Leif Pettersen's Travelogue

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Agrigento, Sicily

Posted on 12/14/03

Obviously, disco is very big in Agrigento.

In case you were wondering, being near the end of my journey I can say without hesitation that the worst trains in western Europe can be found on Sicily. If for whatever zany reason you care to experience what it must have been like to ride trains during frontier times, just zip over to Sicily, strap on your back brace and climb on board!

After being bounced and jerked around for four hours and almost missing an unannounced and unscheduled train switch in the middle of nowhere, I was deposited in Agrigento with my spine horribly misaligned, droopy-eyed from having had only five hours sleep, hungry and late. I was supposed to get in at a little after 7:00PM, but now it was almost 8:00PM. After studying a huge map of the city out in front of the station for ten minutes and not being able to locate Piazza San Francesco, the square where my hotel was located, I went back into the train station to call them and get directions. The phone was answered by a woman whose proficiency in the English language began and ended with the words “yes” and “goodbye,” as these were the only two words that she managed to cough up before hanging up on me. I had said in the simplest, one syllable series of words that I knew in English (actually, by this point I had become a sort of master at phrases in English that were so simple and laden with semi-universal, Latin rooted words, that I was contemplating mastering and patenting my own language for use in all international affairs so there would never be any translation screw-ups ever again) that I needed directions to the hotel from the train station and somehow she mistook this as an invitation to terminate the call. I called back and repeated my request in the most broken “Spatalian,” which of course is Spanish with an Italian accent, that I could string together. She understood me that time, but was still flummoxed about the directions part, other than to assure me that the hotel was only five minutes walk from the station. I asked if she could elaborate, to which she said “100 meters.” I dug a little further by asking if I should go right or left or just jump straight off a cliff into the sea. She told me to go right and then left. I thanked her and hung up. By taking this information and completely reversing it, I was finally able to locate tiny Piazza San Francesco on the map at the bus stop (I guess even my brilliant new universal language can’t help people that don’t know how to give directions from the most central landmark in the city to your place of business which is supposedly only 100 meters away). As I made my way to the hotel I was partially assisted by a few signs that said “Hotel Concordia” with an arrow mysteriously pointing in the wrong direction. Finally I came upon what I thought was my hotel. A sign outside the door said “Hotel,” but there was no name or any other markings and the building didn’t have an address number on it. I cautiously peered into the lobby through the glass door and saw a man behind the desk. As I had just spoken to a woman 5 minutes earlier and with no name or address number to go by, I assumed that perhaps the wrong way arrow signs were right and I had stumbled onto the wrong place. I started to turn around, but the man leaped from behind the desk sprinted out into the street behind me and asked if I had just called a few minutes earlier. He assured me that it was the Hotel Concordia and apologized for the lack of signage and addressage as he led me into the lobby, where I met the woman who had tried to give me directions earlier. She was thoroughly embarrassed and I got the impression that she was the desk clerk’s girlfriend and perhaps was just covering for him while he was in the john.

I began to ask the clerk a few questions in English. He stopped me and said “No English” and then pointed to his girlfriend, indicating that she would be able to understand me. I knew that option was fruitless, so I just passed on the questions and went up to my room. I was in a private room and I had splurged for my own shower as I was filthy and stinky from nearly a full day of travel.

Let me jut off on a tangent here for a second and do everyone a favor by passing along this warning: Do not ever, even if you are desperate, purchase Italian deodorant, because it is the least effective deodorant in the history of human existence. I’ve met people that used spirit crystals in place of deodorant that worked better than this stuff. I had reluctantly bought the useless stuff the week before in Rome. First, the Italians don’t sell the stick or roll-on deodorant for men. That stuff only goes to the women for some odd reason. The men are left with either buying women’s deodorant (I was very close to doing this) or the environment massacring spray-on kind. I desperately did not want spray-on deodorant and in the pursuit of an alternative, I went to five different stores in two cities before relenting and buying it in the absence any alternatives.

