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Agrigento: Greek Voices in Sicily

02/25/2014 05:36 pm ET | Updated Apr 27, 2014

I could hear the voices from so many years ago when I stood in the presence of the Greek temples in Agrigento, Sicily. I had been fascinated by the tales of the Valley of the Temples and had been told, repeatedly, not to miss it. So, after two (short) taxi rides and two (long) bus rides, with interminable waiting in between, I arrived, happily, in Agrigento for a couple of days. I stayed in a beautiful hotel (Villa Athena) right in the Archeological Park which surrounds the temple masterpieces (there is a whole story, involving the mafia, about how and why permission was ever granted for the hotel to open here!), and the night-time views of the illuminated Temple of Concordia and Temple of Juno from my room are truly awesome.

I am so glad I am here in this fascinating and beautiful and sacred place. I had a great meal last night in the town in a local slow food place, Locanda di Terra, and today I had a tour of the Greek temples that survive. During Greek times (about 2500 years ago), Agrigento had 15 Temples to the gods and a population of about 200,000; it was booming metropolis, and the temples remind us of the power of Agrigento and the power of the gods. Needless to say, the temples were built by slaves, and I found it hard to imagine how the huge pillars were quarried and moved and raised in place (with the hot sun blazing and baking); many slaves, of course, sacrificed their lives for the temples. The inner temples were reserved for the statues of the gods and were accessed by the priests only; the people worshipped outside the temple, witnessing the sacrifices (only animals and no people, Michele assured me). Obviously, the temples, placed on a gorgeous hill overlooking the harbor, served to impress and warn anyone sailing by or seeking to trade or conquer. Since the Temples were so magnificent, the clear message was that 'we are important and wealthy and powerful and the gods favor us!' The excavations are on-going, with new discoveries always possible in this fabulous place.

I toured the Valley of Temples with Michele Gallo, a well-known and very knowledgeable Agrigento guide whose family has been here forever. I really enjoyed Michele's information and also found his family life interesting (his daughter, in law school in Milan, was taking a huge oral criminal law exam that day, his wife had flown there to be with her, and Michele said, "She is like most Italian children -- spoiled, spoiled, spoiled!" Fortunately, she passed the exam). Michele also refused to 1) discuss the mafia and 2) discuss

After the awesomeness of the Valley, and after a lunch at Cuspidi, a local gelato place (we each had a delicious gelato brioche, which is basically an ice cream sandwich on a homemade roll!), we went chasing Salvo Montalbano, the main character of Andrea Camilleri's detective novels, movies and TV shows (longest running show in Italy, I believe). Since both Camilleri (now in his 80s and still writing) and Montalbano (an imperfect hero in his 50's) claim Agrigento as their home, the books make reference to real places -- churches, schools, restaurants, neighborhoods, villages, beaches, etc -- so it was fun to see many of these places and to talk about the books with Michele. The books are really enjoyable and fun to read, especially because of Camilleri's humor and insightful portrayal of the eccentric Sicilian characters and customs and food.

Luigi Pirandello, best known for Six Characters in Search of an Author was also born in Agrigento, so we saw his birthplace and I learned about his story, too. According to Michele, and I have reason to believe it, Sicily inspires passion and poetry and art because of its beauty, history and complexity.

The city of Agrigento, built on at least two hills, is absolutely gorgeous. It was bombed in July and August of 1943 by the Americans (the British and the Canadians were landing at other places in Sicily at the same time), and many people were killed by mistake, including about 300 people (students, teachers, etc) who were in shelters under a school. Michele also maintained (should I believe him?) that the Agrigentans do not harbor any ill-feelings against the Americans, although he said, rightly, 'After all, history is written by the winners." Supposedly the Americans had an easier time than the British or Canadians during the landing because the way was cleared for them by 'Lucky' Luciano (from inside a US jail) who issued an order for the Sicilians to help the Americans. According to Wikipedia, 'On preparation for the 1943 allied invasion of Sicily, Luciano allegedly provided the U.S. military with mafia contacts in Sicily.'

Fortunately and miraculously, the Valley of the Temples survived.

February springtime in Agrigento is pretty marvelous, especially since the weather is comfortable, everything is in bloom, and the tourists are few. I felt very honored to be there.