The Acropolis in Athens is a potent symbol of the classical world, but the temples of Sicily, set in beautiful landscapes, can be more evocative of the power and majesty of Ancient Greece
NEED TO KNOW
LOCATION Agrigento and Selinunte are 62 miles (100 km) apart in southern Sicily, Italy
NUMBER OF TEMPLES
Agrigento: 8; Selinunte: 7
Jan: 57°F (14°C); Apr: 59°F (15°C); Jul: 75°F (24°C); Oct: 68°F (20°C)
The Acropolis in Athens, built during the Greek Golden Age (500–300 BC), is today such a dominant icon that many other fine Hellenic sites are often overlooked in its favor. More than 100 years before the Acropolis was built, the cities of Sicily were the richest and greatest in all of Magna Graecia (Greater Greece).
It was here that the first large-scale temples were erected and they can still be seen on the southwest coast in Agrigento’s glorious Valle dei Templi (Valley of the Temples) and at Selinunte. The acropolis at Agrigento, which is known as Akrakas in Greek, is now lost beneath the modern town, but a series of stunning Doric temples remain on a ridge on the southern side of the town, bringing the classical world to life.
These ancient monuments, which rise above picturesque, arcadian fields of olive and almond trees on one side and the Mediterranean coastline on the other, are a spectacular sight, especially at night, when they are atmospherically illuminated.
Of the eight monumental temples built here in the 6th and 5th centuries BC, the Tempio della Concordia is considered to be the best preserved in the world after the Theseion in Athens, and its harmony with nature is emphasized by its warm earthy colors, which change with the moving sun and shadows of the day.
The Tempio de Hera is the most romantic of the ruins at Agrigento, while the uncompleted Tempio di Zeus Olimpico, which is the size of a football field, was the largest Doric temple ever built.
Its columns included 38 giant human figures, one of which lies in repose on the site. It requires the better part of a day to visit the Valley of Temples and its other treasures, which include the agora (market place), shrines, catacombs, sacrificial altars, a villa, museums, and a church. Selinunte, the furthest west of Magna Graecia’s colonies, is as sun-bleached as nearby North Africa.
This vast archaeological site was the largest in Greece and lies between two rivers, Belice and Modione, by the sea on the edge of a fertile plain far enough from the nearest resort, Marinella, to have remained unspoiled. The site takes its name from selinon, the Greek word for “wild parsley,” which still grows in the fields of wild flowers surrounding the monuments.
Selinunte had a short life that lasted from 650 BC until its destruction by the Carthaginians in 409 BC, but it flourished long enough for an acropolis and seven temples to be constructed.
The largest of these is actually longer than Agrigento’s Tempio di Zeus Olimpico, but not as wide. Although the ruins at Selinunte are not as well preserved as those at Agrigento, these silent sentinels, by a dazzling blue sea, invite contemplation, study, and wonder.
Getting There and Around The airport in Palermo, Sicily’s capital city, receives international flights at regular intervals. It is 130 miles (210 km) from the airport to Agrigento and 125 miles (200 km) to Selinunte. If you are traveling by car from Messina, the port for ferries across to mainland Italy, it is a 260-mile (420-km) trip to Agrigento and a further 60 miles (100 km) on to Selinunte.
Where to Eat Pretty Via Panoramica dei Templi near Agrigento has several good restaurants. Trattoria dei Templi is one of the best. In Marinella de Selinunte, which is near the Selinunte ruins, have a fresh fish dish at the charming, authentic
When to Go Summer can be ferociously hot, so visit in Mar–Jun or Sep–Oct. Budget per Day for Two US$375 including rental car, food, accommodations, and entrance fees.
FORGET THE ATHENS ACROPOLIS?
THE BUILD-UP The word “acropolis” means “high city” in Greek, and most ancient Greek cities had a dominant, defendable upper town. But the monument in Athens, which sits on a rock that towers 490 ft (150 m) above sea level, is so well known that it is simply referred to as the Acropolis. Its main buildings, including the Parthenon – a temple to the goddess Athena – were built in the 5th century BC when Athens was at the height of its power.
THE LETDOWN Like many famous landmarks, the Acropolis suffers from the danger of overanticipation, and romantic Hellenophiles may imagine it without tourist buses and crowds or the surrounding chaotic city, but this is simply not the case. And what you see when you get there isn’t all real. The sculptured figures on the Erechtheum (a temple just north of the Acropolis) are copies, and of course the fascinating Parthenon frieze is nowhere to be seen – it has long been housed in the British Museum.
GOING ANYWAY? The importance of the Acropolis cannot be ignored. If you do go, be sure to visit the nearby Acropolis Museum. The avenues beneath the monument are a fine way to approach it, but avoid them in the heat of day.
4 MORE GREEK RUINS TO RIVAL THE ACROPOLIS
THE ACROPOLIS, RHODES CITY, RHODES This 2nd- to 3rdcentury-BC acropolis has an excellent location in the city center and comprises a temple, stadium, and small theater.
EMPÚRIES, CATALONIA, SPAIN A Greek sea wall in the middle of the Gulf of Roses flags this ancient trading settlement, which was founded in 575 BC and later occupied by the Romans.
ASSOS, BEHRAMKALE, TURKEY On moonlit nights romantics head for the Tempio de Athena, overlooking the sea, at this former Greek colony founded by the islanders of nearby Lesbos.
CYRENE, CYRENAICA, LIBYA One of the most important classical cities in North Africa, Cyrene, which gave the eastern part of Libya its name, lies away from the coast in a fertile valley.