A road trip around Sicily: discovering Greek sites and small Italian towns between Agrigento and Palermo

 

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AUGUST 2019

The drive to Agrigento (and after to Palermo) from the north-east coast of Sicily is a long, yet scenic one. Our starting point is a small coastal town called Santa Teresa di Riva. It’s our regular base in Sicily and is as residential and as Sicilian as it gets.

Our landscape gradually changes from the translucent blues of the sea to the dazzling greens of the fields. As you drive deeper into the center of Sicily, these greens turn into a rich shade of ocher. Its bold yellow tones are misleading however, as the color comes from the grain fields rather than it being arid.  

My kid-like curiosity makes me want to poke my head out of the window at the marvelous sight. It’s the first time we’ve done this road trip from Agrigento to Palermo, and one I can’t wait to share.

Sicily road trip – passing through Enna

On the way to Agrigento are many small and lesser known Sicilian towns. We passed several, some more memorable than the others. One that particularly stands out is the town of Enna.

Surrounded by plenty of glorious green land, Enna has one special attraction within its vicinity. The Castello di Lombardia (Lombardy Castle) is one of the largest, and oldest, structures in Italy. Sitting 970m above sea level, it’s one hilltop castle you may want to allow time for.

Castello di Lombardia, Enna

The castle has been conquered by Romans, used by the Byzantines and has also fought back against Arab assaults. Castello di Lombardia was also used by the Normans, before being restored 2 centuries later.

Nowadays, Castello di Lombardia is open to the public, and is also a popular venue for opera performances and concerts.

Top tip: Climb the Torre di Pisana for far-reaching views of Enna and beyond.

Castello di Lombardia is open every day, from 9am to 1pm, and again from 3 to 5pm.

Road trip around Sicily – the view from Castello di Lombardia in Enna

 

Valley of the Temples – learning about Sicily’s Ancient Greek past

English author and academic, Douglas Sladen, once said: ‘If you want to understand ancient Greece, come to Sicily.’

The Greeks colonized Sicily in the 8th century BC, beginning with the east and southern parts of the island. As a result, there are many Ancient Greek sites around Sicily, such as the theater in Taormina and Siracusa.

Step back in history at Valley of the Temples (Valle dei Templi)

Unless you’ve a personal connection in Agrigento, most visitors come here to see one thing: the Valley of the Temples. This archaeological site in Agrigento is one of the most striking examples of Ancient Greek art and architecture. Covering 1,300 hectares, Valle dei Templi is the largest archaeological site in the world.

Its name means Valley of the Temples, which is in fact, a little misleading. The site sits on a ridge outside the town of Agrigento, from which you can see the city ahead.

Booking your tickets in advance is a must when visiting Valley of the Temples. Lines get busy, especially during the summer season, and it’s no fun standing in sweltering Sicilian temperatures.

However, even during quieter periods, I’d still recommend buying your tickets online. Once you pass through the security barriers, there’s no unnecessary hanging around and you can go straight through.

Road trip around Sicily: Temple of Concordia at Valle dei Templi

 

 “It’s the first time we’ve done this road trip from Agrigento to Palermo, and one I can’t wait to share.”

Road trip around Sicily – attractions to see from Agrigento to Palermo

Agrigento to Palermo – what can I see at Valley of the Temples?

There are 7 temples to see on the site, all in Doric style. This is a term used to describe the sophisticated architectural styles of Ancient Greek and Roman architecture.

In no particular order, the temples are:

Temple of Concordia. This is the largest and best-preserved temple, which was built in the 5th century BC. It’s named after the Roman goddess of harmony. With many of the grand columns still intact, it’s probably the image that you most associate with Greek temples.

Alongside the Parthenon in Athens, the Temple of Concordia is one of the best-preserved Doric temple in the world.

Visiting here may also remind you of the Acropolis site in Athens, Greece. It was the first thing that came to mind as I explored the temple, especially with the similar temperatures.  

Temple of Heracles. The temple was destroyed by an earthquake, and today only consists of 8 columns. It’s the oldest ruin on the site.

Other temples to visit at Valley of the Temples

Temple of Olympian Zeus. On first appearance, this temple is a pile of large stones. However, it was an important structure, and built in 480 BC to celebrate Agrigento’s win over Carthage. While the temple was never completed, it’s still one of the largest temples ever built in ancient times.

