As the little Fiat Panda set off to our next destination, I realised that I was getting almost accustomed to being on the road in Sicily, and on the wrong side. Our route from Siracusa to Agrigento took us north along the coast with sweeping sea views and then turned inland and west, avoiding the huge city of Catania. A great drive across Sicily.
We drove towards smoking Mount Etna, then next to it for a while, and the horizon opened up as we covered the kilometres of dry, scrubby terrain and bare mountains at a speed well over 100kph. Some traffic passed us so fast that we hardly saw them coming up behind us. The only relief from the stony terrain was the citrus groves, some thriving, others struggling after last month’s terrible heat wave. There was evidence of the bushfires that threatened the area not long ago.
In a stretch of nearly 200km, there was only one service station about halfway, so I’m glad we stopped. We did not need petrol (little Panda is a hybrid) but a comfort stop and somewhere to have a snack. Relief in every sense!
The route was simple enough until we exited the freeway to take the A19 – roadworks made for confusion and we missed it and did a 10km reroute. Lots of tunnels which are quite dark with no room for error. Peter has done an amazing job driving, although he has stopped indicating when overtaking because ‘it confuses the locals’…
We arrived at San Marco Villa with the last kilometre taking us down a stony lane so narrow that the mirrors were in danger all the way. If someone comes the other way it is a standoff.
What a paradise! I would call it a rustic resort, with brick and tile villas, lush vegetation, an old well and a pool. It is very much a family enterprise, owned by Katerina and run by young Salvatore who has impressive English from five years study in Siena. It has been in their family from 1820 and probably before, and is surrounded by citrus groves, almonds and olives.
So peaceful! But the clincher is the view from the terrace where we eat: three of the famous Greek temples and remains lie over the valley and are part of the stunning view at sunrise, sunset and lit at night. Truly incredible.
We gratefully settled into our two roomed villa and headed for the terrace for the welcome banquet that night. Oh my goodness! Four courses of delectable Sicilian food and wine that we will never forget. I have a small appetite these days but I gave it a good go.
Antipasto platter, a pasta dish with huge prawns and roast tomatoes, main dish of swordfish, roast potatoes and salad, and (thankfully) luscious watermelon to finish. Pretty good way to end a big day, watching the sun set on the temple and the lights come on.
Keen to see what we came for, we were up early to head to the Valley of the Temples. There was, however, no hurrying breakfast, which was another sumptuous feast, interrupted by peacocks and dogs.
Information is often very confusing in Italy, but somehow we found an entrance and set off, already hot, up the hill through the massive park of ancient structures. I was determined not to collapse, so we were prepared with litres of iced water, snacks, hats and worked our way via every scrap of shade. It was just marvellous even though it was uphill for nearly 3km and then a roll downhill to return. Rocks, stones, columns around every corner and the main structures so breathtaking.
‘Archeological wonders in a dream setting’ is the description of the UNESCO site of 5th century BC Doric temples. Rediscovered in 700, the highlights are the temples of Heracles, Juno and Dioscuri, but nothing trumps the splendour of Concordia on top of the final hill. Peter was giving me a boost from behind as we toiled upwards, but it was worth it. Concordia is used as the symbol of UNESCO, so it looks very familiar.
Because it was restored as a Greek church in the 6th century, this building of perfect proportions has been well looked after.
In front is the broken statue of Icarus, donated by a Polish artist. The body attracts the selfie takers and a certain part is stroked hopefully for fertility.
We made it back with the good old Aussie wet handkerchief on my neck – I was past caring what I looked like.
What a day! The templi are what we came for, and the stunning setting is indescribably beautiful. We can sit in our garden here and look at Concordia all day over the olive and orange trees and the sea beyond. We must be in Sicily.
I love the menagerie at our BnB – peacocks strut, dogs bark, pigs screech, geese honk and a donkey brays. Chooks, goats, birds, guinea pigs and more. It does mean an early wake! Blond Hugo,the youngest of the clan, who is about two, totters around with the adults until late at night, helps in the almond grove and pulls on the awning ropes on the terrace. He is the centre of attention in the entire family.
Peter asked two of the brothers if he could draw them, even though he doesn’t have drawing materials with him. They turned out well, and they were chuffed. Vincent, their dad, wants to get them framed. I love seeing Peter keep his hand in.
