Sicily: A holiday in ruins

By Maria Slade

It may take a mindshift to think of magnificent Greek ruins in Italy but the Greeks were everywhere a long time before the Romans made something of themselves, and the ancient cities of Akragas and Selinunte on the southern coast of Sicily are equally as dramatic and fascinating as Rome's Parthenon.

Sicily is like that - surprising and contradictory.

You travel through Italy smugly thinking you've got a handle on the place, then you arrive in this warm, dry Mediterranean land at the toe of the boot, and it all changes.

For example, if you think you've come to grips with the insanity that is Italian traffic, try driving in Sicily. Insane doesn't even begin to describe it.

Landing in Palermo and picking up a rental car is a baptism of fire. For Sicilians, giving way is really just something that happens to other people. Instead, their basic driving philosophy can be summed up as "go for the gap".

It is not really possible to tell which streets are one-way, as to Sicilians the phrase seems to mean "anyway you like" and motorists routinely drive up the wrong side of the two-way roads anyway.

Pedestrians step off curbs into the traffic without flinching; mopeds graze every side of your vehicle, tooting maniacally as if that makes it all right; people sit calmly in the street refusing to move even a millimetre for passing vehicles.

A shrine to the Virgin Mary, complete with fairy lights, was in the garage where we parked near our hotel. Perhaps it truly is a miracle that more people aren't killed on the island's mad roads.

Still, compelling though it is, Sicily's traffic is not its main attraction. Once you leave the insanity and dilapidation of Palermo for places such as the resort of Cefalu, about half an hour east of the city, the island takes on a new appeal.

Cefalu's cityscape is dominated by a Norman cathedral, which in turn is overshadowed by La Rocca, the steep rocky outcrop that towers over the old town. It's a breathtaking sight.

Towns built high on Sicily's rocky, volcanic landscape are everywhere, and none is more stunning than Taormina on the western coast. How, centuries ago, they had the energy and engineering to build so high is a marvel. Taormina's Greek amphitheatre commands possibly the best view in the world.

The Valley of the Temples at Agrigento, on Sicily's southern coast, was classified as a Unesco world heritage site in 1997. It is the ruins of the ancient Greek city of Akragas, founded in 581BC, and in its day, one of the most-powerful cities on the Mediterranean.

Of course, the thing about ruins is that they're usually quite ruined, and the Valley of the Temples is no exception. Pretty much all that is left of the Temple of Olympian Zeus is the top of one column and a sculpture known as a telamon. But they're enough to make you realise their scale - both are gigantic.

From the remains it's possible to work out that the structure would have been as high as a 10-storey building.

Other temples have fared better. The Temple of the Concord has remained structurally intact for almost 25 centuries.

Further west along the coast is Selinunte, a city so ancient that the names of the various temples were lost long ago.

Founded in the 7th century BC, its ruins lay unknown to modern civilisations until a monk riding his donkey over an isolated track 500 years ago discovered the remains of a doric pillar.

The site is a huge archaeological park, and the less intrepid can pay for a ride around in a golf cart. But the walk is glorious - Selinunte's acropolis is on a promontory overlooking a golden beach, the whitewashed local town and the sparkling Mediterranean sea.

- Detours, HoS

- Herald on Sunday

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