What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the word “Sicily”?
I’ll give you a hint: It starts with an M.
That’s right, you’ve got it. Marvelous Greek ruins! Capiche?
From Homer’s Odyssey to Homer Simpson dubbed into Italian, mankind has always been searching for paradise lost, for something better on the horizon…Helen of Troy perhaps (if not that blue-haired medusa Marge)? I chose to search in the distant past: among the ancient vine-covered ruins of a deflated-football-shaped Mediterranean island kicked around by the Roman boot of Italy.
Though for years to me a “Sicilian” was a slice of thick-crust pizza, I wanted to see the real thing on this soulful psuedo-Italian island–ruled variously in its long history by Greeks, Carthaginians, Arabs (or “Saracens,” as the Sicilians say), Normans, Angevins, and Spaniards. After seeing so many Godfather films, I wanted to grimace and prance for the paparazzi in Palermo and have some good shots (photos) taken. But my real destination was the ancient Hellenic ruins at Agrigento. I wanted to have a Pagan holiday and pay my respects to the Greek god Dionysius (or “Bacchus” in the Roman pantheon), the god of wine. I would partake of the glorious grape in the moonlight and make a small offering. (What I’d offer was top secret, but nevertheless an offer they couldn’t refuse.)
My girlfriend and I stepped off the Air Corsica plane, a budget chariot of the gods, to a warm whoosh of air and breezed through Customs. “Welcome to Palermo!” the film-noirish severely mustached security guard said sotto voce in English, as if I might have some “secret business” to attend to in Sicily. He stamped our passports. “Ciao!”
Outside, I gave the Roman salute: “Centurion!”
There, we were actually in Italy! “Sicily is not Italy,” an Italian-American friend used to always tell me, and he was right. Things are a little different here. It’s Italy with an edge. Terrifyingly good-looking men in fashionable Armani suits and Joe Camel shades juggled suitcases and models into taxis. Vespas with bag-snatching scippiatori circled like menacing mechanical cicadas, checking out the gams of the dames. Gangster-like Nicholas Cage and James Caan stunt doubles kissed the cheeks of CondÃ© Nast-cover signoras straight out of Fellini flicks. La Dolce Vita!
They say it’s not a good idea to take your girlfriend (or wife) to Italy, for obvious reasons. I realized I’d have to keep a close eye on my gal pal, with all these handsome Mediterranean types with operatic voices hanging around. I felt just a little too casual, uncool, and uncinematic in shorts and T-shirt, lugging my backpack over to the taxi stand. The sun was so hot I thought it was going to pop me on my forehead mole with a bullet-sized burn, “Sopranos”-style.
Thus began our odyssey in “Sicilia.” Though Sicily is (still) part of Italy, it was all Greek to me.
After a whirlwind tour around the island, we arrived at last in Agrigento (ancient Akragas, founded in 581 B.C.). We checked in to a cheap pensione and went out to the Via Atenea, the pulsing artery of the Old Town, for some pasta con sarde (a Sicilian national dish), before heading to the Valley of the Temples. We entered a small paninoteca on the way, manned by a John Travolta body double. (Was my girlfriend making goo-goo eyes again?) I bought some Italian bread, strong cheese, fist-sized olives, and a couple bottles of Chianti so we could picnic in the past among the Pagan pantheon.
The ruins were deserted. We would have the place to ourselves.
In Italian Journey, Goethe wrote, “To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is not to have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the clue to everything.” Similarly, to have seen all of Sicily without having been to Agrigento is to have missed out on the opportunity of a lifetime. Despite having toured the architectural pileup of Palermo, lava-spewing Mount Etna, the Baroque city of Ragusa, the mosaics of Monreale Cathedral, and the tourist trap of Taormina, it wasn’t until we were alone among the Agrigento ruins that the pagan in me came out. I wanted to experience love among the ruins!
We whacked two bottles of wine. As the sun began to set, I asked my girlfriend if she wanted to do it among the columns. Cavorting around the complex like a saucy centaur, there I was, half naked, ready. I felt like Pan about to test his pipe.
She said no.
Atlas shrugged. As a consolation prize, I felt like I’d time-traveled back to classical Greece. There was the Temple of Olympian Zeus! Of Hercules! Of Castor and Pollux! Of the Chthonic Deities! Though the early Christians ransacked many of the pagan temples, the Tempio della Concordia was still intact, minus the roof, literally unchanged after over 2,000 years. The pagans, it was reputed, practiced human sacrifice. According to Pindar, one of Agrigento’s rulers, Phalaris, roasted his enemies alive inside a bronze bull. Another hometown star, Empedocles, didn’t off his enemies but instead dazzled them by dividing the world into the famous “Four Elements”–Earth, Water, Fire, and Air. What about the Fifth Element? Wine! All gone.
“Equus! Equus!” I tried out my best Richard Burton imitation, pulling out a prophecy–a “package” I waved at my gal pal like a Greek bearing gifts. (Maybe Venus and Apollo practice safe sex?) Boy, was I drunk! This is what pagan holidays are all about: having a good time. Agrigento had lived up to expectations, its hillside temple-studded tongue hanging out and stretching out to the sea, even if my pent-up plans for a real bacchanal had gone bust.
Now was the time to make my sacrifice! So I offered up my girlfriend to the gods. But unfortunately none of them would have her. (Needless to say, that girlfriend and I are no longer going out.) Instead, I left a Trojan behind outside the gates.
John M. Edwards has traveled five continents plus. His work has appeared in Salon.com, Escape, Grand Tour, Islands, and North American Review. He has just written a novella, Move, and a travel book, Fluid Borders.