Nestling among the wilds of the Sicilian landscape, close to Agrigento, the Valley of the Temples comes as a surprise. Sicily is unmistakeably Italian: I had explored hilltowns and Roman remains, and spent long evenings with Italian food and wine. But here I was, in a pocket of ancient Greece, surrounded by Doric columns and camera-toting Japanese tourists.
Classical Landscape Of The Valley Of The Temples
Most visitors are aware of Italy’s long history, but Sicily’s Greek legacy is less well known. The city of Agrigento was one of the most important Greek colonies in the 6th century BCE, and this area has some of the best preserved Greek remains outside of Greece itself. Much of the Greek heritage still lies underground, but the Valley of the Temples, just outside modern Agrigento, has been excavated and is one of Sicily’s main tourist attractions. The temples were partially destroyed by the Carthaginians, restored by the Romans and then damaged by a mixture of human and seismic activity.
Today you can walk among the remains of seven temples, all facing east towards the rising sun. This is in fact not a valley, but a ridge, and the temples are perched on the hillside, creating a dramatic classical landscape. Beyond the temples are the remains of a necropolis.
The ancient city of Agrigento and the Valley of the Temples became a World Heritage Site in 1997, one of seven UNESCO sites in Sicily. This is partly because of the importance of the town in classical times, but also a recognition that the very well preserved row of Doric temples is one of the most important Greek monuments in the world.
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We left the tour groups to their exploration and went in search of another remarkable site, the Kolymbetra Garden. Sunk into a basin in the Valley of the Temples, the basin was created around 500 BCE for irrigation purposes. In later centuries Arabic settlers planted the area with citrus trees. The garden became known as a place of beauty and reflection and throughout the centuries it inspired Roman and Italian poets including Virgil and Pindaro. More recently it has featured in works by the playwright Pirandello and the detective novelist Andrea Camilleri.
For us it was a place of calm. We had the garden almost to ourselves and we spent some time wandering through the olive and citrus groves, admiring the freely growing cacti and succulents, and picking our way between ripe oranges and limes that had fallen to the floor.
But finally it was time to leave this Arcadian idyll. We bid farewell to the garden and the Greek ruins and went in search of some very Italian pasta for lunch.