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Trip Report 6-12 October - Greek History Focus

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Trip Report 6-12 October - Greek History Focus

Thanks to Vagabonda and others for all your advice which helped make this a wonderful trip! I will break up the report into several posts within this thread.

OVERVIEW

I only had 7 days to spend in Sicily, which was certainly a challenge because there is so much to see and do. For this trip (my first to Sicily), I wanted to focus on Greek history. I enojy nothing more than to be out there in the hot sun climbing over ancient ruins and trying to imagine what the cities looked like at their zenith.

This was a solo trip and I flew into Palermo, rented a car for transportation around the island, and flew out through Catania. I brought my GPS Navigation System (Garmin Nuvi 770) and lots of paper maps. I brought a large highway map of Sicily from Touring Club Italiano but only referred to it once or twice. The Garmin nav system was definitely useful, but had its limitations. It was almost completey useless in cities and did not have the current highway maps around Catania where they are doing construction on the autostrada between Catania and Siracusa. I only got lost once or twice and rather than get stressed out, I just treated it like an adventure to see what things I might not have seen if I stayed on the planned route.

I've read lots of posts on driving in Sicily and here is my experience. This was my first time driving in Italy. I had not driven a manual shift car in 10 years but had no trouble with the Fiat Punto I rented. Actually, it was a lot of fun. Driving on the autostrada was very easy. The only toll I encountered was a portion of the autostrada between Catania and Taormina and the only real challenge with the toll booths is to be sure you are in the correct lane. When entering the toll road, you want the lane that is unmarked or says bigletto (ticket) where you press a button and get a ticket. At one booth, the ticket machine was out of tickets and you had to open your door and reach up to the second machine and use that one (or I guess you could carefully walk over to another booth). When exiting and paying in coins, use the unmarked lane or look for the graphic showing a driver handing a coin to an attendant and use that one Do not use the lanes with yellow stripes as these are for automatic electronic payment (unless of course you have this capability). Slow Travel Italy has some good information on driving in Italy www.slowtrav.com/italy/driving/index.htm

I found it important to stay in the right hand lane on the autostrada except when passing and after you finish passing, immediately get back into the right hand lane. Watch for cars traveling at high speed in the left hand lane.

For other roads, I found that stop signs are often ignored. I saw a truck go right through a stop sign at high speed with limited visibility and just beeped his horn before he went through. I could not bring myself to do this and I stopped at most of the stop signs.

Getting gas was easy. I got gas twice at a full service station and just asked for "il pieno" or fill it up.

The most difficulty I had driving was in Siracusa because that's where I encountered many motor scooters and lots of traffic with unmarked streets.

I rented with Avis because I do a lot of business travel using them and I get free upgrades and generally a good level of service. However, If I were to rent again in Italy, I would probably use auto europe because I think they would be a lot cheaper.

After landing in Palermo in the early morning, I picked up the car and drove straight to Segesta and spend a few hours there, then went on to Erice where I spent the afternoon and night. Next, I drove down to Cave di Cusa and Selinunte and spent the night in Agrigento. The next day was spent in Agrigento, then I drove to Siracusa and spent 3 nights there. Then I drove up to Taormina, spent a day there and they flew out of Catania. When I dropped off the car at Catania, there were no signs for rental car drop-off. I followed the signs to departure (partenze) and in front of the terminal, I could see below the rental car lot in the distance so I just followed the road around to the right and got to the rental car lot.

I'll post follow-ups on each location I visited.

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1. Re: Trip Report 6-12 October - Greek History Focus

GUIDES AND MAPS

Here are the guides and maps I used (I did not bring all these on the trip -- some were used for preparation). The older out-of-print books, I found on Amazon.com.

Sicily: An Archaeological Guide, Margaret Guido, 1977 -- This was an invaluable resource for understanding the archaeological sites although since the book is a bit old, there have been recent excavations not described.

Sicily, Touring Club of Italy, 2002 -- Lots of great information and maps.

