Saturday, July 23, 2011

Vamsee's list of Must-See Places in the World - Valley of Temples, Agrigento, Italy

There are many reasons why people travel - to see new sights, to experience different cultures, to take a break from work, to taste different cuisines, to write / photograph and sometimes just for the heck of it. Whatever be the reason for my travel, I always find myself looking for that one experience, that one view or that one place that totally takes my breath away. That one place that is so incredibly beautiful that it leaves you speechless. That one unforgettable experience that is so extraordinary that you can't stop talking about it or that one fabulous view that is etched in your brain forever. That one "WOW, THIS IS AMAZING" is why I am addicted to travel. I am not saying that this place should be one of the best sights in the world, just that you should really love it at that time. A trip without such moments is always incomplete for me. I guess this is true in everyday life too. You don't have to win a lottery or get a promotion every day, but it makes your day when something exciting happens - a great meeting, a nice movie, a good book, tasty meal, fun with the family - anything that breaks the routine and makes you smile.

On our trip to Italy last summer, I had plenty of such nice moments. Having done the Rome/Florence/Venice tours in a previous trip, a group of friends decided to go off the beaten track to Sicily. Sicily, the small island in Southern Italy packs quite a punch. Stunning seascapes, volcanic islands, tall mountains and historic sites from Greek and Roman periods - all nicely wound into one compact island. This post is about Agrigento, a city in the southern coast of Sicily. It is the home of the famous Valle dei Templi - Valley of Temples. A world heritage site, this place boasts of some of the most well preserved Greek ruins.

We reached Agrigento after a long drive from Mt. Etna. We stayed at Villa Diana, a beautiful farmhouse. Our room was giant with a huge balcony overlooking their olive farm. I loved the sunny yellow color Italian colors in the room so much so that I decided I would have similar tiles if I ever build my own home. The picture on the side is from their website. Dario, the host was a sweet man who directed us to Restaurant Kokalos where we had one of the best meals in Sicily. I ordered a pizza made of mozzarella di bufala and it was divine. Mozzarella di bufala is a speciality of Southern Italy and is considered to be of higher quality than cow mozzarella. Purists swear that once you have Buffalo mozarella, you can never go back to cow cheese. I am no connoisseur and all I can tell is that Buffalo or cow, every order of cheese we had in Italy smelt and tasted amazing. Breakfast next morning included a tasting of farm fresh olive oil. Toast a piece of bread add some warm olive oil and salt and pepper. If the olive oil is of good quality, this simple dish can be yummy!

Ruins are not my thing. I love historic sites, but ruins are a bit too much or to be more precise, they are too less. I need a full intact structure to appreciate. Don't give me a piece of pottery and ask me to marvel at a civilization that produced them. My imagination is just not that good. For that reason, I have never wanted to go to Athens to see the Acropolis. Coliseum was nice , but I did not spend more than an hour in it. I spent even less time at the Palatine hill and the Roman Forum. Given that, I was a little worried if I would be bored at the Greek ruins. But I am constantly amazed at how travel changes my views and interests. Years ago, I used to think birding was boring. 'Nature is not my thing anymore.....I declared one year'. Earlier in the trip, I told friends that I am not big on sculptures, but I was blown away by what I saw at the Galleria Borghese in Rome. This time too, I was pleasantly surprised by how I felt.

The archaeological site of Valle dei Templi contains the remains of seven temples from the 5th century BC. I walked around while the audio guide narrated the violent history of Agrigento. The city changed hands from Greeks to Romans to Arabs to Normans. Every invasion would destroy the city but it managed to re-built itself multiple times over the centuries. Proximity to North Africa made it an important city for trade. Agrigento went through its most prosperous period in the 5th century when the temples were commissioned. The site is located on the hill with views of the Mediterranean sea to one side and city to the other side. The temples were built in the Doric style of Greek architecture and all faced east so that god's statues could be illuminated by the rays of the rising sun. First few temples were burnt down during wars and were in ruins, but the most impressive site was the temple of Concordia. It was the best preserved temple in the valley and WHAT a sight it was!!.

A classic Greek structure with tall symmetrical columns, it withstood the vicissitudes of man and nature. This was truly a 'wow' moment. I could not help but wonder about the technology in 5th century BC that allowed them to build such amazing structures. How did they transport such heavy material, how did they place these stones on top of each other and most important of all - how they build them so strong to last thousands and thousands of years. We spent several hours in the complex and the entire time, I was in awe of the monuments.

If you look carefully, you will notice that the pillars are narrower at the top to make the structure taller. There are many more optical illusion tricks that the architects used to ensure that the visitor sees a straight image even when he is at a distance.

Practical Information

Best time to visit : April-Oct. Summer is the best time although it can get very hot in July and August.

How to get there: There are a lot of cheap flights within Europe these days. Flight time is about 2 hours from Rome to Palermo or Catania. You will need to rent a car or take public transportation to get there. Sicily has a much better bus network than a rail network.

Getting Around: Renting a car is the easiest way.

If you have a car like we did, stay at Villa Diana, a beautiful farmhouse. Ristorante Kokalos has wonderful Sicilian food with a backdrop of the illuminated valley of temples.