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AgrigentoAgrigento (55,000 inhabitants), provincial capital and bishop's seat, is magnificently situated in hilly countryside near the southern coast of Sicily and one of the most important tourist attractions in Sicily.
Set among olive and almond trees and very close to the sea, the superb ancient buildings of the “Valley of the Temples” (Valle dei Templi), best preserved site of temples of the Greek empire, stand in vivid contrast to the modern high-rise blocks which predominate, especially in the southern, lower, part of the town. Besides the testimonies of antiquity, there are also buildings from both the medieval and Baroque periods in the upper part of the town which are well worth seeing.
The town was founded in the 6th century B.C. by Doric settlers coming from Rhodes via Gela. Its name was taken from the River Akragas (today Fiume San Biagio). Phalaris was the first tyrant ruling over the rapidly increasing town. He built the Temple of Zeus on the Acropolis, the highest spot of the town and site of the present cathedral. In 480 B.C. the tyrant Theron defeated the Carthaginians at the Battle of Himera and the town enjoyed its golden period becoming the strongest power in Sicily after Syracuse - to which the temple ruins, dating back to this era, the 5th century, bear witness.
The Greek poet Pindar praised the city of Akragas, with a peak population of 300,000 inhabitants, as ''the most beautiful of mortal cities''. This was also the time when the philosopher Empédocles lived there and mocked that his fellow countrymen “built as if they lived for ever and ate as if they would die tomorrow”.
The brilliant period came to an end when the Carthaginians defeated Akragas in 405 B.C. The city never recovered from this blow and the great temple to the Olympian Zeus begun after the victory of 480 was left unfinished.
In the Roman era the town was named Agrigentum, replaced successively by Kerkent (under the Arabs), Girgenti (during the Middle Ages) and finally, from 1927 onwards, Agrigento.
The monuments from the Christian era are located between the railroad station and the cathedral on top of the old medieval town, a labyrinth of tiny streets and stairs showing marked Arab influence. For example from “Viale della Vittoria” you can enjoy an excellent view of the ''Valley of the Temples'' stretching below to the southeast and the sea behind.
Downhill from the (very rewarding) Archaeological Museum you reach the two groups of temples, which, in former times, were colourfully painted. The eastern group consists of three buildings: the temple to Hercules (Heracles) – oldest (500 B.C.) and second largest temple of the valley, Concordia - one of the best preserved temples of the whole Hellenic world, and Juno Lacinia (Hera).
The western group features the ruins of the temple dedicated to the Olympian Zeus: unfinished but largest Doric temple ever built, as well as the four erected columns of the temple to Castor and Pollux - landmark of the town.
The choice of some of the names was more or less arbitrary.
The temples are situated in a line close to the remains of the southern city wall, running along a steep precipice. Thanks to this superb position, they form a group of buildings of outstanding beauty, illuminated in the evenings.
For a visit you should particularly note the “almond blossom festival” in February as well as the Pirandello and Persephone festivals with classical performances, both in August.
An excursion westwards along the coast shows a series of archaeological treasures and natural beauties:
After ca. 30km you reach Eraclea Minoa, perched on top of vertical white cliffs with one of Sicily’s longest sandy beaches below. Excavations (partly glass-shaded) show the ruins of an ancient town dating back to the 6th century B.C.
Another ca. 25km to the west the thermal health resort and spa Sciacca (37,000 inhabitants), appreciated already by the Greeks and Romans alike, invites you to feel the Arab character and to explore the narrow streets and flights of steps between the cubic houses.
And after another ca. 30km lies Selinunte, another spectacular site of Greek temples, not that well preserved as the ones of Agrigento, but offering a breath-taking landscape: situated on a terrace directly above the coast, set among poppy meadows contrasting with the bright lonesome sandy beaches – an unforgettable panorama!