The Italian spray-on deodorant is incredibly odorous. I bought the “musk” scent. Another lesson I learned during this exercise was that Italians seem to think that the “musk” fragrance smells like bug spray. This was the smelliest, most overpowering deodorant that I had ever put on my body. My eyes watered for two minutes after every application. Despite this robust stench, for some reason it did not work at all as I discovered when I started on an unbroken streak of days sporting nasty B.O. (by my standards anyway). Before this, I could count on three fingers the number of times that I had exuded sour body odor and believe me, the circumstances were beyond exceptional. Like having not used deodorant for three days while on a canoeing/camping trip in the dead heat of July. Stuff like that. So, you can understand how surprised I was to find myself smelling none-too-pleasing for a number of days in a row, without having really emitted a significant amount of sweat to earn the offending aroma in the first place. Putting on more deodorant didn’t change anything, other than drawing an inordinate number of bees to my arm pits. So after all of this, I can tell you two things; Contrary to what I have stated before, I can in fact create disagreeable body odor under the right circumstances and Italian deodorant is about as effective as a French school for customer service, manners and etiquette.

OK, back to Agrigento. It turns out that I had slipped into town on the eve of the of the Festival of the Madonna or something like that. Even though it was a Sunday night, the streets were packed very late with people and street performers. I tried to ask the hotel staff if this festival would entail any personally inconvenient business closures on the following day and we got hopelessly bogged down in a communications collapse.

Meanwhile, I hadn’t eaten since I was served a very small and over-priced plate of the worst tortellini bolognaise in Italy earlier in the day while I was waiting for the train in Trapani. The desk clerk passionately insisted that I go to the nearby Capriccio di Mare restaurant for dinner. I was starving and couldn’t have cared less if he was getting a kick back for referring me or if the restaurant belonged to his brother or whatever. All that mattered was that it was close.

I am happy to report that the Capriccio di Mare was very inexpensive and I was served the best pizza that I have had in Italy thus far. In the effort to assure that I wouldn’t lie awake listening to my brain buzz until 2:30AM again, I had a tiny, ¼ carafe of the house white wine which was so terrible that there was no fear of me losing control and going on a bender with it. Not that I am against the concept of a bender - I have yet to gain that wisdom – I just knew that the more I drank, the less amount of restful sleep I would get and there was no way that I could afford to be drinking away restful sleep at that juncture. I returned to my room and mercifully passed out immediately.

I learned early the next morning that the Festival of the Madonna pretty much revolved around making as much noise as possible. At exactly 8:15AM they fired a goddamn cannon 10 times, from a position that sounded as if it was right outside my window (I later discovered that it was from the roof of a church about ½ block away). Then a marching band thundered down the street. Then the church bells went off for 15 minutes straight. I began to understand that sleeping late during the Festival of the Madonna was not permitted.

No matter. I had gotten nearly 10 hours of sleep and I was sort of starting to feel human for the first time since six weeks earlier in Lyon. I got up, happily downed my complimentary cup of cappuccino and headed out to take care of business. I had to find the tourist office to get the low-down on the Valley of the Temples outside of Agrigento, find an internet café so I could buy my ferry ticket from Palermo to Genoa and find potable drinking water to wash down my pastry. I had been on an commendable stretch of drinking nothing but tap water all through Europe (except in Prague). I was very proud of this. Even in sketchy places like southern Spain and all of Italy I had been guzzling the tap water and had lived to tell the tale. Like parking, water is one of those things that I absolutely refuse to pay for if it can help it. I had been forced to pay for water in restaurants a few times because for some reason they like to charge you (a lot) for water in European restaurants, otherwise I had stuck to my guns, until Sicily. Something deep inside me told me to ask before I drank the tap water back in Marettimo and I’m glad that I did. The apartment manager and the three handymen that were hanging around at the time all pitched looks of horror when I pointed at the tap and made a motion for drinking. Apparently not even the locals can safely drink the tap water in Sicily. I was happily given two complimentary liter bottles of water in Marettimo, but now I had to fork over my own money in Agrigento and try not to grind my teeth down to stubs in the process.

Seeing Agrigento in the daylight for the first time was a treat. Agrigento is a town in the midst of transforming into a big city. It’s in that gray area population-wise (55,000) where it could still go either way, but it undeniably still has a town-like air to it. The streets are narrow and downright tight in some places, yet cars are still allowed to squeeze through, forcing pedestrians to leap up into business entryways to escape having their toes crushed. The buildings are small and cozy. Everyone seems to know most everyone else as was evident by the way they looked at each other in a familiar way while they looked at me like I had two heads. I wasn’t even wearing shorts and a t-shirt!

