Greek History in Sicily | Agrigento and the Valley of the Temples
Did you know that some of the most impressive and best preserved Greek temples are actually on the Italian island of Sicily?
Since I’m a teacher and a history nerd, we must as always start with a little background. In Greek mythology, Agrigento was discovered by Daedalus after his fateful flight from Crete where his son Icarus flew too close to the sun and fell to his death after the wax on his wings melted. Some versions of the story say Daedalus's famous landing site is located just outside the modern day city of Agrigento, known as the Valley of the Temples. A sculpture depicting the downfall of Icarus lays in a tragic position on the ground in front of the site’s most well preserved temple, the Temple of Concordia.
In reality Agrigento, or Akragas as it was called in Greek, was founded by settlers from Rhodes and Crete around the year 580 BC. Although it is located very close to the sea, the original inhabitants of Agrigento did not come directly by water, perhaps due to the steep, rocky cliffs along this particular stretch of Sicily’s southern coastline. Agrigento was actually settled by people who came by land from the nearby city of Gela, which had been founded 100 years earlier. This left Agrigento to be the last major Greek colony in Sicily to be settled.
Agrigento sits majestically atop a plateau overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, with two nearby rivers, the Hypsas and the Akragas, its name being derived from the latter. The second part of its modern name comes from a hill to the north called Colle di Girgenti. Agrigento had its heyday during the golden age of Ancient Greece and was widely known for its inhabitants’ extravagant lifestyle and contributions to philosophy and the arts. Most notably, Agrigento was the birthplace of the philosopher and scientist Empedocles. During this time, historians estimate its population to have been between 200,000 and 800,000 people! Can anyone say "Ancient Party Town"?
Although many of the other Greek cities in Sicily suffered from the wars that erupted between Athens (Greece) and Syracuse (Sicily), Agrigento remained neutral and thrived until almost 400 BC, when the Carthaginians invaded and all but destroyed it.
Agrigento is not the bustling metropolis it once was; however, that’s a part of its modern day charm. Cobblestoned streets that meander down between tall, narrow houses with painted doors and laundry hanging from balconies welcome you as if you’ve come home. Street side cafes, pastry shops and restaurants with stunning views of the surrounding valley fulfill your every gastronomic desire. Medieval churches restored with baroque facades are remnants of times of old, while modern street art installations remind you that this ancient city still has a vibrant future.
How to Plan Your Weekend in Agrigento
Friday: The Valley of the Temples
You absolutely can not visit Agrigento without stopping at the Valley of the Temples, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the most impressive and best preserved archaeological sites of Greek civilization in the world.
The Valley of the Temples refers to the remains of the ancient city of Akragas, which as we learned earlier became what is known today as modern day Agrigento. This extensive archaeological site is comprised not only of temples dedicated to mythical gods and goddesses, but also the remnants of city walls and gates, a rock sanctuary, fallen statues, evidence of underground tombs, and an Archaeological Museum built on the site of a ruined Cistercian monastery.
One of the most interesting aspects of this site is the stark contrast of evidence from various civilizations spanning across thousands of years, all sitting side by side. A temple built to worship Greek gods next to a medieval church, just down the path from Roman catacombs and a Christian monastery. Talk about a hodge-podge!
For me, the most impressive of anything here is the Temple of Concordia, a massive structure reaching up to the heavens on what they call the "hill of temples". This place is incredible. Standing in its shadow takes you on a journey to when legends were made and everything, especially the buildings, were so much larger than life.
Pro-tips: Wear comfortable shoes. The site covers quite a bit of ground and the paths in some areas are uneven. Give yourself three to four hours to visit, and time your trip so you arrive about 4 hours before sunset. This will give you plenty of time to fully explore the site, with a chance to see one of the most incredible sunsets you will ever witness in your life.
Saturday: Explore the Old Town
What's the best way to achieve this? Slowly. The historic center of Agrigento is a beautiful maze of streets, meandering up and down steps, through archways, and between houses that are stacked together like a Jenga puzzle. If you get lost just head downhill and you'll find yourself on the main street.
In Agrigento, ancient history meets the modern world in a cool, artistic way. There are no less than twenty churches in this small hilltop city, many of them part of an integrative path called "Arte & Fede I Percosi" (translated as "the routes of art and faith") that allows you to discover the beauty of Agrigento through its architecture, art and churches. I think it would be fascinating to visit all twenty churches, but this requires quite a bit of stamina and more than one day to explore. We decided to choose a few of the churches on the path to create a circular-ish route around the old town.
