After a long day on the road, we finally made it to Agrigento as the sun set. In the dying light I caught a glimpse of the new city, high and to our right on a hill top. Then, also to our right but lower down, my eye was drawn from the road to the unmistakable sight of ancient Greek columns. I dragged my eyes away, overriding my instinct to save the sight for the next day.
We awoke early and excited. After a nice walk across the sand dunes, staring out across the sea in the rough direction of Africa, we headed to the highlight of the region, the ruins of ancient Akragas. We were waiting at the gates as they opened, champing at the bit.
Founded by Greek colonists from Gela some 2,600 years ago, Akragas (Agrigentum was the Latin name, hence modern Agrigento) grew to be one of the largest cities of the ancient world, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, with monumental ambition to match. Its zenith was not to last for long. The Carthaginians conquered it within two centuries of its foundation, before it was knocked back and forth between Rome and Carthage (with the Romans at one point selling its inhabitants into slavery). After a long age of peace under the Romans and Byzantium, the core of the ancient city was eventually abandoned to its fate when the locals moved up hill to a more defendable site in the face of Arab invasions.
The majority of excavated sites lie along an ancient sacred way, running East to West. We started from the East right under the eaves of the Temple of Hera. Situated on a hillock overlooking the valley below and the see beyond, it is quite a sight with its towering columns largely intact. I felt dwarfed beneath it. I was delighted to see the kids genuinely excited by the temple, though perhaps predominantly as a potential climbing frame - it took quite an effort to stop them clambering all over it.
From here we walked along the sacred way, stopping for shade and to gawp at one magnificent sight after another. The highlight was undoubtedly the Temple of Concordia. When I saw it, I did a double-take. Not only is it imposing and beautiful in its classic design and simplicity, but, remarkably, it is intact.
Saved by a combination of its brilliant design (this is an earthquake zone after all) and upkeep resulting from a church squatting within, it stands tall from a time half a millennium before Christ.
When we finally moved on, I found myself repeatedly looking back, not wanting to say farewell to such a perfect building.
The temples just kept on coming – this is known as the Valley if the Temples after all - and had not stopped by the time the sun was a bit too hot and the kids were tired out. Amongst the other sites we did get to visit, I would be amiss without saying a couple of words about the ruins of the Temple of Zeus.
Strewn across the site are massive pieces of masonry, often grasped by the gnarled roots of age-old olive trees. The fragments of columns were of a scale I have never seen before. Fitting, as they belonged to what was believed to be the largest Doric temple ever built. It was a place for scrambling and exploration, trying to paint a picture for the children (and ourselves) of what this place would have looked and felt like before its collapse.
Akragas lived a torrid, difficult history. What is left behind for us to explore is a startling collection of temples and remnants of ancient life. It is fitting that this place, and specifically the Temple of Concordia, is the basis for the UNESCO World Heritage emblem. What is surprising is that this place is relatively unknown. I for one was not aware of it before researching Sicily. Mistake rectified.
Departing Agrigento, we followed the coast for an hour before cutting in land to theoretically short cut our journey to the North-East corner of Sicily. It proved a side bar adventure. Questionable navigation took us onto smaller and smaller roads until we were winding across isolated areas of countryside on rough single-track roads.
It was not that this was wild land, indeed it was still mostly cultivated in one form or another, but it was abandoned by its people. It was littered with broken down shells of stone dwellings varying greatly in size. All that was left of the thousands of families that abandoned an impoverished Sicilian life for fresh shores. It is estimated that over one million people emigrated to the US from Sicily between 1880 and 1930 alone. An astounding number which has left parts of Sicily with an eerie sense of abandonment.
After many a wrong turn we eventually made it to our stop off, Mozia. It proved to be a surprising place in more ways than one.
MOZIA - RUINS, SALT AND A SERPENT
Mozia itself is a small island situated in a shallow lagoon in the middle of Sicily’s West coast. Many are drawn here by the salt pans and windmills that criss-cross the flat lands leading up to the island. These are pretty and interesting, providing much of the wealth of this region for centuries (salt was an expensive commodity). What drew us here was though the island itself.
Mozia had been a significant Phoenician city and trading post from the eighth century BC, until a Syracusan Greek siege and resulting slaughter forced its decline a few centuries later. Riding out in a small boat, we could see why the place held out for so long. The lagoon creates a defendable channel which the Phoenicians knew how to use.
We spent a couple of hours exploring the island and what is left of the Phoenician civilization. This is not a place of free standing columns and grand surviving buildings. It is ground level archaeology. Pits all over the place for our kids to fall down amongst the salt sprayed brush and thicket.
The most interesting remains centred around a rectangular sacred pool, known as the Temple of Baal. One theory based on recent excavations and previous partial finds is that a huge statue of an unknown god or goddess rose out high from the centre of the pool. It was tantalising to have even a hint of such mysterious deities and try and imagine what forgotten rituals ruled here millennia ago.
Cutting back in land to avoid the wind, I was pushing the pram along a path with Ariadne in the pram and Alexi on the buggy board. Out of nowhere a black snake shot onto the path and right for the pram and my daughter’s dangling legs. Before having time to think I bunny hopped the pram, buggy board and children clear over the snake, who brushed past my foot and disappeared off the other side of the path.
It had lasted less than 5 seconds, but shaken us all up. I am sure the snake was as startled as us and probably just trying to get away, but nonetheless a jet-black snake had slithered towards our kids at break neck speed and we had no wish to see any more. With me acting as point and stamping loudly, we found the quickest way back to the boat and sailed home. A good story when over.
With our new serpentine friend behind us (from a bit of research my best guess is that was a western whip snake) we clambered back in the car and drove until dark in the direction of the village of Scopello, hugging to the gulf of Castellammare. It was to prove my favourite place in Sicily…