Sicily II – Temple Time

14th – 17th October 2017

Off to Trapani where the crazy parking and poor signage led to us almost giving up and going away but one last circle round, a bit of luck and we found it – a public car park with helpful security staff right next to the cable car that soon whisked us on a 15-minute ride up to the mountain-top town Erice, 1,750 feet above Trapani.  Spectacular views down to Trapani, it’s port and beyond, the 3 islands of the Egadi archipelago.

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On arrival Kate immediately remembered the effect of altitude on temperature and regretted her vest and shorts but bravely carried on, ignoring the sellers of large woollen wraps who clearly get good trade from people caught out the same way. Up through the gate into Erice, founded by descendent’s of the Trojans who built a magnificent temple to Venus at the top, remnants of this now incorporated into the walls of the Norman castle later built on the site.

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The views from up there were phenomenal, including views back to Mount Monaco in the distance.

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It was just as well we had checked out the views early as high cloud moved in over lunch, reducing the temperature even more. Despite it’s lofty height the town has  been conquered by Carthaginians, Romans, Arabs and Normans but has remained small and rather charming. Although touristy around the main attractions once in the steep, narrow backstreets it is a very interesting place to wander.

Back down to earth we decided we had enough time to make it to the next day’s destination so headed off via a Lidl (small chilli plant obtained) into the interior. We couldn’t believe how quiet Siciliy is in a Saturday afternoon  – we drove through a succession of villages where the busiest we saw was a tractor and an old man at the same time. Sicily was sleeping.

Not having satnav co-ordinates for our destination we took to following signposts and wasted a good 20 minutes in the small hill-town of Calatafimi – steep streets, confusing signs and interested locals – before realising we were still 4 miles away. But we got there in the end and found our way to a huge car park with beautiful views and a shuttle service to our point of interest. They were also happy for us to stay the night. We parked up to maximise the view then boarded the shuttle for the 5 minute drive to the Temple of Segesta.

Segesta was once one of the main cities of Sicily although you wouldn’t believe it now, and the Doric style Segesta Temple is a relic of that ancient city. The Temple, built in 424BC, is in a great setting although when we got there around 5.30pm it was in the shadow of Monte Barbaro. We paid for our tickets and somehow found ourselves on another bus that took us, unexpectedly, up a narrow, windy road with great views of the temple to the top of Monte Barbaro and a wonderful amphitheatre at the top.  Built in the 2nd century BC with a capacity of 4000, we took a seat and admires the spectacular panorama of mountains, plains and sea in the evening sun – what a great place for a show.

We had 40 minutes to appreciate the theatre and surrounding ruins – a bouleterion or council chamber with seating for 200 from the same period, and medieval remains of a church, mosque and muslim necropolis from the time of Norman conquest – they did get out those boys.

Back to the temple for a close up. Very evocative – from a distance it appears whole but close up it is clear that it was never finished. Great way to end the day.

We woke to a lovely day and a great view and by the time we left the car park at 9.20 it was already 26℃. Hard to believe it’s the middle of October.

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Today was a day of driving and we wanted to see the interior of the island and pass through Corleone on our way to the south coast, avoiding the motorways.

The roads were very quiet although we did see a group of men out for a ride on their horses – they were as interested in us as we were in them!

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Travelling inland we passed vineyards, neat rows of citrus trees planted in blocks, clumps of prickly pear cactus and further in, huge areas of sandy-coloured earth where the wheat had been harvested, broken by patches of recently-ploughed black earth. The road surface went from poor to dreadful, the tarmac cracked and uneven from land-slip due to slopes made unstable by erosion.

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It made for a slow drive. Close to Corleone we saw a shepherd, so different to the scene in the film – this one had his mobile phone to his ear.

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Corleone is in a great setting, an escarpment behind and a valley below, and from a distance looks very nice. It’s only as you get close and then into it that it becomes clear why the film-makers for the Godfather chose to go elsewhere – a typical working Sicilian town of apartments and little charm.

We climbed through it’s streets onto the plateau above and the road transformed into a real one – road markings and proper tarmac.  Remarkable – we assume the mobsters who own homes there drive in from the south rather than the north.

By late afternoon we were at Camping Valle dei Templi on the south coast at San Leone. The site is small but the bus stop to the Valley of the Temples is at the entrance. Just what we wanted.

Next morning we queued for 25 minutes to get into the temples then walked through olive groves up through one of the main entrances to the old city, onto the lower part of the ridge and the Sanctuary of the goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone – their cult is widespread in Sicily. Nearby 3 columns stand, remains of the Temple of Castor & Pollux.