Michelin Green Guide for Sicily

Lonely Planet Guide for Sicily

Sunflower Landscapes Guide for Sicily, 2001 -- Great information not included in other guides, especially walking/driving tours outside the popular tourist destinations

Eyewitness Travel Guide for Sicily, 2007 -- I found this to be one of the better guidebooks and I took it with me on the trip and used it frequently

Litografia Artistica Cartografica maps of Agrigento, Siracusa, and Taormina. These were very helpful and I refered to them often on the trip. I got them from trektools.com

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2. Re: Trip Report 6-12 October - Greek History Focus

SEGESTA (or EGESTA as the Greeks called it)

I spent a little over 2 hours at Segesta and did not feel rushed. There are three main sites to see at Segesta: the temple, the theater, and the sanctuary at the bottom of the hill to the right. Besides these three main sites, there are ruins of the town on the hillside I first visited the temple. The important thing to understand about the temple is that it is unfinished which gives rise to all sorts of speculation about why this is. The columns have not been fluted and the bosses used for hoisting the blocks of the steps into position have been left, instead of being chiselled off. The stylobate was left without the intermmediate blocks of stone between the columns, which are left with what appear to be square bases. There is also no interior cella.

I next walked up the hill to the theater. There is a shuttle bus that runs up the hill but I recommend walking to both get a feel for the site and also because you will see things along the way that will be missed if you take the bus. You can walk on the road, but I found it more interesting to take the footpath to the left which winds up the hill and takes you through some ruins of the ancient city with some houses partially carved out of the stone. It IS a bit of a climb and proper footgear is recommended.

The theater was very beautiful as it looks out over the hills and the sea. I did not walk to the sanctuary because I had already spent two hours at Segesta and wanted to get on to Erice. The next time I return, I will probably visit the sanctuary (it seems that few people venture to see this).

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3. Re: Trip Report 6-12 October - Greek History Focus

ERICE

I arrived in Erice mid-day and spent all afternoon and evening exploring the town and visiting the sights. I stayed at the Hotel La Pineta which is a lovely group of stone "cabins" on the north side of the town. I found the room to be a very good value, clean, and with a very nice breakfast. Being on the north side of the town, it was cooler and damper than other areas and I suppose in the hot summer weather this would be highly desirable. It was fairly warm when I was there and it was nice to come back to a cool area at the end of a hot day. My favorite part of Erice was walking along the Cyclopean walls along the northern side of town and the Castello Pepoli e Venere. The lower part of the walls are Punic. One of my guide books said you can see some Phoenician letters carved in some of the blocks and I think I found a few. One was a circle which I believe could be part of the Phoenician letter ayin and the other was three horizontal lines which I think was part of samekh. I had a good lunch at Monte Guiliano and dinner at San Rocco. I highly recommend the spaghetti with cuttlefish ink. I found the food at San Rocco to be excellent. I bought a ticket that got me into 6 churches including the Duomo and the bell tower. I climbed the bell tower to get a wonderful view of the countryside and sea below. Erice was not very crowded this time of year and especially at night. I had the medieval streets virtually to myself and explored most of them.

Here & There
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4. Re: Trip Report 6-12 October - Greek History Focus

Thank you for such an informative trip report SteveInLA – Your report was very enjoyable to read.

This thread will be a welcome addition to the collection of threads about driving in Sicily.

driving in sicily:

tripadvisor.com/ShowTopic-g187886-i343-k2215…

You chose many excellent guidebooks and resources.

The Sunflower Landscapes Guide for Sicily is an especially delightful guidebook offering information not in typical guidebooks – There’s a Second edition – 2006.

http://sicilyguide.com/cms/contact-us/

I agree completely – If at all possible walk (the paths) to the teatro at Segesta. Not only would you see things along the way missed by taking the shuttle, but you would better appreciation the site, the landscape, the views, and the Greek’s eye for beauty. The ruins at Segesta are especially stunning in spring with wildflowers everywhere and the countryside ablaze with colours. Consider a return trip in spring!

Please write a hotel review for Hotel La Pineta in Erice – You could copy and paste what you have already written.

tripadvisor.com/Hotel_Review-g194757-d275818…

And a review as well for the Caffè Ristorante San Rocco.

2spaghi.it/ristoranti/sicilia/tp/erice/caffe…

What if I want to review something that's not listed on TripAdvisor?:

tripadvisor.com/help/what_if_i_want_to_revie…

Erice is very much a day trip town – Crowded by day, magical at night. Many of the restaurants cater to day-trippers and some of the better restaurants are associated with hotels in town, but Erice would do well to add a few more hotels and B&B accommodations.

Grazie!

