaling anything that burns as much as possible so I can not account for the quality of the weed. There are many choices and I have no idea what any of it means.
There’s a lovely restaurant up the busy street we are on. The service was welcoming, very friendly and nearly perfect. The offerings are fine examples of typical Sicilian cooking. Caponata is on the menu, as it will be in most every restaurant we visit from here on. It’s one of my favorite dishes. It’s eggplant (aubergine) based, with onions and garlic, capers and more in a vinegar-sugar mix. There are tons of variations, some including pignole (pine nuts) and others walnuts instead, or none at all. The wine was very good and there’s a good selection of beers. In regards to beers, Italy has come up in the world. In previous visits all you had were basics like Peroni, not bad but not outstanding and all more or less the same. Now there are lots of domestic and imported craft beers.
The restaurant across the street was the opposite of the first restaurant. So so food, mediocre service. I did not think Italians could mess up Italian food. They can, but even then it isn’t bad. And this was not in a tourist zone, so no excuses there. They even served lousy bread. That should be a crime. It was a crime that was repeated in a number of the restaurants we ate in. It was even hard to find good bread in the supermarkets we used. It was all wrapped in plastic, turning the fabulous crust into near mush.
There are a large number of churches in Catania. We missed almost all of them. Here’s a partial list
- San Michele Arcangelo ai Minoriti (Franciscan) church
- San Nicolò l’Arena (1687), unfinished basilica church and extensive Benedictine Monastery of San Nicolò l’Arena (1558)
- San Nicolas al Borgo
- San Placido (1769) church
- Madonna delle Grazie Chapel
- Santa Rita in Sant’Agostino church
- San Sebastiano (1313)
- Santa Teresa, Carmelitan church and convent
- Santissima Trinità
- Santa Ursula
- Chiesa delle Verginelle di Sant’Agata
- San Vincenzo de’ Paoli, church
- Santissimo Sacramento al Borgo church
- Chapel of the Blind’s Housing (Ospizio dei Ciechi
- Santissimo Sacramento al Duomo, church
- Church of the Holy Child
- Our Lady of Providence
- San Berillo in Santa Maria degli Ammalati, church
- Our Lady of the Poor
- Little Saviour’s Byzantine Chapel
- Church of the Santissimo Sacramento Ritrovato (1796).
- Sanctuary of Our Lady of Ognina (1308).
We’d parked in a lot near the apartment in Catania. I retrieved the van with someone to help just in case I had to detour. The last block is more an alley than a street but lots of cars and pedestrians squeeze through simultaneously. Turn right and our friends are there waiting so it could not be much more convenient.
Taormina is an hour or so by car. It dates to around the same time as Catania but it’s on a hill rather than being a port. The town is most notable for its Greek theater still used for plays and concerts and the lovely restored town center (mostly tourist shops and eateries). Nothing but willful destruction will ever destroy the seating in the theater, I should think, since it’s lasted this long. The views of the coast from the seating areas are marvelous, the clear blue waters of the Med spread below. There are excellent videos off one side of the stage, displayed on high resolution monitors. You get a better sense of what things were like at the theater in ancient times.
We found a quick, inexpensive yet decent place for a light lunch right in town. Then we returned to the pickup spot. You have to park outside of town, then call when you are ready. Better have an EU ready phone and having a least a bit of Italiano really helps. My B level does the trick most of the time.
From Taormina we drove high up the side of Etna, aka Aetna, Etnea (in Catania only near as I can tell), and then there’s my own version, Edna, which makes her sound so human, an explosive Sicilian one for sure. Here we were treated to dramatic views, sharp switchbacks and a clamber over volcanic rocks and flows, boulders frozen in place where they cooled. We are still a good bit from the top, and I think we saw smoke coming from the crater there, or a constant cloud. I vote for the smoke. Edna needs to let off steam on a regular basis.
Next: Siracusa, an ancient Greek port city
Selinunte is my favorite site for Greek temples, in large measure because of the setting. It overlooks the Med. The Acropolis in Athens and i Valli dei Tempi in Agrigento are a very close second, especially the former for its dramatic views from a distance. Watercolor sketch about 4.5 x 5.75″ , 10 x 15 cm. Fits in a pocket so good for on the spot work.
My grandparents were born nearby. In fact Selinunte was fed by an aqueduct that originated in Partanna.
I will write about our travels in Sicily, including our visit to Selinunte and Agrigento.
During our travels in Sicily in September 2021 I came across many dramatic scenes, both in nature and in the towns and cities we visited.
We picked up a passenger for a short ride on the canal. It’s gorgeous scenery as the lock keepers accompany you through dozens of hand operated locks, one of which we approach here, a second in the background.
Namur was settled by the Celts, who were replaced by the Romans. The Merovigians (550-750 CE) built the citadel, much strengthened and expanded over time by the Spanish and later Napoleon. The Germans attacked early in WWI to use the Meuse River as a path into nearby France. It is now the capitol of the region. Located on a narrow strip along the Meuse, the majority of the town, significantly the old town sits more broadly along and setback from the Sambre River. The old town is full of medieval charm and, of course, lots of bars and restaurants, well populated with beer sipping locals chatting the hours away.
Namur is on an important railway junction as well as being at the junction of two rivers, each of which supports a fair amount of barge traffic. In addition we saw several day trip cruise trips. The University of Namur (1831) and the University of Louvain are here, both well respected institutions.
Dinant is much smaller and its downtown less charming than Namur’s, but there are fabulous views from our mooring, along the main part of the town, and from the citadel. The citadel offers a much more interesting visit compared to Namur’s, aside from the ride up, which is more dramatic in Namur. The Dinant visit takes you deep in the mountain, passing through a tilted corridor with a fun house feel to it- the sloping path makes you a bit dizzy. The main part of the town is only a few streets wide and not as charming as Namur. The Collegiate Church of Notre Dame de Dinant has a Norman facade on the north side, which dates it a 1000 years back, its carvings badly worn by the ravages of Belgian rain, but still it’s a trip back in time. Rocks heavily damaged the Romanesque structure in 1227. It was then rebuilt in the Gothic style.
Dinant shows traces of settlement dating to paleolithic times. Celtic tribes lived there, and of course the Romans. The St Vincent church was built in 870. There was heavy fighting in WWI during which DeGaulle was wounded. We ran across the statue honoring him. I’d forgotten how old he was as President of France in the 60’s.