Agrigento: Greek Sicily on an Epic Scale

If you’re not a classicist, you might not think of going to Italy to see Greek ruins. But in its heyday in the 5th and 4th centuries BC, the island of Sicily was home to many city-states founded by Greek colonists. One of the largest and wealthiest was Agrigento in the middle of Sicily’s southern coast. Archaeologists estimate that at its peak, the walled city had a population of about 200,000 to 300,000 people–four to six times the population of Agrigento today.

The Temple of Juno

Other parts of Sicily have the occasional Greek ruin, but Agrigento has an entire temple precinct. It’s located on a ridge between the modern town and the sea, surrounded by rolling countryside and dotted with old olive trees. Three temples from the 5th century BC are still partially standing, and the ruins of several others are scattered nearby.

One of the ruined temples, dedicated to Zeus, is thought to be the largest Doric temple ever built, covering an area the size of a modern football field. It was left unfinished when Agrigento was captured by the Carthaginians in 406 BC. Besides its Doric columns, the Temple of Zeus was decorated with Atlas-like carved figures 25 feet tall, set midway up the walls to help hold up the roof. The remains of one of the figures lying at the temple site, and another reassembled in the nearby archaeological museum, hint at the immense scale of the temple.

One of the original figures from the enormous temple

Agrigento’s temples and its museum full of artifacts make up one of Sicily’s major tourist attractions. Buses deposit tour groups for a whirlwind visit, often on a day trip from Sicily’s main cities. If tour groups stay in the area, it’s generally in hotels near the ruins or on the coast, ignoring the modern town. But Agrigento’s loss was our gain. Being slow travelers and being accompanied by a toddler (our friend AJ’s daughter, Francesca), we opted to stay in downtown Agrigento and found the town very pleasant and authentic.

Our rental apartment was in a former villa off the main shopping street. The big wooden door of the villa opened onto a quiet pedestrian-only alley of wide stone steps. In the evening, we emerged to the find the alley transformed into an outdoor restaurant. It became our restaurant, where we could enjoy leisurely meals of pasta and wine while Francesca played on the steps, under the grandfatherly eye of the proprietor.

Across the main street, we saw a wedding party spill out of an old church, while a small drone with a camera took aerial photos. (These seem to be all the rage at weddings in Sicily.) We strolled to the local park where Francesca joined the Sicilian kids on the playground. And we got fantastic gelato from a shop on a hillside promenade overlooking the spotlit temples below. Let the tour groups rush by; some things are meant to be savored.

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