Trail Of The Unexpected: The Greeks in Sicily
'Colossal Doric temples stand on a ridge staring out to sea'
Saturday 25 March 2006
I had a brush with an ancient Greek legend in the cobalt waters off Eraclea Minoa in south-west Sicily: I was stung by una medusa - or so the barman in the beach café told me, as he wrapped some ice cubes in a tea towel and pressed them onto the raised tentacle marks on my forearm. What the British call a jellyfish (how harmlessly wobbly that now sounds), the Italians compare to the snake-haired gorgon of Greek myth: far more poetic - and accurate, I thought, as I clutched ice to my reddening limb.
This was the not the only encounter I was to have with the ancient Greeks in Sicily. It was, however, the only unpleasant one. For high on a ridge above the pine forests and chalk cliffs that back the sweep of soft sand at Eraclea Minoa presides one of the many Hellenic ruins that make the Sicilian landscape so irresistibly photogenic.
From the eroded seats of the ancient horseshoe-shaped theatre above the beach you can imagine the dramas playing out in the blazing heat. According to the Greek historian Diodorus, the city was originally named plain Minoa after the Cretan King Minos, who pursued the proto-aeronaut Daedalus from Crete to Sicily, and founded a city there. The Greeks, who arrived around the 6th century BC, added Eraclea to the name.
The city was regularly caught up in border disputes between the cities of Akragas (now Agrigento, 40km to the east) and Selinus (now Selinunte, 60km to the west); what's left dates from about the 4th century BC. A tour of the site costs €2.10 (£1.50); the opening hours are 9am to one hour before sunset daily.
Pretty though it is, Eraclea Minoa is the least dramatic of the ancient sites in Western Sicily - although I admit that my scrape with the medusa may have had something to do with my desire to push on.
As you approach Agrigento from Eraclea Minoa, you pass through badly planned suburbs tumbling down to the sea, criss-crossed with concrete flyovers. But where you are headed is two-and-a-half millennia (if only a couple of kilometres) away: the Valle dei Templi (Valley of the Temples) is the most extensive and impressive Hellenic site outside Greece.
Founded by Rhodian and Cretan colonists from nearby Gela in 581 BC, this series of colossal Doric temples stands on a ridge below modern Agrigento, staring out to sea, its structures in varying degrees of disrepair. Tempio della Concordia (in the eastern zone; free entry) is the best preserved, thanks largely to the fact that it was used as a Christian church in the 6th century AD. Meanwhile, the western zone, (open 8am-7pm daily, €4.20/£3, or €6.20/£4.40 for a joint ticket with the site's archaeological museum), contains the flattened rubble of the largest Doric temple ever found: the Tempio di Giove Olimpico.
If you decide to stay on in Agrigento, make sure you secure a view of the Valle dei Templi come nightfall; the temples are floodlit from 9pm-11pm October to March; 9.30pm-11.30pm April to September.
We decided to skip the light show and head back west along the coast road to Selinunte, where our hosts at Villa Bua (01943 830 443; www.artistadventurers.co.uk) were preparing an epic meal. They had more in mind than just food: after dinner we were whisked back down the coast road to Sciacca, halfway between Selinunte and Eraclea Minoa, where a beach party was in full swing. The Greeks, too, once revelled here: Sciacca was established as a spa town for Selinus, famed for its springs and mud baths. No mud was bathed in that night, but the party continued long enough for us to take respite on Selinunte's beach the next day.
The sands at Selinunte are backed by bars and restaurants on a clifftop. From your reclined position on your towel, follow your eye along the bars to a tangle of Doric columns. It wasn't long before curiosity beat the hangover, and a stroll via one of the bars (for an ice-cold drink) led us to the gates of ancient Selinus. For €4.50 (£3.20), you gain access to two groups of temples, all of which were brought to their knees by earthquakes. Some of them have been reconstructed, and the result is dazzling against the turquoise sea. The most complete is "Temple E" (each ruin is labelled A to G, and O). Unlike Agrigento's Tempio della Concordia, which is fenced off, Temple E allows you to explore from within, along with the birds which nest high in its capitals.
A 20-minute walk down a winding road takes you to the acropolis, which dangles right over the sea. Scramble over the vast stepped walls, which were constructed after 409 BC to protect the city from the Carthaginians (North Africa is just a short sail away). Lizards scurry around the fields of rubble here, and above them rise 14 reconstructed columns - what remains of the temple of Apollo.
Selinus (open 9am-7pm daily; last entry at 6pm) was the most westerly of the ancient Greek colonies in Sicily, and a bitter rival of Segesta to the north, where a tribe called the Elymians (who claimed descent from Trojan refugees) were based, .
Segesta is a bucolic delight amid the green hills just off the main A29 autostrada from Selinunte to Palermo, comprising an exquisite, unfinished temple on the crown of a hill, and a steep, semi-circular theatre overlooking the countryside. The site is open 9am to one hour before sunset daily; entry €4.20 (£3).
While strictly speaking this is a mock-Greek site (the Elymians borrowed the style to lend elegance to their city in 424 BC), it brings a tour of Hellenic Western Sicily to a shining climax before you hop on the plane at nearby Palermo. Just make sure you've got enough photographs (and, if you're unlucky some medusa scars) to remind yourself of an epic Greek adventure.
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