While Peter draws, I write.
The dogs sit hopefully at the meal tables, lie in the baking sun or bark at imaginary threats. It’s all part of the ambience of Villa San Marco. No rules (swim or drink any time), go anywhere, no checking of passports, hardworking people who enjoy life together, sing while they work and laugh a lot. Just delightful.
The historic centre of Agrigento nearly did us in. We found the cathedral, which is impressive but (in our opinion) wrecked by an over the top Baroque alcove behind the altar. There was a large group of teenage school kids there, being taught by an optimistic tour guide with a very piercing voice. I was happy to see some cultural education going on, but the teacher in me recognised a familiar degree of disengagement.
The only entrance to the duomo was a long set of unforgiving steps without a handrail, or a ramp road that was so steep it looked like the finish to a Tour de France race. My muscle memory must be spectacular now! Just getting up to the entrance was our pilgrimage for the day.
That was when we came unstuck. Thinking it was a brief walk from the duomo, we set off to Santa Maria dei Greci, also on our list. We went the wrong way somewhere, and kept going down and down,which means going back up and up! Peter gallantly climbed back up to get the car, but that was only the start of the challenge, as the lanes got narrower and cars and bikes came the wrong way up, requiring reversing and handbrake feats with about an inch to spare. We want to return this hire car without a scratch! So far so good.
Our maps would not work, so we just had to inch our way through the maze and hope we would emerge somewhere drivable without taking the trusty Panda down ancient stone steps. Without a map, we ended up heading for the next town on the coast on the highway, wondering how to turn around and how to find lunch.
That was when we saw a huge, brand new shopping centre! Found ourselves in a shiny new food court including Burger King and upmarket fashion shops. A world away from the ancient historic centre, but the anchovy and tomato pizza was luscious, and with free wifi, we hung around while Peter followed the cliffhanger footy match at home. Our boys support Carlton and Melbourne, so it was a ripper of a match right to the end.
I knew when we left home that there would be some adventures, but I don’t need one every day.
You would think we had learnt our lesson, but no, we went back for another try to find the Maria’s Greek church – after all, we had paid for both! Santa Maria bestowed a miracle on us, and we parked in a good spot, with only a short clamber down to the church.
Although we have visited a lot of churches on this trip, Santa Maria dei Greci is my absolute favourite. Simple and elegant, and renovated with a glass floor showing the Greek foundations that go back to Athena and the crypt below. I don’t need to be in a church to feel near to God, but some are like the Celtic thin place, where one senses like a spiritual connection.
The Bible was open at the daily reading – 1 Timothy 2 – and when the church was empty, Peter stood at the lectern and said the benediction, in shorts, t-shirt and hairy legs! So good.
Perhaps we are using some sense at last, and spend the blistering afternoons napping and reading until it is cool enough to go out in the garden. We have not seen a mosquito yet and we don’t miss them.
This blog only tells some parts of our adventures. Finding food is a constant challenge, and we pick up bits and pieces whenever we see them. There is no supermarket, and it is too difficult to find restaurants at night, so eating when we are out works the best. We never go anywhere without bottles of water, nuts, fruit and muesli bars, which save me from drops in blood sugar.
We have been living out of suitcases for five weeks now, so laundry is an issue. Sometimes we have access to a machine, but mostly it is washing in the shower, which is not ideal. It all takes time.
And then there is technology. With four devices and two boosters, we have to charge all the time, check settings when we go out (Vodaphone was charging us roaming when we had it turned off – had that refunded), pull up maps of destinations so that they work offline (sometimes they don’t), WhatsApp the family when we can, and, of course, stay up with social media. We don’t need TV, which is all Italian anyway.
We have made the choice to be independent travellers away from the popular spots, and love it.
With one day left in Agrigento, we tackled the archaeological museum, which actually abutted our accommodation. It turned out to be well presented and very engaging, with lots of English descriptions. We are staying right in the middle of the area where finds go back past the Romans and the Greeks to Palaeolithic times. Settlement and wars, civilisations and religions come and go, and I wonder who will walk around here in another few centuries, wondering how we built freeways and apartments!
We waved farewell to the temples on the ridge as we drove out; magical memories and a big leap in my knowledge of ancient history.