Temple of Asclepius. This small temple is located far from the ancient town’s walls. It’s said to date to the late 5th century BC.

Temple of Juno. The temple was originally dedicated to the Greek god Hera, the Greek goddess of love and marriage. The Roman equivalent is Juno. It was built around 450 BC, in Doric style.

Temple of Castor and Pollux. This temple is named after the twin half-brothers in Greek and Roman mythology, Castor and Pollux. It’s also known as the Temple of the Dioscuri. There are only 4 columns remaining, but it’s become the symbol of Agrigento.

Temple of Vulcan. Dating to the 5th century BC, there are only 2 columns left, which were reconstructed in the 1920s. This temple is close to the Temple of Castor and Pollux and also to the Kolymbetra garden. 

 

Sitting in front of the Temple of Heracles at Valley of the Temples – Sicily road trip

 

Is it worth visiting Valley of the Temples?

In my opinion, it’s 100% worth visiting the Valley of the Temples. It’s a great day trip in Sicily, with plenty to see and learn.

Tips for visiting Valley of the Temples in Agrigento – Sicily road trip

We visited in August, which to be fair is probably the worst time to go given the high temperatures. However, whatever time of the year you choose to visit, these tips will be useful whatever the season.

Buy your ticket in advance. You’ll beat the crowds and it also costs a little less than at the ticket office.

Wear appropriate footwear. Not only is there a lot of ground to cover at Valley of the Temples, but there’s also plenty of uneven terrain. Wearing the right shoes is a must, and you’ll be able to explore in comfort.

Bring a hat and water. On the day of our visit, the temperature was 37 degrees. While it may sound great if you’re trying to get a tan, the heat can also quickly tire you out.

Wear sunscreen. There are more sunny days than not in Sicily, with the sun doing more damage than you may realize. That said, I always wear some form of sunscreen, whether I visit in March or in August.

More tips on visiting Valley of the Temples

Take the small train (if you need to). If the walk around the site gets too much, there’s a small train that will take you to the main sites. It costs €2 ($2 / £1.80)* per person one way, but worth it if the heat gets too much. A fun alternative you may want to consider is this e-scooter tour. It’s a 2-hour tour on an electric scooter, and a comfortable way to navigate the grounds.

Bring your own toilet paper! There are several toilet facilities at Valley of the Temples, but let’s just say they’re very basic. Keep a packet of tissues on you, and maybe even some hand sanitizer!

Refreshments are expensive at Valley of the Temples. It’ll come as little surprise reading this that food and refreshments cost more on the site. To give you an idea, we spent €8 ($8.80 / £7.30) on 2 standard size orange juices. Outside the site, this wouldn’t cost you more than €4 ($4.40 / £3.60).

When is a good time to visit Valley of the Temples?

In general, I always prefer visiting Sicily in May or even late September / early October. The temperatures are still warm, yet comfortable, and with less crowds.

However, Valley of the Temples is one of those attractions that are busy all year round. While I’d suggest visiting during off-peak season, it’ll most likely still be busy.

The number one way to beat the crowds at Valley of the Temples — regardless of the season — is to arrive early.

A Siciliy road trip from Agrigento to Palermo – the view at Valle dei Templi

 

Agrigento to Palermo road trip – Scala dei Turchi

Upon leaving Valley of the Temples, we made the short drive to see the awesome Scala dei Turchi. Literally translated as ‘the Turkish stairs’, this grand rocky cliff is on the coast of Realmonte. The ‘Turkish’ part of the name comes from the Moors that carried out frequent raids on the region.

The ‘stairs’ have been formed by marl, which is a sedimentary rock that’s white in color. It’s located between two sandy beaches, which you can reach via this staircase-shaped limestone rock formation.

The beaches are packed come summer, and with the good weather and striking landscape, it’s one image you’ll never forget.

Tallinn luxury hotel – summer garden ©Schlössle Hotel

Where can I stay near Agrigento, Sicily?

We chose a chic and fairly remote boutique hotel in a place called Menfi. Torre Bonera Green Resort ticks many boxes I look for when choosing a boutique hotel.