The Festival of the Madonna appeared to be a full holiday for the town, because despite being a Monday morning the streets were packed like a Saturday afternoon. The marching band that had contributed to my unwelcome wake-up call was slowly making the rounds through the Christmas light ornamented city center, playing the same three tunes over and over. People were standing around, watching the band, shopping and staring at me.

I soon learned that Sicily’s idea of a “Tourism Information Point” consists of a large, poorly detailed map of the city with absolutely no information on what sights are where. I went to both tourism points marked on the rudimentary map that I was given in the hotel that, other than the tourist points, only highlighted the street that the hotel was on and where the Capriccio di Mare restaurant was located. One Tourist Information Point simply had a poster on the wall that gave a phone number to call for information. Up to that point, I had not run across a single person in Sicily with even elementary English skills, so I decided not to waste my time with that. The other place just had the aforementioned huge, inadequate map. The only information that I needed was whether or not the Valley of the Temples would be open during Festival of the Madonna day. With nothing to go on and nothing else to do, I decided to just follow Lonely Planet’s directions and catch the bus in front of the train station that went past the Valley and hoped for the best.

The ride was horrendous, but scenic. The bus was so packed that I wondered if we might have earned a Guinness World Record nod if the right authorities had been there to witness it. And I swear a 14 year old girl was trying to fondle my butt the whole time, to the delight of her friends. I was gratified to find that the Valley of the Temples was open. I paid for an audio guide and got started.

Tempio di Ercole

Tempio di Giunone

A long shot of Tempio di Giunone

The Valley of the Temples is one of the primary Greek archeological sites in the world. Structures have been found all over the valley that date back to (gulp!) 500 B.C. Nearly all of them are mostly to completely destroyed due to several earthquakes and the damage done by various Christian invaders. The Tempio della Concordia is the only structure still intact only due to the discretion of one of the less fanatical Christian leaders who, rather than having the temple trashed, as the Christians liked to do to anything that was decidedly non-Christian in those days, he simply had it altered to be a Christian temple. In the 1700s, when Europe’s obsession with history suddenly sprouted, the Christian additions to the temple were carefully striped away and the temple now stands as it did, minus the roof, over 2,000 years ago. It was amazing. I gaped at it with the appropriate awe and reverence from several angles and took dozens of pictures.

Tempio della Concordia

Tempio della Concordia with gnarly lighting.

A long shot of Tempio della Concordia.

The Valley was pleasingly devoid of Rube Tourists using the ruins to rest their fat asses or to unfurl a picnic lunch right in the sightlines of my photos. I saw perhaps seven other people all afternoon, allowing me to take wonderfully tourist-free pictures of the ruins and the beautiful landscape around the Valley. Though perhaps the Rube Tourists had all caught a weather report and knew better than to go down into the Valley that day. A fiendishly cold wind was whipping around the vast openness of the Valley, freezing my fingers and giving me earaches. It rained on and off and I spent a good portion of my time wrestling with my umbrella to keep it from sailing away or collapsing under the force of the incredible gusts.

Tempio di Giove. It's just a pile of ruins now, but it used be one of the most massive buildings of ancient Greece, covering an area of 367 feet by 184 feet with columns 59 feet high.

Tempio di Castore e Polluce (or Tempio dei Dioscuri), "the symbol of the town of Agrigento"

A giant statue of a reclining man.

After nearly two hours of being wind-blown around the Valley, I felt as if I had gleaned my 8 euros worth of entertainment from the Temples. I returned my waterlogged audio-guide and caught the bus back into Agrigento.

I arrived just in time for another 10 hair-raising blasts from the cannon before the town’s people paraded a very elegant looking statue of the Madonna out of the main church and through the streets of Agrigento. After watching the show for a while, I retired to my room to upload and process the 147 pictures I had taken in the Valley of the Temples, then went off to another refreshingly inexpensive and tasty dinner at Capriccio di Mare, where I saw my hotel clerk walk in casually, remove a Coke from the bar refrigerator and walk right back out like he owned the place.

The next morning I rose early in order to take advantage of the most efficient schedule of bus transfers from Agrigento to Taormina.




Go to Taormina

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