Italy // Sicily //

Agrigento

Though handsome, well sited and awash with medieval atmosphere, AGRIGENTO is rarely visited for the town itself. The interest instead focuses on the substantial remains of Pindar’s “most beautiful city of mortals”, a couple of kilometres below. Here, strung out along a ridge facing the sea, is a series of Doric temples – the most captivating of Sicilian Greek remains and a grouping unique outside Greece.

In 581 BC colonists from nearby Gela and from Rhodes founded the city of Akragas between the rivers of Hypsas and Akragas. They surrounded it with a mighty wall, formed in part by a higher ridge on which stood the acropolis (today occupied by the modern town). The southern limit of the ancient city was a second, lower ridge and it was here, in the “Valle dei Templi”, that the city architects erected their sacred buildings during the fifth century BC.

A road winds down from the modern city to the Valle dei Templi, which is divided into two zones. The more spectacular remains are in the eastern zone – to avoid crowds come in the early morning or (in summer) for the night openings. The western zone may be less architecturally impressive, but gives more of a sense of discovery – and holds the lovely gardens of Kolymbetra.

The eastern zone

The eastern zone is unenclosed and is at its crowd-free best in early morning or late evening. A path climbs up to the oldest of Akragas’s temples, the Tempio di Ercole (Hercules). Probably begun in the last decades of the sixth century BC, nine of the original 38 columns have been re-erected, everything else is scattered around like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Retrace your steps back to the path that leads to the glorious Tempio della Concordia, dated to around 430 BC: perfectly preserved and beautifully sited, with fine views to the city and the sea, the tawny stone lends the structure warmth and strength. That it’s still so complete is explained by its conversion in the sixth century AD to a Christian church. Restored to its (more or less) original layout in the eighteenth century, it has kept its lines and slightly tapering columns, although it’s fenced off to keep the crowds at bay. The path continues, following the line of the ancient city walls, to the Tempio di Giunone (Juno or Hera), an engaging half-ruin standing at the very edge of the ridge. The patches of red visible here and there on the masonry denote fire damage, probably from the sack of Akragas by the Carthaginians in 406 BC.

The western zone

The western zone, back along the path and beyond the car park, is less impressive, a vast tangle of stone and fallen masonry from a variety of temples. Most notable is the mammoth construction that was the Tempio di Giove, or Temple of Olympian Zeus. The largest Doric temple ever known, it was never completed, left in ruins by the Carthaginians and further damaged by earthquakes. Still, the stereobate remains, while on the ground, face to the sky, lies an eight-metre-high telamone: a supporting column sculpted as a male figure, arms raised and bent to bear the temple’s weight. Other scattered remains litter the area, including the so-called Tempio dei Dioscuri (Castor and Pollux), rebuilt in 1832 and actually made up of unrelated pieces from the confused rubble on the ground. When you’ve had your fill of the ruins, make for the Giardino Kolymbetra, an enchanting sunken garden of shady citrus, almond and olive groves, with a stream running through it, set between cave-pocked tufa cliffs that once formed part of the city’s irrigation system.