One of the unexpected lessons of travel is discovering how much of what we think of as “modern” is actually as old as civilization itself. So, for example, if you think today’s mania for lifting weights and going to the gym is something new, think again!
As one of the exquisite mosaics from a 4th Century Roman Villa (Villa Romana del Casale) stunningly shows, women of wealth and leisure were toning their bodies, in bikinis, no less, centuries ago. Equally remarkable, artists – reputedly from North Africa – were capturing the lifestyles of the rich and famous – hunting scenes, children’s games, nautical travel, animals, birds, flowers, etc. – in three-dimensional mosaics on the floors of a vast series of buildings, perhaps a country house or hunting lodge, belonging to a wealthy and important Roman. The villa, south west of Piazza Amerina, was in use until a 12th Century mudslide covered and preserved it all. Only in 1950 was it discovered and did excavations – still ongoing — begin. The quality of these mosaics and the insight they provide into upper class Roman life – which in many ways is similar to the lives of the rich and famous today — makes the site unique.
Sicily overflows with Greek and Roman ruins. The question is, do you want to immerse yourself in them all or be more selective? There are two major archeological sites along the southwestern coast of Sicily alone: Agrigento and the Valley of the Temples; and Selinunte. For most travelers, one is enough, and my choice of the two would be Agrigento. Although I have to say I was astonished to find a 5th Century B.C. bathtub among the many fascinating ruins in the archeological park of Selinunte. (see above)
Agrigento – Valley of the Temples
However, very little equals the seven sandstone Doric temples (5th Century B.C.) of Agrigento, once one of Sicily’s richest and most powerful Greek cities. Not only are they the best-preserved Greek temples in the world, but they are beautifully situated on a high ridge above the coast, visible day and night. If you go, try to arrange your visit so that you can be in Agrigento close to sunset.
I was surprised and impressed by Sicily’s string of sandy beaches and lovely little beach towns along the southwestern coast. Formerly impoverished fishing villages, they now reflect Sicily’s rising middle class and are largely inhabited by Sicilians with second homes. In recent years, the most famous seaside town is Porto Empedocle, birthplace of mystery writer Andrea Camilleri, and home to his middle-aged Inspector, Salvo Montalbano. Montalbano, like Sherlock Holmes, has solved crimes in more than twenty detective novels (and a hugely popular TV series), and is deliciously Italian. Which is to say that he roams the area looking for bad guys and good meals. The TV series was filmed in Porto Empedocle, and the village is awash in English and German fans of the detective, and all things Montalbano.
Marsala, Mozia, and Segesta
On our way to the photogenic salt flats near Trapani, where sea salt is still being dried and harvested by centuries old methods (and can be purchased in my neighborhood Italian specialty store), we stopped briefly in the lovely city of Marsala, at Sicily’s western tip. Historically, aside from the desert wine that carries the city’s name, it’s famous for being the place where the drive to unify Italy, known as the Risorgimento, officially began. On May 11, 1860, Giuseppe Garibaldi, a general and politician, landed in Marsala – with his red-shirted “thousand” – and launched his drive to oust the Bourbon rulers from southern Italy and Sicily, a drive that, though it took years more, ultimately succeeded.
East of Trapani, amidst a verdant countryside, lie the ruins of Segesta, which is worth seeing for one reason, the setting of its Doric Temple, especially viewed from above, near the ruins of a small Greek theater.
We stayed overnight at a resort owned by the Firriato Winery, where we enjoyed a wine tasting and breathtaking views of the landscape.
Then it was on to the walled, medieval city of Erice, overrun by tourists, but with a panoramic view of the land and sea, as well as a neo-Gothic church, Chiesa Madre, austere on the outside but soaring and light filled on the inside, with pastel colored filters highlighting its filigreed ceiling.
Photos by Eleanor Foa Dienstag
See Part One: East Sicily and the Ionian Coast , Part Two: Siracusa, and Part Three: The Southeast in Eleanor’s series, Surprising Sicily.
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