Vagabonda

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5. Re: Trip Report 6-12 October - Greek History Focus

CAVE DI CUSA

At Vagabonda's suggestion, I stopped at Cave di Cusa on the way to Selinunte. This was a quarry where they carved stone for the structures at Selinunte. I had a bit of difficulty finding it and had to stop and ask directions a few times. When I got there I was the only visitor except for a tour bus. The tour group did not venture far so I basically had the place to myself. It is a beautiful setting with walking paths through the quarry. Vagabonda previously posted some photos here

tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g1185611-d…

I really enjoyed the quiet walk through the quarry. You can see several unfinished columns being carved out of the rock and see the space around them that provided access for the workers. There is a main path through the quarry but many footpaths going off of it. I recommend exploring the footpaths -- there is more to see.

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6. Re: Trip Report 6-12 October - Greek History Focus

SELINUNTE

I spent about 3 hours at Selinunte. There are four main areas to see.

ACROPOLIS TEMPLES

I initially had a bit of difficulty orienting myself to the acropolis ruins because it is mostly a pile of rubble except for Temple C which has a row of columns standing. My recommendation is to first find Temple C which is the earliest surviving temple on the acropolis and was dedicated to Herakles. I walked around it and counted the columns which matched the number in my guide book. Notice that some of the columns are of the early monolithic type and others are built up from drums. The number of flutes also varies. The conclusion is that Temple C was continued over many years. Because several hundred seals were discovered here a century ago, it is conjectured that the temple may have been used for storing the deeds of the Archives. After locating Temple C, it is easy to find the other temples, but you need a guidebook with a simple map. Incredibly, they were out of maps when I visited but I had several guidebooks to rely on. I walked around each one and counted the columns and tried to identify the location of the cella.

ACROPOLIS DEFENSES

I walked back to the northern hill to see the acropolis defenses. There is a complex system of ditches, bastions, posterns, and secret gateways that you can walk through. Don't miss this.

SANCTUARY OF DEMETER MALOPHOROS

There is a footpath that goes down the hill to the west and crosses the river Modione that leads to one of the most interesting sanctuaries in the Greek world. Initially, it was difficult to orient myself to the ruins. The only map I had was from Margaret Guido's guide (see my previous post) and being a bit old, it did not include some of the more recent excavations. I finally found the Propylaeum and then was able to make sense of the rest of the site. There were very few people who took the time to come out here which surprised me because I found it to be one of the most intersting parts of Selinunte. You can climb all over the megaron, the altar, the temenos, etc and get a very good feel for the place. Between the main temple and the temenos, there is a well and stone canal that you can see for leading water from a spring to the temenos. On the floor of the temenos at the entrance, I could see the semicircular marks cut into the floor where the doors would open (hint -- look for these semicircular marks on the floor in all temple entrances. Some doors open inward, others outward). On the path to the Sanctuary from the Acropolis, you walk over a small bridge over the river. I was lucky enough to see a snake on the bridge and when it saw me, it quickly slithered down the slope. I peeked over and could see it curled in a defensive position among some rocks. I didn't get a good enough look for an identifiction, but it could have been a western whip snake because it was black and shiney.

EASTERN TEMPLES

These are the temples right behind the bookstore/ticket counter. Of course, Temple E is absolutely stunning (the one you see on postcards) but don't ignore Temple G which was one of the greatest temples which ever existed. The first columns erected for this temple were those on the east end and are more tapering than those on the west. The form of the capitals is also different. The later ones have no hollow between the echinus and shaft. Thus, the temple is archaic in style on the east side and classical on the west. It would have been 100 feet or more high and would have dominated the other temples in the area. Also, don't miss Temple F which has a feature that distinguishes it from all other Greek temples. The spaces between the outer columns were filled with screen walls standing to a height of about 10 feet. You can still see traces of these screen walls in the ruins.

Overally, I absolutely loved Selinunte. I has great views of the sea, you can walk all over the ruins, and there is much to see. It is also quiet, being outside any urban areas, and peaceful.

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7. Re: Trip Report 6-12 October - Greek History Focus

Thank you for this wonderfully detailed report.

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8. Re: Trip Report 6-12 October - Greek History Focus

Yeah, this is a pleasure to read...