The villa-style property has 7 generous-sized rooms, with excellent modern amenities and strong WiFi. The rooms also have access to a large terrace, which is ideal for reading, or having a morning stretch.

 

The pool at Torre Bonera Green Resort - Sicily road trip

The pool at Torre Bonera Green Resort

 

Its main draw for me, however, is the infinity swimming pool, with views overlooking the Sicilian landscape. I’m a big fan of taking a late afternoon dip, and I’d the luxury of having it all to myself.

You should note that there are 2 entrances to Torre Bonera Green Resort — something we found out only after. The main one has the sign that leads to the hotel; the other entrance doesn’t.

It’s a great choice for this part of Sicily, and is also a really relaxing and peaceful stay.



Booking.com

A road trip around Sicily – the infinity pool at Torre Bonera Green Resort

A day in Mazara del Vallo – Sicily road trip

Alongside choosing Torre Bonera Green Resort for its facilities, it’s also a good choice for visiting Mazara del Vallo. This town and commune are in the province of Trapani near the mouth of the Mazaro river. Its position makes it one of the most important fishing centers in Italy.

Mazara del Vallo has had many different rulers, including the Greeks, Romans and Byzantines. The Arabs occupied the town in 827 AD during which time it was divided into 3 different administrative regions. In fact, the city center, known as the Casbah, has still retained many of its Arab architecture and styles.

In terms of geography, Mazara del Vallo is one of the southernmost Italian cities closest to Africa.

Closer to Tunis in Tunisia than to Milan, there’s a large migrant community here, consisting mainly of north Africans.

What to see in Mazara del Vallo – a road trip around Sicily

The heart of the action, and the best sights to see are in the city center and around the Casbah. In the old Arab quarter are many homes in traditional architectural style with colorful and decorative tiling.

The food in Mazara del Vallo has a distinct Arab flair to it too. We had dinner at the excellent La Bettola, where I tried the fragrant and traditional fish couscous.

 

Fish couscous at La Bettola - Sicily road trip

Fish couscous at La Bettola in Mazara del Vallo

 

Historic churches in Mazara del Vallo

While in the town, make time to visit other sights, such as Piazza della Repubblica. Here, you’ll find many top attractions like the Basil Cathedral. The Normans first built the church in the 11th century, but it was later renovated in the 17th century. Its architectural style reflects Romanesque, Baroque, Byzantine and Greek.
 
The church of San Nicolò Regale is another of many churches to see in Mazara del Vallo. It was built in 1124 and is an example of classic Norman architecture. Madonna delle Giummare and San Francesco also fall under this category.

If you’ve time, make the journey to visit the beautifully simple San Vito a Mare (St. Vitus on the Sea). As its name suggest, it’s a small church by the sea that was built in 1776. San Vito is the patron saint of Mazara del Vallo and was also a native of the city.

The hauntingly beautiful San Vito a Mare in Mazara del Vallo

Selinunte archaelogical park – a road trip around Sicily

Selinunte was a town I’d never heard of before visiting. These days, it’s known for being a popular beach destination on the south-western coast of Sicily.

However, in the past, Selinunte was known for being something more than just a beach town. This area was once an ancient Greek city in Italy, the most westerly of the colonies. Today, the archaeological park is a popular attraction in Selinunte, where you can find out more about its historic past.

Selinunte archaeological park is probably my favorite of all the Ancient Greek sites I’ve visited in Sicily.

 

Lisa R at Temple of Hera at Selinunte - Sicily road trip

Standing by the Temple of Hera at Selinunte

 

The archaeological park in Selinunte – Greek sites in Sicily

There are 5 temples centered on an acropolis. Of the five, only the Temple of Hera has been re-constructed. The park covers about 40 hectares and there’s a lot of ground to see.

A major earthquake, which most likely happened during the medieval period, led to the collapse of many of the temples in Selinunte. 

I highly recommend paying extra to get the mini train to take you to the major sites in the park. The distances between each one’s long, more so, when walking in temperatures of 37 degrees.

The Acropolis is where you’ll find several temples and fortifications. Other major areas include the East Hill and Mannuzza Hill.

What temples are there at Selinunte?

Temple O and Temple A was constructed between 490 and 460 BC. Little remains of Temple A except for the rocky basement and the altar. They’ve nearly identical structures, similar to that of Temple E on the East Hill.
 