As it turned out we discovered quite a bit more art than we had anticipated, and veered off our planned route several times. Sometimes changing plans gives you the best experience, as it seemed that there were little pockets of art hiding around every corner! No matter how you see Agrigento, or where you end up, I guarantee this charming city will steal your heart. This was the loose path we followed, and some of our favorite stops along the way.
1. Cattedrale di San Gerlando
This was a perfect place for us to start, as our B&B was in the upper part of the city. However, if you're driving into town just for the day or staying in the lower part of the city, you can park in the piazza right in front of the cathedral for free, then work your way around the city and back up to where you started.
We LOVED this church. The painted cedar beams on the ceiling are spectacular and like nothing I've ever seen! I spent half of my time here looking up. Gold ceiling tiles, elaborate frescos, wrought iron chandeliers, elaborately designed doorways, and pieces of art everywhere you look. I especially loved seeing the varying architectural and artistic styles, from Medieval to Norman to Baroque, it was so interesting to see them all together. It was like being in an art museum. If you do make a trip here, don't miss out on climbing the bell tower. It has spectacular views that seem to cover the entire island of Sicily!
Speaking of art museums, you can also buy tickets to visit the Museo Diocesano and the Biblioteca Lucchesiana, which are right next to the cathedral. Due to Covid restrictions, neither of these were open on our visit, but they will be an easy excuse for us to make a return trip.
2. Chiesa di Santa Croce
Winding our way down to this church was a fascinating walk. While the upper area of the city seems to have a more modern influence, as we got closer to the Church of Santa Croce it seemed that we were walking back in time. The Santa Croce district must certainly be one of the oldest areas of the city, as you can still see traces of various influences over the centuries. This was even evident on the church itself. The current church is dated back to the 18th century, but it was built on the site of a previous medieval church. Although the facade has a modern appearance, the rest of the building still has a distinctly medieval look with the rounded corner of the back looking almost like the battlement of a castle.
Today this neighborhood is considered the Arab district, and is home to many families who have sought refuge in Sicily during recent years. Their struggle, and acceptance here in Sicily, is depicted in this piece of street art we found directly across from the church.
3. Chiesa dell'Addolorata
There are incredible views from all sides of Agrigento, and one of the best can be found at the Chiesa dell'Addolorata, which sits at the edge of the city. From a short set of steps to the left of the church entrance, we found this view of the surrounding valley and Mediterranean Sea. Breathtaking!
Also known as the Sanctuary of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Sorrows, or the Church of the Seven Sorrows, the church itself is extremely small but beautiful inside, with ornate walls that show a blend of Arab, Byzantine, and Baroque design styles. Don't let the small size fool you, this little church should not be missed. It's actually built on the edge of the plateau, with areas of the church carved right into the rock. There are even caves beneath it! Any time a church as catacombs, caves, or anything else creepy like that I absolutely have to see them, but as you might have guessed they were closed. Again, another reason to come back!
4. Chiesa San Giuseppe
We walked down Via Giuseppe Garibaldi from the Church of the Seven Sorrows to the Chiesa San Giuseppe. Possibly from the fact that we were speaking English, or maybe due to the camera around my neck, it was pretty obvious that we were not locals. However, I have to stop and mention how incredibly friendly everyone here was. They offered smiles and said hello without hesitation, welcoming us into their shops, cafes, and markets, I think grateful for a change in the monotony that Covid life has brought us all. Although we live in Sicily, we appreciate the fact that it is a destination most people travel to as tourists, and the one good thing about Covid limiting travel is that we are getting to experience the places we go much more authentically.
The Chiesa San Giuseppe dates back to the 1500's, but like most of the churches here, it has undergone multiple restorations over the last 500 years. The current design with sandstone blocks and Baroque facade is also similar to many of the other churches in town. What struck me as the most interesting thing about this church was its graphic and slightly creepy collection of statues and relics.
There are also a predominant number of baby statues and moldings on the various balconies inside, which in my opinion is also a little creepy.
Fun fact: Every Christmas the church has an exhibition of over 200 cribs from around the world. I guess they have to put all those babies somewhere?
5. Piazza San Giuseppe
The square across the street from the Chiesa San Giuseppe bears the same name as the church; however, it is Empedocles that the Piazza San Giuseppe is dedicated to. As I mentioned earlier, Empedocles was a Greek philosopher and scientist who lived in Agrigento in the 5th century BC. One of his most notable theories was the idea that all things were composed of only four elements: fire, air, water, and earth. Here you'll find a monument to his theory of the four elements, along with this engraving:
"Those whom the Greeks call physicists are also called poets, since Empedocles the physicist wrote an excellent poem."
