July 6, 2019
“Things are about to get interesting”, I mutter to myself. I am waiting at the Avis office in downtown Palermo. My taxi ride here left a big impression. Aware, as I was, that at the end of this ride I would pick up my rental car and driving across Sicily, I paid close attention to the local rules of the road. Here are some observations; lanes are suggestions, driving is tailgating, pedestrians should get out of the way, unless on a crosswalk, and then stop only if you can’t pass on the side by inches, turn signals are purely decorative, the tonsils of Italian cars, drive as fast as you can get away with at all times, that other car will surely stop, and roundabouts are a show of how big your balls are. Seems straightforward enough. The rental office directs me across the street, where a gentleman who looks anything but official points to a gaggle of cars parked on the sidewalk in front of a petrol station. That’s his job, he points. Unable to fully open the door, I squeeeeze into my Fiat. Pulling off the bandage I make an aggressive, boarding on dangerous, move out into Palermo traffic. And away we go.
Once outside the city, signs of life recede, replaced by rolling hills, a quilt of straw, green and brown. The road is rarely straight, taking constant twists and turns. I’ve never been here but it feels right. And hard to miss, it looks like parts of Southern California. The towns advertised from highway signs are a parade of surnames familiar from my Brooklyn childhood. I stop at the side of the road, the Sicily version of a rest area. The inside does a good job imitating an old school ice cream parlor. Instead of chain fast food, the offerings look as though I wandered into a gourmet Italian specialty shop. I choose the individual focaccia pizza for my lunch. It’s divine. It’s so good I am angry. I have driven cross country 4 times, sat starving and defeated in my car forced to play chain roulette; Subway, Taco Bell, Dairy Queen, or McDonald’s? I imagine myself hooded, emerging from the storm, “Dear people of America, why are you eating this, when you can have…” I produce a focaccia pizza, “BEHOLD!!”.
On my way to rendezvous with family in Syracuse, I’ve decided to stop and explore Argigento. Especially, the Valley of the Temples. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I declined the Avis GPS already prepared to use my cell phone. Somehow this doesn’t stop the car’s GPS from suddenly kicking in at my arrival in Agrigento. I don’t figure out till later that the two were warring, my phone sending me to the Valley, the car GPS trying to redirect me back to Palermo. As a result, I get lost and drive up into the town, climbing the windy cobbled streets in a confusing zigzag pattern. I pause driving down a very narrow street when a car meets me driving in the opposite direction. The driver screeches to a halt steps one foot out of his car and unleashes a barrage of curses accompanied by an emphatic shaking of his hand. I’ve driven down the street the wrong way. An old woman approaches me from the driver’s side and begins to bang her cane on the top of my car. Making friends. While liberally dispensing “mi dispiace” and “scusi!” I reverse back the way I came. A small crowd gathers to watch.
If you look on a map you’ll see Agrigento is on the Southern coast of Sicily, angled slightly west, facing Africa. The Valley of the Temples sits on a plateau raised from the sea, but only halfway to the hilltop cluster of the town proper. The temples were constructed by the Greeks in the fifth century B.C. At the time, Argigento was the third largest Greek city after Athens and Syracuse. If I understand it correctly, 15 temples were constructed on this natural ledge as protection and intimidation against would-be invaders from the sea. Sicily changed hands and with it, new influences added to the valley. The Romans added statues. The Christians built catacombs here. During my visit production seems to have moved in, parts of the valley are draped in red fabric. When I inquire what movie they are shooting, a PA replies with judgment and annoyance, “It’s a fashion show from Milan”.
To say it’s hot is an understatement. I grab my guided tour headset, map, and a bottle of water and I am off. Salamanders are my companions. The tour begins at the Temple of Juno, wanders past the Ancient Wall, The Temple of Concordia, The Temple of Hercules, the Temple of Zeus, and so on. A soft tan hue extends in columns and rubble across the valley. I scramble over rocks, trudge down dusty trails. Many of the temples have crumbled with one proud pillar surviving as a sentry. The temples project boldness, austerity, and artistry. In front of each ruin a detailed placard on the means of construction and architectural advances that helped erect the holy relics. Balanced on the dilapidated wall of what once was, gazing out at the sea, I am touching time.
The heat of the day guarantees sparse crowds. I’ve drunk my bottle of water entirely and I’m not even halfway through. I only register some of what my audio tour guide is telling me. I am content to wander among ancient ruins. To dream about civilizations gone by. Amongst the remains of The Temple of Zeus lies the “sleeping giant”. Once standing tall inside, a symbol of Atlas holding up the world, the stone goliath now rests gently on it’s back. One fantastical tale tells of greedy looters who came to rob the giant, only to be unable to transport. He feels alive to me. I think about all he’s seen and heard and what thoughts percolate inside his stone head. I think how nice it must be to lie down in the Sicilian sun after the weight of the world on your shoulders for all those years.