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We went down steps into the green of the kolymbethra – now a garden in a small valley filled with 34 varieties of citrus fruits, ancient olive trees, almonds, figs and other native plants but once a large man-made lake where fish were farmed for banquets. Built by slaves who dammed the main stream and channelled other streams into it by digging out hypogea (underground aqueducts). Within a hundred years or so it had silted up and was used as a garden which has now been sympathetically restored. It was lovely to wander round and as we had paid to go into one of the hypogea, we got a bit of a tour and information from our geologist guide, Guilermo.

We put on our hard-hats and entered the 190m long hypogea, cut through the 2 million year old calcarenite rock by slaves using hand tools, the marks clearly visible in the soft white rock. Fossils of bivalves from the Pleistocene seabed were visible and in part of the passage,  undisturbed for thousands of years, stalactites and stalagmites had started to form, a rarity in a man-made chamber. At the far end, the scallop-like shells of the bivalves were joined by fossilised sea urchins. Fascinating.

Tour over we wandered back through the gardens to the Temple of Vulcan where we marvelled at the size of the stone blocks and fallen pillars

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then back through the Sanctuary into the massive tumble of ruins of the Temple of Zeus, the largest Doric temple in the western world. Luckily there were some good explanations and illustrations on boards around the site or we wouldn’t have had a clue. Lying around the site were some of the extraordinary stone giants, each nearly 8m tall, that had once stood between the pillars, their arms appearing to holdup the roof.

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On the Hill of the Temples at the highest point of the ridge, some 2km from the entrance, the half-ruin of the Temple if Juno has great views,

the beautifully preserved Temple of Concordia, protected by its conversion to a church in the 6th century AD is frustratingly cordoned off to protect it from the masses,

and the oldest of the temples, the Temple of Hercules, is a few columns surrounded by a jumble of ruins.

We wanted to visit the museum so walked up the road to the outskirts of Agrigento and the Museo Nazionale Archaelogico with its extensive displays. Great vases, clay and terracotta artefacts, pottery of course, some sarcophagus and other funerary items and one of the Giants, from the Temple of Zeus reconstructed, next to a model of the temple as it would have been.

We’d had a great day but were pretty much templed-out for now. We need a good gap before the glories of Pompei and Herculaneum.

Next day we headed inland to the Villa Romana del Casale. We were making good time until Caltanissetta where the nice fast road was suddenly closed with no trace of a diversion sign. From there the road signs stubbornly refused to point to anything except locations in the town, and the confusing layout, steep hillside and numerous multiple roundabouts meant we found ourself on a road a couple of inches wider than the van with branches attacking from every side.We looped back into the now depressingly familiar roundabouts, got lost on a cliff-edge high-rise estate, went back to the roundabouts and somehow threaded our way north to escape whilst knowing our destination was south.  Forty minutes lost in a town we never expected to visit and will now never forget.

By the time we reached the Villa we were unenthusiastic. Built in the 4th century BC it was later covered in a mudslide. We crossed the entrance courtyard and found the mud had done a wonderful job of preserving the original mosaics covering all the floors of the villa. A raised walkway took us – and  the tour groups – through the rooms giving us views down onto the most lavish late Roman mosaics in Italy. From geometric patterns to a corridor decorated with animal heads;

hunting and fishing scenes;

depictions of episodes from Homer’s Odyssey; gods and goddesses; and an 80m long hall with a floor depicting the hunting, capture and transport to Rome of exotic beasts such as ostrich, tiger, rhino and elephant.

And the unforgettable one with Roman girls doing athletics in bikini’s.

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The lighting and angles were appalling for photography but the subject matter was so good that everyone snapped away quite happily. We really enjoyed it, impressed despite our initial reticence.

By the time we left it was 4pm but Danny felt up to a couple of hours driving so we headed down to the coast and into a land of poly-tunnels. We found a campsite in the small settlement of Punta Bracetto, which consists of 3 campsites, 2 mini-markets, a couple of bars and a scattering of holiday homes around a pretty sandy cove. As we parked up the sun was setting and we walked the 100 yards through the site and onto the beach to enjoy it’s last rays.

1 thought on “Sicily II – Temple Time”

  1. Wow. Your trip is bringing back such wonderful memories of our own. Not to mention the state of the roads. We managed to block a hill town completely after a sat nav error. Punta Bracetto has a micro climate and gets its weather from N Africa – we spent Christmas at camping Coralli with some of the regulars who over winter there. Enjoying your posts.