Monday, February 13, 2006

Agrigento and the Sagra dei Mandorlo Infiore 2.12.06

On Wednesday we got up early and stopped downstairs at the bar called "The Summer" (we are surprised at how many places have English names here. We guess it's sort of the same as in the U.S., where Italian or French words or names are used to sound more authentic or exotic) to have a cappuccino and a chat with Salvatore. This coffee bar is hopping on the weekends as it is also a "tavola calda" a buffet-type place where food is already prepared, not like a sit down and order type of place. He's a really nice man who has been very friendly to us and every time we pass he gives us a big warm "buon giorno" or "buona sera." We don't think his cornetti are the best in town, but his cappuccino is good and he is so nice we like to go there sometimes for our coffee, especially when we are headed out of town and don't want to take the time to fix breakfast at home. When we told him we were going to Agrigento, he wrote out directions for us and told us how easy it was to get there. We had not asked him to do this and were very touched that he would take the time to help us.

Just before 8am we were on the road. Agrigento is about two hours from Marina di Ragusa and we wanted to get there as early as possible, to make the most of the day. In spite of Salvatore's directions, we turned on our TomTom GPS system, found a signal and off we went. We got held up as we drove through the town of Vittoria and decided that TomTom does not know this city and all its one-way streets! We lost a bit of time there and after some frustration, finally found our way out and on the road towards our destination. As I have said before, some of this landscape around the city of Gela west of here leaves a lot to be desired, but this is the most direct route. However, as we got closer to Agrigento, the view to the sea opened up and it was beautiful.

The most amazing sight awaited us as we approached Agrigento - the temples stretched across this valley with the city glistening behind them and the blue Mediterranean beyond. We had found a place on the internet called the B&B Villa San Marco. The owners were kind and helpful, they told us which web site to access for the festival, and even obtained tickets for us for a concert and just sounded very nice and friendly, we looked forward to meeting them. We found them through the web site, which links to their site but the bed and breakfast site has all the photos and the best information about their lovely place.

They had given us a map and directions but still we were confused when we arrived and called for further assistance. They told us to wait at the service station and sent someone to get us! We were quite surprised as we followed the young man down a bumpy dirt road, less than half a mile away and arrived at this little delightful place nestled between the temples and the city, with views 360 degrees in all directions. They welcomed us so warmly, even offering us a cup of coffee, you would think we were members of the family! They have a delightful home there with almond trees in bloom, olive and orange trees, ducks and chickens, a friendly white dog named Tosca and accommodation we guessed for 10 or 12 people in 5 different rooms. A walkway lined with trees leads from the gate to the main house and everywhere there are benches and little areas to relax and enjoy the atmosphere. Breakfast was served in their big homey kitchen. Vincenzo proudly talked of his five children and showed us his photo collection, many wonderful portraits of his children and interesting travel images. He has a good eye for photography but is a lawyer by profession. They showed us to our room and then we headed back down the bumpy road to explore the temples.

The Temples!! How magnificent they are, dominating the valley below the city of Agrigento. They stretch across a vast area and date back to the 6th century BC. The Tempio della Concordia is one of the best preserved Greek temples outside of Greece. Although partially under scaffolding (we are becoming accustomed to this sight now) we could still appreciate its beauty and marvel at its lovely architecture and Doric columns and imagine how it must have looked in its glory days when the Greeks built it and it was described as "the most beautiful city of mortals" by the poet Pindar, and the philosopher Empedocles walked its pathways. The sun was playing games with us as it darted in and out of the clouds but we still took a gazillion photos, climbing on top of these ancient stones, astonished at our freedom to do so. We encountered tourists from all over the world who stopped to look over my shoulder as I sketched a detail of one of the temples and even had a conversation with a group of Italian high school girls fascinated by what I was doing.

And all around were the blooming trees! In February, the almond trees bloom and the sight of these pink and white trees is totally delightful and rivals the cherry blossoms in Washington DC and Japan, I'm sure! Growing on all the hillsides, they sparkle in the sunlight and the effect is dazzling. It was a feast of color, with pink & white blooming trees, golden temples and blue sea, not to mention the huge agaves sending gigantic stalks into the air, soon to burst into bloom. Everywhere there were the same yellow wildflowers we have been enjoying, and the delicate foliage of the olive trees planted along the hillsides.

