Wednesday 16 September 2015

Marvelous mosaics and towering temples

The exterior of Villa Romana del Casale, just a couple of kilometres from the town of Piazza Armerina, looked ordinary.  On arrival, we were puzzled as to how the seemingly random collection of stone walls and modern shed-like buildings could possibly warrant classification as a UNESCO World Heritage site. 
But once we entered the seemingly ordinary buildings, we were stunned by the extent of the most magnificent mosaics we'd seen during our stay in Italy.  
The villa, built during the height of the Roman empire in 350 AD, is regarded as containing the richest and largest collection of Roman mosaics in the world.  The site reopened to the public two years ago after under going extensive reconstruction of the shelters protecting the architectural remains and incredible frescos and artworks.  
We arrived at lunchtime, that very important time for Italians, which meant we didn't have to cope with crowds and could enjoy the villa at our leisure. We marvelled at the detailed scenes of the Great Hunt, the largest and most complete of the mosaics.  It portrays the capture and transport of wild animals from the far reaches of the Roman empire to the circuses of Rome.  
In addition to the mosaic scenes of life in this outpost of the Roman empire, the villa incorporates a series of Roman baths.  Some of the most charming mosaics decorate these wet rooms.  The most famous of these mosaics features young women competing in various sporting events dressed in what appear to be bikinis.  
These photos don't do justice to the enormous scale, delicate intricacy and glowing colours of the mosaics.  If you are ever visiting Sicily, add this Villa to your list of 'must sees'.

After a most enjoyable couple of hours at Villa Romana del Casale we departed just as the afternoon tour buses were arriving, and made our way into the heart of Sicily.  
Our destination was Tenuta San Giovanni, an agriturismo 20 kilometres from our next destination, the Valley of Temples outside Agrigento.   After a challenging drive, we finally located the argiturismo where we gratefully accepted a welcoming glass of the house wine.  It was a pleasant way to end the day, watching the last rays of sunlight disappear over the valley of vines.
The reason we decided to stay at this agriturismo was because we'd heard that while the Valley of the Temples was spectacular and not to be missed, the opposite recommendation was given for the modern town of Agrigento.  Best avoided, so we did.
Agrigento is Sicily's most popular archaeological tourist site for a very good reason.  It is incredible.  

In preparation for our visit I'd done a little research and learned that the best way to tour the Valley of the Temples, Valle dei templi, was to hire a local guide.  We usually avoid tour groups, preferring to do our own thing, but this time we were very glad to be led along the low plateau overlooking the sea by Nicola, a local secondary school history teacher who works as a guide during the tourist season. 
Nicola explained that the 8 temples in the valley were built around 580 BC as part of the large Greek colony known as Akragas.  During that time between 100,000 and 200,000 people lived in the area surrounding the temples. Today the modern town of Agrigento has a population of only 50,000, very much a shadow of what it was during the height of the Greek empire when the temples were built.
Agrigento hosts some of the most complete ruins of Doric-style temples anywhere in the world, including Greece.
It was fascinating to learn how the temples were built.  Nicola explained that the large u-shaped carvings in the blocks of stone that lay scattered among the ruins were not decorative. The carvings revealed the construction methods that the ancient Greeks used to lift the building blocks into position with ropes and pulleys - what amazing ingenuity resulted in these breathtaking buildings.
Once again we were delighted to be visiting Sicily in spring.  The Valley of the Temples is an exposed site so in summer it would be blisteringly hot.  Luckily we enjoyed a warm spring day, perfect for touring this memorable archaeological park. 
Although we'd had a long day of walking and sightseeing, we couldn't resist a quick detour on our way back the agriturismo.  
One of the reasons we enjoy staying in agriturismi is that the owners are usually keen to share their local knowledge.  Thanks to our hosts at Tenuta San Giovanni, we learned that the Easter decorations, the Archi di Pasqua in the nearby village of San Biagio Platani, were still on display as part of a month long Easter festival.  With the promise of refreshing Sicilian gelati, we thought the detour would be worth the drive, and it was.
The bamboo arches lining the main street are decorated bread and pasta.
We thoroughly enjoyed our week of feasting and sightseeing with Bill and Gen.  As we sadly said good-bye, we all agreed that we needed a holiday, to recover from our holiday.

Prossima fermata, Cefalu per un lungo dormire.

Where we stayed:
Tenuta San Giovanni, an agriturismo set in the hills about 25 kilometres from Agrigento.
CLICK HERE for information
CLICK HERE for reviews.

What we saw:

Villa Romana del Casale
Open throughout the year but times vary according to the season.  Tickets 10E.
For more information about Villa Romana del Casale CLICK HERE.  In peak season it would be essential to visit early in the day to enjoy this stunning site in relative peace.

For opening times and more information CLICK HERE

San Biagio Platani
The Easter festival at San Biagio Platani lasts for a month.  CLICK HERE for more information.