So, there we were on Monday morning at Palermo train and bus station, clutching our remaining possessions to us, not sure what else the robbers might home in on – the clothes off our backs, perhaps? Or was the university medical school short of bodies for dissection? (It did not help that I had taken as part of my holiday reading Hilary Mantel’s The Giant, O’Brien.)
General paranoia was not helped either by the fact that each time we asked where the bus for Agrigento left from, we were told to go somewhere else, and when we had found what we hoped was the right spot, we were told to get on the wrong bus. Were people with incorrect information trying to be helpful, or was there a regional conspiracy to demoralise us into weeping jellies (something that was superfluous in my case as it had already happened)? An additional touch of gallows humour (for Camilleri fans) was that the bus we wanted was run by the Cuffaro family – I wonder if they have been blessed or cursed since Commissario Montalbano became a household name?
Once aboard the right bus, things began to look up a bit, not least because we were leaving Palermo and weren’t returning. The trip to Agrigento took two and a half hours, and deposited us at another bus station, after which (with the usual Sicilian muddle about buying/validating tickets) we found ourselves deposited in the Valley of the Temples, a short walk from our hotel. This turned out to be an isolated complex, almost like one of those gated communities I had previously tended to despise, with its own (superb!) restaurant, a spa, a gym and a swimming pool – altogether not the sort of place in which the Hedgehog ménage usually fetches up, but just what I needed after the excessive excitements of Palermo.
Pindar (though one has to bear in mind that he had been commissioned to write) describes the Greek city of Akragas as the most beautiful on earth: φιλάγλαε, καλλίστα βροτεᾶν πολίων, / Φερσεφόνας ἕδος, ἅ τ᾿ ὄχθαις ἔπι μηλοβότου / ναίεις Ἀκράγαντος ἐύδματον κολώναν (Pythian 12). It was the colony of a colony: Gela, on the south coast of Sicily, had been founded about 688 BCE by a band of Athenians and Rhodians, and after less than a century felt strong enough to send an expedition westward up the coast. (The name comes from the two rivers which flowed round the plateau on which they settled, the Akragas and the Hypsas.)
The colony flourished in its early years (its population is estimated at between 100,000 and 200,000 in the early part of the fifth century), but in 406 BCE it was sacked by the Carthaginians, and the shrunken surviving settlement then became piggy-in-the-middle during the first and second Punic Wars. Finally, it became Roman property in 210 BCE and was renamed Agrigentum. It flourished as a Greek-speaking city of Roman citizens until the fall of the western empire, when its proximity to the sea made it vulnerable to attack: probably for this reason, the town centre was moved to the nearby acropolis during the Byzantine period, and most of the abandoned ruins, though robbed of stone, were never built over.
Eventually, in 828, the Saracens captured the acropolis; 200 years later the Normans drove out the Saracens, but throughout the medieval period the town continued to decline. It welcomed Garibaldi enthusiastically when he arrived with his Thousand followers in 1860, though much of his support came from those who wanted an independent Sicily rather than unification with Italy.
The Valley of the Temples is a bit of a misnomer, because most of the magnificent ruins are on a ridge. The whole area (much of which is still unexcavated) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with the usual notices about the patrimony of all mankind which worked so well in Palmyra. The archaeological museum, situated near the originally tiered assembly (ecclesia) of the Greek city, demonstrates the sweep of its history from the prehistoric period to the medieval, focusing especially on the zenith of prosperity when wonderful red-figure pottery (including the earliest image of a tabby cat I have come across) and exquisite metalwork were the norm.
I hadn’t realised that in addition to the Valley not being a valley, the traditional names of the individual temples are also mostly wrong, the result of misinterpretation of classical accounts, or just pure guesswork. But never mind that, the site is wonderful, and now full of almond trees in full blossom, as well as other remarkable plants. And the famous water resource of the ancient city, the Colymbethra, is now managed as a garden (including vegetables, historic varieties of citrus, and streamside plants) by the FAI, the Italian equivalent of the National Trust. And they also have a rare breed of goat, the Girgenti. Altogether a wonderful couple of days, and a complete contrast to the trials and tribulations of Palermo.