My students usually roll their eyes when I tell them what I did over the weekend. Most of them are pretty sure that there are more interesting things to see in Italy than museums and archaeological parks – namely, night clubs and shopping centers.
As I explain to them, though, we have those things in the United States. What we don’t have are massive theaters that date from before the birth of Christ. Or churches built in the baroque style. Or statues made by the masters of the Renaissance. They usually – grudgingly – admit that’s true, but they still are unsure how I could spend a whole weekend wandering around places like that.
One of my extracurricular excursions, however, earned the approval of even the least historically-minded of my students: the Valle dei Templi.
Sitting just outside the city of Agrigento on Sicily’s southern coast, the Valley of the Temples has been confounding tourists for generations. Firstly, because it’s not actually a valley. In fact, it’s the exact opposite of a valley: the Valle dei Templi sits on a bluff between the modern city of Agrigento and the coast. Secondly, because it’s massive. The Valle dei Templi (vah-leh deh-ee tem-plee) is actually the largest archaeological park in the world, covering roughly 1,300 hectares (about 5 square miles). In this case, bigger does mean better. The more artifacts we have, the more we can learn about the people who used them. Furthermore, the artifacts in the Valle dei Templi – namely, temples – are very well preserved. The UNESCO website notes that in the past, some unapproved conservation tactics were engaged, but more recent attempts at restoration have largely fixed the damage that was done. The combination of the size and quality of the archaeological site at Agrigento won it a spot on the UNESCO World Heritage List, upon which it was inscribed in 1997.
Among the ruins in the Valle dei Templi are those of seven temples, which is where the site gets its name. Some of them date from the 6th century BC, when the Greeks founded a colony at Agrigento. Because Agrigento was a part of Magna Graecia at the time that the temples were built, the temples are all dedicated to different Greek deities. The Roman gods had no home here – these buildings predate the Roman Empire by a good few years.
Agrigento was, for a time, one of the most profitable of Greek colonies. Temples and economic prestige go hand in hand: if you have lots of money, you can build a large and beautiful temple; if you have, quite literally, boatloads of money, you can built a whole fleet of large and beautiful temples. That’s exactly what happened in Agrigento. Even today, when they are in effect ruins, you can see just how impressive these temples would have been, not only in size, but also in decoration. On some of the buildings, the friezes are still visible, and the columns themselves are works of art.
Visiting the park is a must-do when in Agrigento. Even the Sicilians think so – all of them will tell you to visit the Valle dei Templi during your stay in Sicily if you ask. My recommendation is this: Wear comfortable walking shoes, take water, and go later in the evening. The first is obvious, I should think. The park is about two kilometers in length, and most of it is either unpaved or gravel. Unless you want sore calves and rolled ankles, wear your running shoes. Also, in the Valle dei Templi, the only chance for refreshment you’ll get is about halfway through at a small café. Remember, while this is a place of great history, art, and architecture, it’s also a great place for tourists. Bottles of water are priced accordingly.
As for the last piece of advice: Who wouldn’t want to see the sun set over the water while standing in some Greek ruins?