In my attempts to reach the archaeological site of the Valley of the Temples, I end up skirting the ugly modern town of Agrigento. Built on the higher ridge and former site of the Hellenistic Acropolis, it is a wall of concrete high rises encircled by road viaducts. I struggle along one street which is lined with trucks selling fruit and vegetables whose client’s park as close as possible, seemingly oblivious to the fact that they are causing an obstruction.
It is Monday and the Archaeological Museum is only open until 1pm so I stop in the adjacent car park and head inside to buy a combination ticket which will also allow me access to the main site. There is a large collection of exhibits, including the commonplace black vases and ceramic statues given as votive offerings to the gods. One of the largest and most impressive pieces is a giant Telamon from the Temple of Olympian Zeus. Next to it a cork model of the temple assists with an understanding of the scale of the building.
Opposite the museum is the Hellenistic-Roman Quarter, the remains of houses and shops inhabited until the 5th century AD. Apart from a couple of staff making a promotional video and the guardian who is busy chatting to them, I have the whole site to myself so I can scramble around the foundation walls and examine the remains of mosaics in peace. As I leave to have lunch back in the Motorhome, the guardian beckons me over and indicates a path which leads down to the temples. I return at 1pm to find the guardian about to close the site, he wishes me luck and locks the gate behind me.
I find myself heading down some steps and following a path which cuts through an olive grove. Undoubtedly, this is the route that people would have taken 1500 years ago from their homes to the temple area. Today it’s just me and a few rabbits.
My secret shortcut ends just below the Temple of Concord, a huge preserved temple from the 4th century BC. Only up close can I appreciate the size of the 34 Doric columns. Following a line of fortifications carved into the rock, I reach the equally impressive Temple of Juno which was built on a rocky spur with a commanding view of the coast.
Retracing my steps to the Temple of Concord, I head below it and locate the Christian catacombs of Villa Igea. Tombs have been carved into the rock, some open and some still covered by heavy stone lids. It’s an eerie place, not helped by the presence of a sign warning of danger.
Next to the Temple of Hercules, a bridge takes me across the road into the western section. Here lie the ruins of the Temple of Olympian Zeus, damaged by earthquakes and attacks by the Carthaginians. Another Telamon is lying on the ground, as well as piles of column pieces with a distinctive U-shaped groove. Apparently this enabled them to be lifted by ropes, though I struggle to imagine how this actually worked. The site ends in a deep gorge filled with olive, almond, orange and pomegranate trees. It seems completely alien to the tower-block town of Agrigento which rises behind it.