For the last part of my Sicilian road trip, I headed to the southwest corner of the island. I had read somewhere that Sicily has more ancient Greek ruins than Greece itself, and after visiting Selinunte and the Valley of the Temples, I think it’s probably true. Now I wonder if I really need to go to Athens after all!?!?!
During the prior 10 days, I had traveled to three other main parts of Sicily: the Ionian Coast (including a day trip to the Aeolian Islands), the Siracusa/Val di Noto area, and the far northwest corner. Ideally I would have driven a complete circle around the island, but because of scheduling issues I had to double back a little in order to visit the Greek ruins in the southwest corner. My advice is to plan your trip a little more in advance that I did, thereby allowing you to simply drive a circle the island. Two weeks is plenty of time to see all the sites, but more time is always better!
After feeling completely let down by my accommodations near Alcamo, I left very early in the morning and drove straight to Selinunte, an ancient Greek city beautifully perched on the south-western coast of Sicily. I actually arrived before the archaeological park opened at 9am, so I stopped for (another) cappuccino before heading to the site itself.
Selinunte is one of Sicily's great ancient Greek sites. The archaeological park itself is huge, incorporating Greek temples, ancient town walls, the ruins of residential and commercial buildings, countryside paths and parts that have not yet been excavated. The isolated ruins have stood abandoned for most of their history and their lack of later development means that today’s visitors can more clearly imagine what the ancient town of Selinus would have looked like two and a half thousand years ago!
TIP: One thing that this site had that others did not was a little electric 'train' service which runs around the site on a couple of different-length itineraries. This is great for anyone with mobility issues, but of course I walked so that I could avoid the crowds and wander aimlessly alone at my own pace.
Founded in the seventh century BC by Greeks, this town probably reached its peak in the sixth and fifth centuries BC, the era when its grand temples were constructed. After earthquakes shook the buildings to bits in the Middle Ages, the site of Selinus was forgotten until its rediscovery in the sixteenth century. In the early nineteenth century English archaeologists began the work of excavation, which still goes on today.
The large Doric temple known as Temple E was re-erected in the 1950’s, and unlike other temples I have seen, visitors are allowed to climb into the temple itself to get a real sense of the scale and history of the building. There are also other temples nearby that have not been reconstructed, as well as more temples (one partially re-erected) in other parts of what was once a pretty large city.
During my time walking around, I noticed some chairs and flowers being set up next to the main temple. I asked, in my halting Italian, "Oggi c'é un matrimonio?" (is there a wedding here today?), and surely enough that was the case. Can you imagine a more spectacular venue for a ceremony?
Valley of the Temples
Sicily’s Valley of the Temples (Valle dei Templi) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the greatest legacies of ancient Greece found anywhere. It is here, on the southern coast of Sicily, where you find a collection of well-preserved Doric temples which date all the way back to the fifth and sixth centuries BC!
Standing on terraced levels at the top of a plateau, with a city plan resembling a chessboard, Akragas was one of the largest Greek cities on the Mediterranean Sea. It’s a sprawling complex, even today, and was FULL of tourists when I arrived. I happened to visit on the first Sunday of the month, so my entrance was free - maybe that’s why it was so incredibly crowded. Plusses and minuses, right? At this point, I am pretty good at sneaking away from people and/or cropping them out of photos!
Many consider the Valley of the Temples to be the most enthralling archaeological site in Sicily, but based on the other ancient sites that I have visited all around the island, I believe it’s on par with many others. It definitely was the most touristy of them all, as I believe it’s on every organized tour’s itinerary of Sicily.
I was staying in a little hilltop town called Caltabellotta, which was over an hour’s drive northwest of Agrigento. While it was truly a lovely spot, I wish I had known about Hotel Villa Athena when I was making my plans. This amazing hotel is located within a 5 minute drive of the archeological park and has a straight-on view of the main temple. At night you can dine on the outdoor terrace with a view of the temple all lit up. I mean, how seriously amazing is that??? I called a few days before to see if they had availability, even for one night, and they did not. I went for lunch after visiting the archeological site and I didn’t want to leave: it was incredibly peaceful, and the food was delicious. I savored every minute of my lunch there. I didn't want to be obnoxious, so I snuck this quick photo from my table at lunch: you get the idea of how awesome a view there is from the restaurant terrace! If you are visiting the Valley of the Temples, definitely look into this hotel!
SICILY ROAD TRIP - PART FOUR: THE DETAILS
Driving from my agriturismo near Alcamo to the hilltop town of Caltabellotta would directly take about 2 hours, but I stopped in Selinunte on the way. My day trip to Agrigento took about an hour to drive each way. I didn’t do enough research, and was surprise dot find that Caltabellotta was way, way up in the hills, on a very twisty-turvy road. Again, hooray for GoogleMaps!
I stayed for 3 nights at Sotto Le Stelle (which translates to “under the stars”) in the town of Caltabellotta. This is a tiny little town, way up on the side of a mountain. It looks impossible to exist, but there it is! Giuseppe who runs the B&B will help you park your car, so don’t worry too much when you see the very narrow streets upon arrival. The owners of Sotte Le Stelle also own the only restaurant in town - MATES - which was really very good. I ate there twice in the 3 nights I stayed.
Sotto Le Stelle itself was wonderful: the house has been lovingly restored and you can tell that the family takes great pride in their B&B. The rooms are all very different (I peaked into a few). Mine had a nice little balcony off the bedroom and even a small balcony off the bathroom! The room itself was spacious, particularly for European standards. The breakfast was very good, and when I mentioned that I would LOVE to have eggs one morning, Giuseppe gladly prepared me the most delicious “savory” breakfast as a special treat. It was a really great value, and would highly recommend staying here. Note my comment about Hotel Villa Athena - definitely worth looking into for a splurge!
The same family that owns Sotto Le Stelle owns the restaurant MATES, which was around the corner and made it the easy choice for dinner in Caltabellotta. That said, I loved the food so much I ate there 2x in the 3 nights I stayed in town. The chefs (Giuseppe’s Mom and brother I think) have a few dishes they prepare and you choose from those -- i.e., there's no menu. The 2 nights I was there, I was served a selection of delicious antipasti as a starter, then had a choice of 2 dishes (pasta or risotto) as the primo piatto; a choice of 2 dishes for the main course (secondo piatto); cannolo for dessert, wine and water. Really delicious food and good value. Lovely service in a beautiful space. I highly recommend eating here.