Category: Travel

Awed in Agrigento

Hubby and I are just back from a trip to Sicily, highlighted by four nights in a lovely B&B with a view of the Valley of the Temples at Agrigento. If you’re not familiar with this site, well, you’re not alone. I suspect it’s one of most under-appreciated places in the world — a true candidate for one of the Seven Wonders. The Valley boasts a complex of enormous temples built in the fifth century BCE when the area was a Greek colony. (The Parthenon in Athens was built around the same time.) It’s the largest archaeological site in the world.

At the Valley's best-preserved temple, dedicated -- I'm guessing -- to Athena

At the Valley’s best-preserved temple, dedicated — I’m guessing — to Athena

We entered the archaeological park (10 euros to get in) from the lower end. The first temple we encountered, traditionally ascribed to Castor and Pollux, has only four columns and a corner standing. But as I walked up to the towering reconstructed remains, the beauty of the architecture and the immensity of its purpose brought tears to my eyes. It’s unclear now which deities were worshiped in which temples in the Valley, but votive offerings to Demeter and Persephone show they were important in this zone, and despite extensive robbing out of the structures for Dark-Ages building projects, the sacred atmosphere lingers.

The largest of the temples, in a very poor state, is firmly connected to Zeus. Next up the hill comes Hera’s sanctuary, followed by the best preserved temple, called Concordia (a Roman name, not Greek). Oddly, I haven’t read any theories about which deity it celebrates, but knowing that Roman cities typically had their main sanctuary dedicated to Jupiter, Juno and Minerva, my guess is “Concordia,” juxtaposed by temples to Zeus and Hera, was dedicated to Athena. 😉

If, like me, you’re a lover of sacred places, Agrigento is a pilgimmage I can’t recommend strongly enough. Also, if you’re interested in Hellenistic religion (and romance!), please check out my time-travel adventure Templum.

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Hubby and I gave up cable TV a few years ago, so when we channel-surf, we depend on old-fashioned free-to-air entertainment. Recently, on Cozi TV, an old Rock Hudson movie called Come September caught my eye, because it was set in Rome, and you know how I love Rome. 😉 In one of the opening scenes, Gina Lollobrigida was even speaking Italian.

Picnic at Ostia Antica from the Rock Hudson film Come SeptemberHudson’s character is a filthy-rich American who owns a villa outside of Rome that he only visits one month out of the year (September). Lollobrigida is the Italian girlfriend whom he neglects as much as his villa. One year he shows up in July, surprising both the girlfriend, who’s about to marry another guy, and the villa caretaker, who has been running the property as a hotel eleven months out of the year. Adding to the fun, a group of college co-eds that includes Sandra Dee is staying at the hotel, and a group of young guys whom Hudson won’t allow in his house decides to pitch tents outside the gate. (Take that as you will.)

If you’re an archaeology buff like me, the key scene is when practically the whole cast stops to picnic among Roman ruins. The setting looked familiar to Hubby and me, and at first we thought it might be the Palatine Hill, but we soon recognized the area as the main Forum at Ostia Antica outside of Rome near Fiumicino airport. They also show a little (we think) of the baths area off the Forum of the Heroic Statue.

If you’ve read my archaeological mystery/romance The Five-Day-Dig, you may remember that in it Chaz wants to get to Ostia to study temples there for his PhD thesis. I’ve also posted here before about the ancient city, which is almost as well preserved as Pompeii, though not quite as extensive. Ostia doesn’t have bodies like Pompeii, but unlike its more famous rival, some of its multi-story buildings have survived the millennia.

To learn all about Ostia, visit (I’ve spent hours on this site, clicking around the interactive map of the city, which the site somewhat confusingly calls a “Topographical Dictionary.”) For Come September on DVD, click here. Lollobrigida won a Golden Globe for her performance.

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Sogno di Bella Iialia

This morning I dreamed of being somewhere in Italy in a seaside town built on ancient Greek foundations. Some older guy invites my cousins and me in to see his house. (Presumably my cousins are there because when we were teens, our families used to vacation together at the Jersey shore.) Parts of the house are ancient, the guys Nice-size kitchen in this Pompeian house, but the dead body in the next room is a turn-offtells us, and it’s full of other tourists. I don’t want to go in, because I suspect he’s going to gouge us somehow at the end, plus I’m only wearing a bikini and feel conspicuous, but my cousins run right in, so I follow. I look enviously at other visitors’ shopping bags full of new clothing, wishing I could put something on, and am too distracted to notice much else of interest in the house (if there is anything). We make it through without being asked for money, possibly because it’s so crowded that we leave unnoticed.

Obviously, this was inspired by my exuberant exclamation last night to Hubby of “Let’s buy a 2,000-year-old villa in Italy!” (I’m not sure such buildings are available, but I imagine there are plenty of houses there with 2,000-year-old foundations.) His response: “It would probably need a lot of work.”

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At one point in my archaeological mystery/romance, The Five-Day-Dig, Chaz speculates that the building he and Winnie are excavating is an ancient purgatorium, like the one (shown below) that visitors to Pompeii can see on the grounds of the Temple of Isis. A purgatorium isn’t as scary as it first may sound. The name has the same root as the word purge, and this type of building was used for ritual cleansing with water from the Nile — sort of a pre-Christian baptism.

Though Isis is an Egyptian goddess, her worship spread to ancient Greece after Alexander conquered Egypt in the fourth century BCE. From there, the goddess reached the Roman Empire. At the time of Vesuvius’ big eruption in the year 79, she was a popular deity, and her temple in Pompeii is the best-preserved one in town. An inscription records that it had been rebuilt after an earthquake about a decade before the eruption.

What made Isis so popular in the Greco-Roman world? Well, she is often pictured with baby Horus — a mother-and-child image that many people are instinctively drawn to. Her mythology as the reassembler of her murdered husband’s body parts also paints her as a devoted wife and connects her to the idea of resurrection and eternal life. She was also a patron deity of sailors, an important occupation in the ancient economy.

The original paintings and sculpture from her temple in Pompeii are now a half-hour away by train in Naples at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale. Wouldn’t you know that Hubby and I missed them while we were there? But that gives us a reason to go back. 🙂

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Il Vulcano Buono, where Winnie goes shopping after learning she’ll be in Italy for two extra weeks in my book The Five-Day-Dig, is a real mall in Nola, outside of Naples. The vast circular structure is designed to look like Mount Vesuvius, the volcano that destroyed Pompeii in the year 79, but instead of holding magma, gases and ash, it contains shops, restaurants and a multiplex theater.

It’s a funny idea, but building a mall that looks like a volcano within striking distance of a real one is tempting fate, isn’t it? The mall’s name means “The Good Volcano” in Italian. Not sure if it implies that Vesuvius is, in contrast, bad, but Vesuvius has made the region fertile, rich, beautiful and culturally fascinating and only creates chaos once in a while. Do you really want to insult it? Maybe the architect figured the place will be buried someday anyway, so why not embrace destiny?

Highlights (if I were going) include Pit Stop Ferrari (racing swag!), Guess, and Miss Sixty Energy – but if I had an unplanned extended stay in Italy and needed clothes, I would probably end up shopping at the H&M, because I’m cheap. 🙂

I haven’t been there personally – too many ancient ruins in the area for me to find time for shopping – but if you have the time and inclination, the web site (in Italian only) is here.

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