Our next excursion was to the Valle dei Templi (Valley of the Temples) in Agrigento, one of the best preserved Greek temple sites outside Greece.
We take the bus at 10:30 beside the Stazione Centrale in Palermo. Surprisingly, the bus leaves on time. The trip takes 2 hours, and we pass from a verdant, mountainous country to an arid and mountainous one, where modern windmills are part of the landscape. We see them perched on mountain after mountain, turning lazily in the wind like modern versions of Don Quichote’s nemeses, waiting for him to challenge them.
We pass by cities with intriguing names: Castronuovo di Sicilia, Cammarata, Casteltèrmini, Vicali, Raffudali. The approach to Agrigento is surprising. Built on a promontory, the many storied buildings seem piled one upon the other in a mix of Mediterranean colors: pink salmon, ocher, ecru.
The bus stops at the terminal where, stunningly, the city bus capolinea is also situated. After buying four tickets (anda e ritorno) from the little cabin to the right for the Transporte Unite Agrigento we’re told the #1,2, or 3 will takes us to the Valley of the Temples. We hop on the #2 and ten minutes later, we’re at the site. We can’t help but wonder how easy it was to get here compared to our arduous trek to Erice, although I suspect both get an equal amount of tourists.
The main site, once we orient ourselves, extends along the Strada Panoramica, a modern alley that leads to all three major temples. It’s easy to see supplicants walking a similar (albeit more modest) path to get to the temple of their choice.
The first temple we come across, peeking through the trees is the Tempio di Ercole (Temple of Hercules) that is now only a series of columns from the side of the temple. Built in 510 BC, it is the oldest of the temples. However, as much as it’s missing, it’s still quite awe-inspiring. It’s the only one we can get close to, which allows us to understand the breadth of this structure and the others we’ll see later. You need to crane your neck to see the top and the bases of the columns are the size of a small room. Originally, it was over 73 meters long by 28 meters wide with over 2,000 square meters of surface (over 22,000 square feet, a pretty piece of real estate). It was destroyed by an earthquake and no more than eight columns are left standing.
The temple is surrounded with almond and olive trees that give precious shade and must be a sight to see when they are flowering in the spring.
We climb the hill toward the Tempio della Concordia, one of the best preserved temples in the world, apart from the Greek Parthenon. We can see it from very far, perched on its hill, its terracotta stone shining in the midday sun. The surrounding stone in the valley is the same color, confirming the temple (as well as the others) was built with the stone from the area.
This temple is smaller and at least 80 years younger than the Tempio di Ercole, although with the time it took to build these structures, it’s not surprising. The historian Fazallo gave it its name in the 15th century after he found a Latin inscription close by, but it had no relation to the temple itself. Nevertheless, the name stuck, since it is unknown for which god or goddess the temple was destined.
Greek genius is so evident here. The terrain is rocky an uneven, especially where the temple was set and despite everything, without concrete, bulldozers, calculators, or sophisticated computers, they succeeded in building a four-stage base on which rest the temple columns, completely level. Six columns wide and thirteen columns long, part of its roof is still intact, and this 2500 years later. It seems impossible to fathom how these architects were able to design and build structures that last this long when, with all our advanced technology, we have little hope our constructions will last beyond a few hundred years.
We were lucky to see it during a lull of tourists so there were just us, the temple, the sun, and the rustle of the wind. It’s amusing to think, though, that the gaggle of tourists might not be very different from the gaggle of Greeks coming up to the temple for worship or for a good gossip. The town, at the time, was one of the largest in Sicily and the only port on that coast.
When you arrive at the Temple of Concord, at the top of the hill, you think you’ve arrived at the top. The valley unfurls below and the town of Agrigento, on the other side, grips the flank of the mountain. Then your eyes move past the back of the temple and you see another one, far away on another hill, that looks even bigger and more imposing.
After a longish walk, the Temple of Juno (Hera), higher than the two others, appears. It can be reached by a series of stairs and, again, my imagination speaks and I can see a long file of women in long white togas climbing similar (although probably more roughly hewn) stairs to present their offerings to the goddess at sunrise. The temple is oriented toward the East, and the rising sun filtering through the columns must have been glorious and the proof Hera was among them.
Despite the impression of hugeness, this temple is slightly smaller than the Concord, although with the same complement of columns (seventy-eight). It is less well preserved, with only 30 columns still standing, but its site makes it nonetheless quite imposing. From this hill, we can clearly see the gorgeous temple of Concordia below.
As we went back down the hill, we couldn’t help but think that one earthquake could level all of this, as the Tempio di Zeus, on the other side of the valley was. In fact, research on the Internet turned up that earthquakes are frequent in the region. The last one, a minor one, occurred on 21 October, one day before our visit.
The Valle dei Templi was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996. It is definitely one of the precious treasures of the world.