Agrigento, Sicily, Italy
With six months of European train travel under my belt, 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 and famished. With no small amount of trouble, I found my hotel, then set out to explore the city and find sustenance.
Marching band parades through the streets
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 with people and street performers. I learned early the next morning that the main focus of 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 a half 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 to get up and find the tourist office, so I could get my ass down to the Valley of the Temples outside of Agrigento. Seeing Agrigento in the daylight for the first time was a treat. Agrigento is a town on the verge of becoming 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.
The Festival of the Madonna appeared to be a full holiday for the town, as the Monday morning 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 with their families, watching the band, shopping and staring at me.
I visited both of Agrigento’s “tourism points.” Neither were manned by actual humans. One was locked up and had a poster on the door that gave a phone number to call for information. Up to that point, I had not run across a single person on Sicily with even elementary English skills and my Spatalian – Spanish spoken in an Italian accent – was not getting me very far, so I decided not to waste my time with that. The other tourism point turned out to simply be a huge, painfully inadequate map outside the train station that I had already acquainted myself with and cursed upon arrival the previous evening. I simply needed to find out whether or not the Valley of the Temples would be open during Festival of the Madonna. With nothing to go on and nothing else to do, I decided to just follow Lonely Planet‘s directions and caught the bus in front of the train station that went past the Valley, hoping 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, unless I was greatly mistaken, I’d swear that a 14 year old girl was using the over-crowded circumstances as a cover to lightly, but gamely, fondle my butt the whole time, to the delight of her friends.
Tempio della Concordia
I was gratified to find that the Valley of the Temples was open. I paid for an audio guide and got started. The Valley of the Temples is one of the primary Greek archeological sites in the world. Remains of structures and statues have been found all over the valley that date back to (gulp!) 500 B.C. Nearly all of them had been mostly to completely destroyed over the centuries by earthquakes and various Christian invaders, then eventually pieced back together when there was enough surviving material to do so. The Tempio della Concordia is the only structure still intact. This is 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 – 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 stripped 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.
While details like locked and abandoned tourism offices can be exasperating, traveling Europe in December also has its perks, particularly with regard to personal space. 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 in the Valley all afternoon, allowing me to take wonderfully tourist-free pictures of the ruins and the beautiful surrounding landscape. 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 whipped around the vast openness for much of the afternoon, 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. Near the end of my tour, the sun mercifully appeared, allowing me to re-take many pictures of the area with the benefit of decent lighting and get the feeling back into my fingertips.
After a few hours of being wind-blown around the Valley, I felt as if I had gleaned my eight euros worth of entertainment from the Temples. I returned my waterlogged audio-guide and caught the bus back into Agrigento, arriving 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.
Having exhausted my main objective in Agrigento, while far exceeding my tolerance for cannon fire, I decided to cut my stay short. Early the next morning, with a newfound level of vigilance around Sicilian teenage girls, I wisely bypassed the train station and sought out the bus to Taormina.