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More Fun with Greeks and Romans

October 3, 2017

At just under three hours, Agrigento was at the outer limit of the distance I was willing to travel for a day trip, but I would have been remiss if I had not made a visit to the Valley of the Temples, just a short distance below that city. From the autostrada you can spy the Temple of Juno (Hera), positioned on the highest point of the site, which is not actually a valley.

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Since it was the first Sunday of the month, admission was free. But that meant the ticket booth was choked with hundreds of visitors. But the site is so large — 1300 hectares, or over 3200 acres — that once I cleared the entry everything opened up.

The site is what remains of the ancient Greek city of Akragas, and the temples were built in the 5th to 4th century B.C. The best-preserved of the lot is the Temple of Concordia, which may owe its preservation to the fact that it was consecrated as a Christian basilica in the 6th century A.D.  Underneath the rock on which it sits is a thick layer of clay that absorbs the shock of earthquakes, which also may account for its longevity. Modern scholars tend to believe that Greek engineers were aware of the shock-absorbing qualities of clay.

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The city walls fortified Akragas from the sea, and also served as tombs.

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Heracles (to the Greeks) or Hercules (Romans) was one of the most venerated of the ancient gods; the temple in his honor was destroyed by an earthquake, and only eight columns remain standing.

Sadly, the Temple of Zeus is a jumble of ruins. It would have been the largest Doric temple ever built, save for the fact that the Carthaginians sacked the city before it was finished. An earthquake finished the job. You can imagine the scale of the temple by the remains of one of the capitals that would have surmounted 60 foot high columns.

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Unfortunately, the Temple of Castor and Pollux is a reconstruction from the 1800s, as the original, built at the end of the 5th century, was destroyed by the Carthaginians, restored, then flattened again by an earthquake.

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My visit to this UNESCO World Heritage site was absolutely fascinating, and made me want to go back and study Greek history again. It’s a must on any Sicilian itinerary, even for those who aren’t Greek scholars.

Back home in Ortigia, I had one of my best meals yet, at La Vineria: Sicilian salad, followed by seared pistachio-encrusted albacore tuna, with potatoes on the side. The tuna was perfectly cooked on the rare side, and fresh as could be.

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