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9. Re: Trip Report 6-12 October - Greek History Focus

ERACLEA (HERACLEA) MINOA

On my way from Selinunte to Agrigento, I stopped briefly at Eraclea Minoa. It is a short distance off the highway and I found it worthwhile but the least impressive archeological site I visited. According to Herodotus, the town was founded as a Selinuntine colony in the VI century BC, in all probability in an attempt to check the ever-growing power of Akragas (Agrigento). There is a theatre, town walls, and some dwellings to see. The theatre is small (compared to those at Segesta, Siracusa, and Taormina) and is partly cut into very friable rock which weathers so badly that the seats have had to be protected with a plastic covering. Some of the dwellings have also been covered. This takes away somewhat from the enjoyment of the site. There are also some nice ocean views. I think I spent about 1/2 hour there and I was the only one around.

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10. Re: Trip Report 6-12 October - Greek History Focus

AGRIGENTO

I stayed at a wonderful bed & breakfast in Agrigento called Villa Amico. It is located in the beach area of Agrigento called San Leone. It is a short walk to the sea and the promenade with bars and a restaurant. The room was very spacious and clean and there was private secure parking. The breakfast was cornetti and tea/coffee/juice in a nice breakfast room. The proprietor was a very nice young man. I would definitely stay there again.

I had a wonderful seafood dinner at IL CAPRICCIO DI MARE in San Leone and walked to the beach. I recommend the local fish main course and the crustacean pasta. I found the beach to be not very nice -- a bit rundown with graffiti -- but I was able to watch the sunset over the Mediterranean sea with a nice emerald flash at the end.

I spent the next half day exporing the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento and the museum. There appear to be two entrances to the Eastern temples -- one is on the East side by the temple of Hera which I think is mainly used by tour busses. The other is on the main road that cuts through the temples. "Valley of the Temples" is a misnomer. It would be more accurately called "Hill of the Temples" because the temples are on a ridge. I parked my car at the main parking lot and started on the East side. I got there early enough that it was not too crowded. Some of the temples still have traces of the plaster that was applied on top of the stone. Look for this on the steps and in some of the column flutes. There is a main road that you can walk on to get to each of the temples but don't take that. It is better to walk along the wall up on the ridge. There is a wonderful view of the sea and there is a defensive wall cut into the stone here. There are also what appear to be Roman tombs cut into the wall but because no human remains have been found in these cavities, their purpose is unknown. There are also early Christian catacombs cut into the rock that you can see as you walk between the temples.. After seeing everything on the East side, I walked back to the West side where the first thing you encounter is an enormous pile of rubble which is what is left of the Temple of Zeus. Even though there is nothing still standing here, it is worh exploring especially if you are going to the museum. On the ground you can see a replica of a telemon (giant figure) that was part of the temple. When you go to the museum you can see the original and drawings of several alternatives for how these telemon were used in the construction. There are also more heads of telemons at the museum. This was an enormous temple. Also on this West side, you can see three columns standing of the Temple of Castor and Pollux and a few other temple bases. While walking around, I noticed that there was a sign for the Garden of the Kolymbetra, which is in a small valley to the north of the Western temple area. There was an additional entrance fee, but well worth it. The gardens are beautiful with winding footpaths and a cool stream running through it. It was very refreshing after being on the barren landscape of the temples. At the end of the garden path is the Temple of Vulcan. You have to cross some railroad tracks to get there but It was well worth it -- definitely off the beaten track. I was probably the only person who visited it that day. It is mostly overgrown but there is still some structure standing and there is a partially excavated preceding temple base underneath that you can see. So for those of you who are temple fans, I highly recommend walking to the Temple of Vulcan. I don't know if there is a way to get there other than through the gardens but I also highly recommend visiting the gardens.

The museum is a bit of a hike from the main temple parking lot but I decided to walk and I didn't regret it. Along the way, you can see a wall that lines the road which was constructed from material from the temples. You can see small columns and other pieces of the temples in the wall. There are also some additional ruins you can see along the way -- mostly what appear to be dwellings. I walked just a bit further past the museum to a nice bar for some refreshment. I don't recall the name, but you run into it shortly after the museum and can't miss it. It was a good alternative to the tourist bars in the main parking lot area.

The museum was exceptional and uncrowded. There was much pottery, small terracotta statues, and a few sarcophogi. I was surprised that there were not many larger marble statues -- these must be in other museums. Most impressive is the complete hegemon taken from the temple of zeus and heads of other hegemons. I definitely recommend a stop at the museum to see this. It will give you a good feel for the scale of the Temple of Zeus and how the hegemons were used.