The temples were built of sandstone and tufa, which makes them appear golden in the sunlight. At night they are lit and standout against the dark sky, visible from many viewpoints around the city. We also enjoyed the view of the city of Agrigento that sits on a hillside overlooking the Valley of the Temples. The guidebooks were not kind, mentioning "cultural stagnation and widespread illegal construction" but we found it lovely to look at from our vantage point at the Villa San Marco. In colors of pink, gold, green and creamy white with brightly colored shutters of deeper shades of blues and greens we found it interesting the way it spreads itself across the hill, especially at sunset when the sun, peaking through the clouds, lit it up against the darkening sky.

We enjoyed the Museo Archeologico, (in spite of the drilling noise when we first arrived and the hordes of high school students who preceded us) one of Sicily's most important archeological museums, which houses finds from the ancient Greek city and from the provinces of Agrigento and Caltanissetta, along with an incredible collection of Greek vases dating back to the 6th century BC. The collection includes also a Greco-Roman sculpture "Ephebus," a rare and beautiful artistic specimen that dates back to 470 BC. There is also one of the "telamones" (or Atlases) one of the huge figures that once supported and decorated the Temple of Zeus (now completely destroyed but which had been the largest and most fantastic). These massive figures were about 25 feet tall and there were about 38 of them all around the temple. They have a model of what it must have looked like in its day and these giants are just a small piece of the overall structure.

Sadly, we learned that scholars believe that the temples were destroyed by an edict of the Byzantines who found them too pagan and decreed that they be destroyed. All that is left of the massive Temple of Zeus is rubble. Enormous pieces of columns and blocks of stone that litter the valley floor and only give us a glimpse of what it must have been like when it stood proudly in this place. The Temple of Concordia is intact due to the fact that it was converted into a church, which saved it from the wrecking ball and was, thankfully, restored to its classical pagan splendor in the late 1700s.

The Hellenistic-Roman quarter is totally fascinating, as this is basically the place where the people lived. The Temples were places of worship, by contrast, but this area represents the houses and shops and actual living spaces and neighborhoods where they spent their days. We read that it was one of the best preserved ancient city areas in Sicily and walked around it to see simple mosaic floors, columns still standing and a grid pattern that shows how the city was laid out. Fascinating stuff. Archeologists are continuing to unearth parts of this ancient city.

On Wednesday evening we found a place to stand to await the torchlight procession. The International Folk Festival was taking place at this time, a celebration of peace and brotherhood and folk groups from all over the world were there to perform. As the sky darkened a light rain began to fall and we were lucky to have found a place under a portico, protected from the weather. The raindrops did not stop the celebration though as each group sang and danced as they paraded by us, dressed in their beautiful traditional costumes and carrying torchlights through the streets of the historic center of Agrigento. It was truly a lovely sight to watch and we were so delighted to be there. Afterwards, we found a small trattoria and ate a late supper, returning to our room tired and happy.

Thursday afternoon we had tickets for a performance in one of the theatres just outside of the old town. We had the pleasure of watching different folk dance groups perform and enjoyed so much the diversity that was displayed before us. We saw groups from Sicily, Costa Rica, Greece, Poland, Russia, Spain, Budapest, and Rwanda and each one had the most exquisite costumes and original folk dancing, unique to each country and the traditions and cultures that formed it. It was a very uplifting experience and we came away feeling joyful and happy that we had had the opportunity to witness it.

On Friday morning we said our goodbyes to Agrigento and the Valley of the Temples and decided to drive home along the coast, to see some of the beaches described in our guidebooks. The best place we found was in the area of Palma di Montechiaro, where, high on a cliff overlooking the sea sits the Castello di Montechiario. We parked our car and walked up a bit to get a closer look at the castle, enjoying the views and taking photos. We looked down to see a rounded cove below that looks like a dragon, with its head in the water taking a drink! Afterwards, we tried to find a lake we had read about and ended up backtracking and going around in circles, which only frustrated us and tired us out. We did not, I might add, find another beach area we liked more than our Marina di Ragusa and decided we should just return home, since we were starting to get tired and cranky from too much time in the car.

Close to home, we stopped and picked up a roasted chicken and some potatoes for a simple dinner and flopped into our apartment, glad to be back with our beautiful sea view and our quiet little town.

We do want to go back to Agrigento though and will take Jessica when she comes so she can touch some more old stuff. She'll really like that place!

A presto!
Rosemary e Robert

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