Saturday, 16 June 2012

Agrigento

This morning I am writing sitting in the shade of the bimini as we motor across a calm sea with scarcely a breath of wind. Caroline and Tina are sitting on the foredeck and Kim and I are on watch, an arduous process which involves an occasional glance at the chart plotter and maybe a corrective nudge at the autopilot to counter the gentle current carrying us south.

Yesterday we spent the day in San Leone, a small and rather scruffy town with a simple little marina, not mentioned in the pilot books and therefore largely unoccupied other than by the ubiquitous ribs which seem to be de riguer for every self-respecting Italian. The reason for our stay is to see the ancient city of Agrigento and Emanuel, our taxi driver, takes us the short distance up the hillside above the port towards the Valley of the Temples. There, he hands us over to our guide, a slightly effeminate Sicilian called Lorenzo, who tells us that he learnt his English watching Coronation Street and East Enders while living in Manchester. He is dressed in a bright purple shirt, combat trousers and baseball boots, and has us rapt in attention as he recounts in animated theatrical style how Sicily has evolved over the years to become an amalgam of Spanish, Greek, English, Portuguese as well as the North African influences of Carthaginians and Moors.

 The temples are built on top of a ridge overlooking the blue sea to the South and a green valley of olives groves to the North where the inhabitants of Agrigento had lived. The first temple we visit is named after the Greek goddess Hera, also known as the Roman goddess Juno, which we feel is highly appropriate. We walk along the wide stone road where Mussolini once paraded schoolboys dressed in black fascist uniforms and exhorted them to greatness as their Roman ancestors before them. We pass the site where Pope John Paul II made his famous condemnation of the mafia, discarding his prepared speech and making a personal plea to the people of Sicily to abandon the violence of Cosa Nostra and to embrace Christ.

The most impressive building is the temple of Concordia, 13 metres wide, 39 metres long and largely intact. We find it fascinating to hear that the best preserved of the Greek temples are those that were converted to churches by the Christians and therefore maintained and cared for over the centuries, preventing their decay and destruction. In the early part of the 20th century, most of these buildings, including those at Agrigento, were restored to their pagan origins and are now preserved as Unesco world heritage sites.



The third and largest of the temples was dedicated to Zeus to celebrate victory over the Carthaginians and was a colossal monument over 18 metres high and 80 metres in length, built by captured Carthaginian slaves and adorned with sculptures of African giants (representing the defeated enemy) holding up the huge cornice. However the temple is now in ruins with few columns remaining as the Carthaginians destroyed it in an act of revenge against the Greek triumphalism and used the huge blocks of stone to build more utilitarian structures further down the valley.

The promised heat wave never materialises and instead threatening dark thunder clouds swirl overhead adding an air of drama to this spectacular setting and blowing a cooling breeze across the valley. We have dinner in a fish restaurant in the port and we vow that in Sicily we will always order Antipasti, a selection of fish dishes, some raw, some cooked, with salads and grilled vegetables.



Today we have shaped a course for the Southern tip of Sicily where once again we have a full itinerary of cultural improvement, led by Fatty armed with the girls' Lonely Planet guidebook, which complements the more nautical practicalities of the boys' Heikell Italian Waters Pilot. Tomorrow we will round the point and head North to Syracuse where we will leave Juno and head back to the UK for a rest.

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