Temple B is a small structure from the Hellenistic period. There’s not much left of it, but the site information gives you an idea of how it looked.
 
Temple C is the oldest in this area, dating to 550 BC. Seventeen of the columns were re-constructed between 1925 and 1927. Temple F, the oldest and smallest of the three, was built between 550 and 540 BC on the model of Temple C. Of the temples it has been the most severely spoliated.
 
Temple G was the largest in Selinus, measuring 113m long, 54m wide and about 30m high. During its time, it was among the largest in the Greek world.

Also, in the archeological park are the ruins of a Byzantine village from the 5th century AD.

Admiring the Temple of Hera at Selinunte archeological park – road trip around Sicily

Cave di Cusa at Selinunte

The Cave di Cusa are the limestone quarries from where they took material to construct buildings in Selinunte. An attack on the city in 409 BC caused work to cease, and the quarrymen and stonemasons to suddenly flee.

As a result, it wasn’t possible to reconstruct the quarry. Instead, you can see the various stages of the quarrying process, and some parts intended for the temples.

Most interestingly, you can still see some of the drums in their original state abandoned on the road. To the west of Cave di Cusa are some gigantic columns, which were originally intended for Temple G.

 

View from the East Hill of Selinus - road trip around Sicily

View from the East Hill of Selinunte – road trip around Sicily

 

Tips for visiting Selinunte archeological park

Earlier is better than later. While the archeological park at Selinunte may not be as known as Valle dei Templi, it’s best to arrive early. Lines for the ticket office are short, and the sun hasn’t yet reached its peak. However, you can skip the line entirely and book your ticket in advance.

Appropriate footwear and sun protection. As before, leave the heels at home and wear comfortable walking shoes. Selinunte is much bigger than Valle dei Templi and there’s a lot of ground to cover. Also, don’t forget to bring a sunhat, high factor sunscreen and a large bottle of water.

Get a ticket for the mini train. Related to the above point, I highly recommend getting a return ticket for the mini train. It’s a godsend in the Sicilian heat, and worth every cent.

Grab something to eat and drink outside. In the parking lot at Selinunte archeological park is a bar and café which sells reasonably priced drinks and snacks. There’s also a bathroom here (clean!) with plenty of toilet paper.

Selinunte archeological park is open all year round, including holidays, from 9am to 6pm. You must exit the site by 7pm.

They recommend a minimum time of 60 minutes for your visit. However, to fully see the entire park, it takes about 3 to 4 hours. There are guided tours on site, both in Italian and in English.

Sicily road trip – the incredible Temple C at Selinunte archaeological park

Stopping by historic Salemi – Sicily road trip

On the way to Palermo, we made another detour, this time to the quiet, yet, historically-rich town of Salemi. Located in the Belice Valley in the province of Trapani, Salemi is a lesser-known Italian town with some impressive sights.

At the center of Salemi are several attractions, most significantly, the Norman-Swabian castle, and the former ‘Mother-Church.’ You’re met with the ruins of the church as you enter the center, which was destroyed during the 1968 earthquake.

Things to do in Salemi

For a town of its size, there are several attractions that can easily take up half the day. The College of the Jesuits College is home to the Civic Museum, which has 4 museums inside. They include the:

  • Museum of Sacred Art;
  • Archaeological Museum;
  • Museum of the Resurgence; and the
  • Museum of the Mafia.

What’s more, Salemi is also home to 2 archaeological sites. At Monte Polizzo are the ruins of the old Halyciae. This was the ancient name for the settlements of the indigenous groups in Sicily. It’s now known as ‘Alicia’ in archaeology circles.

The second archaeological site is at Mokarta. During a dig in 1994, the team first uncovered an ancient village dating between the 10th and 12th centuries. 

Standing by the former ‘Chiesa Madre’ in Salemi, Sicily

Sicily road trip – visiting the ‘ghost town’ of Gibellina

The story behind the Sicilian town of Gibellina is a tragic one. Like Salemi, the 1968 earthquake had a devastating effect on the town. However, where it differs, is that Gibellina was completely destroyed.

Today, Ruderi di Gibellina (as the ruins of the city are now referred to) is like an open-air museum.