"And how many are of the idea that everything could be produced by fire and earth, air and water, among the first of these there is Empedocles of Agrigento generated on the soil of the island at the triple shore."
6. Street Art
From the Piazza San Giuseppe, we took a short detour up Via Bac Bac to Piazza Lena, where we made this amazing discovery! Huge pieces of painted concrete (or marble), possibly moved from buildings that have been abandoned or demolished. Another example of the way Agrigento has embraced the past with a really cool modern spin. If you come here and are looking for a unique place to stay, there were several B&B's, a couple of cafes and a restaurant, and the cutest little produce stand all right here.
We headed back down to Via Giuseppe Garibaldi, where on this side of town becomes Via Atenea. At this point in our journey, it was riposo time, which means that all of the churches were now closed. If you're not familiar with riposo, this is the time of day when most businesses and shops close for a mid-day rest. The Sicilians have taken the concept of riposo to a whole new level, sometimes starting as early as 12:00 and lasting as late as 4:30. I think we would all be much happier if we had a four hour riposo every day!
The good thing about riposo is that most cafes and bars are open, as well as some of the restaurants. We've gotten into the habit of turning riposo time into a progressive lunch/happy hour, and Agrigento was no exception. We wandered down Via Atenea, stopping when we got hungry or thirsty, and took time to admire the architecture and the views. We also took a few detours to explore some of the side streets as well. That's how we found this amazing street art installation on Via Neve than runs between its intersection with Via Atenea and the stairs to the Chiesa del Purgatorio.
Among the works are nods to the Greek roots of Agrigento, the Sicilian Trinacria symbol, the beloved prickly pear cactus, and the founding of the city in 580 BC.
My absolute favorites were the funky and slightly dark images of women, mysterious and beautiful, but a little scary at the same time. Kind of describes the best of us, doesn't it?
If you take the stairs at the end of the street art installation, you'll find yourself in front of the Chiesa del Purgatorio. I can't wait to make a trip back to see inside!
7. Wandering, Eating, and Drinking
We did a bit of wandering after this, down into the side streets below Via Atenea. I made a new friend, and we found the beautiful Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. Characterized by its stunning white and gold interior, the Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi or of the Immaculate Conception is one of the largest churches in the city. It belongs to a complex that includes the church and a Franciscan convent, both of which were built in the fourteenth century. Many of the most wealthy lords of Agrigento were buried here.
Inside the basilica you'll find an impressive collection of frescoes and a number of interesting artifacts, including a very precious 18th century wooden crucifix. The church suffered pretty significant damage during World War II, but has undergone major renovations and is now one of the most beloved churches in the city. In fact, the feast of the Immaculate Conception in Agrigento is one of the most awaited and followed.
There's no shortage of delicious eating and drinking opportunities in Agrigento. I don't typically write food posts, but I feel that I must mention a couple of places here.
We enjoyed a lovely aperitivo hour at the Caffe San Pietro, with delicious drinks and the best bruschetta I've had since we moved to Sicily.
Next up was the Enogastronomia Sammartino, a grilled meat experience like no other. I'm not sure I can adequately describe what happened here, you have to experience it for yourself to truly understand. We went to the little market across the street to pick out the meat we wanted. Then, using a combination of pictures, hand gestures, and broken Italian, tried to explain how we wanted it cooked (basically whether you want your meat panini style, or non-panini style). I can attest to the fact that both ways are equally delicious. Kind of like a meat orgy in your mouth.
With take away bags in hand, we headed back to our B&B. On the way, we stopped at Infurna Pasticceria Guiseppe. Oh. My. God. I have to confess we had been here earlier in the day as well. It was so good we had to go back for more! All I can say is that this place is a Sicilian pastry paradise.
Sunday: The Turkish Steps
If you have time on Sunday before heading out of the area, take a drive to the cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean to see the Turkish Steps. Also known as the Stair of the Turks, they were named this because of the Arab pirates, also known as "Turks", who anchored their ships in the protected inlet and climbed the natural rock formations to invade the surrounding area.
The "steps" were closed to the public in the summer of 2020 due to erosion making them unsafe to climb on. People still, however, find a way to get to them. You can drive around to the beaches on either side of the steps and walk, kayak, or paddle board over to get a better look. As we visited in February and it was quite chilly we did not try this, so I'm not advising for or against it. But they are a beautiful sight to behold, especially from the various viewing areas along the highway above them. There are several places with great vantage points, but here's a pin to the one we liked the best!