It’s completely covered in concrete, aside from the streets that were once there. While it’s eye-catching in many ways, especially from afar, essentially, it’s a place where many people died.

During our visit, I also saw several visitors climb atop the concrete, taking photos while jumping in the air. Whether they were taking it for social media or for themselves isn’t the point. For me, walking around Gibellina felt like a cemetery, and that’s a big boundary I wouldn’t cross.

 

The covered town of Gibellina - Agrigento to Palermo Sicily road trip

The covered town of Gibellina – Agrigento to Palermo

 

Gibellina Nuova – Sicily road trip from Agrigento to Palermo

New Gibellina (Gibellina Nuova) was re-built, and is about 7 miles (11km) from its former site. Prominent Italian artists and architects came together to re-design the city.

As well as rebuilding a place for its misplaced residents, Gibellina Nuova has also become an outdoor art gallery. Here, you’ll find art installations and sculptures; a characteristic that has received mixed reviews.

For me, Gibellina Nuova lacks the charm you find in other Sicilian towns. While the intention’s there, there’s a feeling of loss, and being lost, that fills the air. Naturally, this is just my opinion, you’ve to make up your own mind.

Walking through the ‘streets’ of the destroyed town of Gibellina

A road trip around Sicily – visiting Greek sites in Segesta

The road to Segesta in the north-west of Sicily is nothing special. In fact, when you finally exit the highway, it doesn’t seem like there’s much going on.

However, on second glance, there’s more to Segesta than first meets the eye. The ancient city was first inhabited by the Elymians, one of 3 indigenous groups of Sicily. It then fell under the rule of the Ancient Greeks, leaving a profound effect on its people.

Segesta had a long-time rivalry with Selinunte. The two cities fought a lengthy battle in 415 BC, with Segesta — allied with the Carthaginians — triumphing over its enemy.

 

Greek temple of Segesta, Sicily road trip

The Ancient Greek temple of Segesta

 

Archaeological park in Segesta

Nowadays, many visitors come to Segesta to visit the archeological park. It’s home to the Temple, and Theatre, of Segesta and is a popular attraction.

The Temple of Segesta dates to the 5th century BC. The well-preserved Doric temple sits on a hill at the foot of Monte Bàrbaro at 305m above sea level. Along with admiring this incredible structure, there are far-reaching views over the valley towards the Gulf of Castellammare.

It has 36 columns on a base measuring 21x56m, standing on a platform consisting of 3 steps.

The Theatre of Segesta

The Theatre of Segesta dates to the 3rd century BC. When the Romans arrived in Sicily, they restored it to what you see today.

It has a striking resemblance to the Greek theater in Siracusa, just without the view overlooking the Gulf of Castellammare. There are about 4,000 seats, which are divided over 20 orders of rows.

When summer comes, the theater hosts a number of events, such as plays, concerts and operas. There are underground passages where the performers can appear at any time throughout a play.

The Theatre of Segesta is a landmark not to be missed, and a meeting point of past civilizations.

Sicily road trip – the Greek Theatre at Segesta

Plan a visit to Segesta archaeological park

The best way to get to Segesta archaeological park is by car. There’s a large parking lot with plenty of spaces. Also, on site are a number of restaurants and shops serving traditional Sicilian food as well as drinks and snacks.

If a car isn’t an option, you may be keen to join a tour. Transport and a guide are included, and your ticket price also includes additional nearby sights.

Segesta archaeological park is open all year round, but the opening times vary depending on when you visit. From June to October, it’s open from 9am to 7.30pm.* However, for the most up-to-date information, check before your visit.

What are your thoughts about this Sicily road trip? Is it a region of the island you’d like to visit? Let me know your thoughts below.

Till next time, happy boutique travels x

*correct at the time of publishing

Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links, which means I may receive a commission if you click a link and purchase something that I’ve recommended. Thank you for your support.

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Lisa Rivera

Lisa Rivera

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Welcome to my site! I'm Lisa, founder of Following the Rivera. I write primarily for a ‘flashpacker’ audience; a demographic (late 20s onwards) that enjoys glamping over camping, staying at boutique/luxury boutique hotels, sampling the local food and wine, cultural activities, and indulging in a spot of wellness on their travels. Read more here…

       

 

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