After an extensive piece about “An unforgettable 2-week road trip through Sicily”, this time I would like to tell about that time in September 2020 when my husband and I visited the Valley of Temples of Agrigento, Cefalù, and Monreale.
Unfortunately, these places relate to a dreadful memory because of family issues that made us leave Sicily before we even started the tour we had planned, but it is not these places’ fault! They are incredibly beautiful and extremely interesting. That’s why I am now talking about them: to “exorcise” those memories, and to do justice to those wonderful places.
This is going to be a brief post intended for information as comprehensive as possible about all the most famous and beautiful places worth your visit in Sicily, as I have already covered Trapani and its province in this article, the vast majority of Sicily in this other, and I did not want to leave these three last magical places out.
So, without further ado, let’s buckle up and start this new brief adventure through the Valley of Temple, in Agrigento, Cefalù, and Monreale, in the Palermo province.
1. Valley of Temple of Agrigento
We parked our car in the pay parking next to the Valley entrance close to Juno Temple (East of the Valley), and we headed for the ticket office.
This nearly 1300-hectare/ 3212-acre UNESCO World Heritage Site is especially famous for its well preserved Doric temples dedicated to Greek divinities, the finest example found anywhere in the world, outside of Greece itself. Along with Selinunte Temples and Segesta temple, it’s one of the must-see archaeological parks in Sicily (click here for more information about Selinunte and Segesta).
Sicily, and Southern Italy, in fact once had several colonies of city-states known collectively as “Magna Graecia” (“Great Greece“) and formally belonging to ancient Greece.
The city of Akragas (now Agrigento) was founded as a colony in the 6th Century BC and developed into a leading city of Magna Graecia during the golden age of Ancient Greece. Settlers mainly from Rhodes and Crete initially benefitted from rich lands in the region ideal for cultivating olives, grapes, and cereal. This led to the city prospering, developing into one of the most culturally advanced Greek cities in the Mediterranean region, and the construction of many temples between 510BC and 430BC along a hilltop once surrounded by vast walls.
During the visit, you will admire:
- Temple of Hera Lakinia (or Juno), dedicated to Zeus’ wife. Like that of the nearby Temple of Concordia, its name is conventional because of a wrong interpretation of a Latin inscription that aligns it with the temple of Hera, in Crotone. Placed spectacularly in the easternmost part of this magical hillside, it housed the cult of the goddess of fertility. The traces of fire, amazingly still visible in the walls of the cell, remind us of 406 B.C. when the Carthaginians destroyed this magnificent temple, almost identical to that of Concordia. Nearby, there is also a visible big altar for sacrifices (on the East side) and a section of street deeply furrowed by carts coming from the city’s “Gate III”;
- Temple of Concordia, built around the 5th century, is the best-preserved temple in the valley because they consecrated it as a Christian basilica in the 6th century AD. The name Concordia comes from a Latin inscription found near the temple itself. In front of the Temple, you can admire the statue of Icarus, donated by the Polish sculptor Igor Mitoraj. The statue represents the Fall of Icarus, who disobeyed his father Daedalus, he flew too close to the sun, burned his wings of wax and fell into the Mediterranean;
- Temple of Heracles (or Hercules), the oldest temple. Inside it kept a bronze statue of Hercules himself, which local people loved very much. The temple, destroyed by war and natural disasters, today has only eight columns left;
- Temple of Olympian Zeus (or Jupiter): built to thank Zeus on the occasion of the Agrigentines’ victory over the Carthaginians, in 480 BC, but destroyed by the Carthaginians before being completed. Here are the famous atlases, some gigantic statues with a human shape, once used as columns o pilasters;
- Temple of the Dioscuri (Castor and Pollux), the legendary twin brothers, born from the union of Jupiter and the queen of Sparta, nowadays has only four columns left and has become the symbol of Agrigento;
- Temple of Hephaestus (or Vulcano), whose ruins suggest it once was an imposing building, dates back to the fifth century. In its foundations, they found the remains of an archaic temple.
- Temple of Asclepius (God of Medicine), built far outside the city’s ancient walls, was a place of pilgrimage for the sick who asked to be healed. The words of the sick who got healing covered the walls of the temple.
Besides the temples, there are also Greek and Roman necropolises, residential areas, the tomb of Theron, an imposing pyramidal monument made of tuff stone built in memory of the fallen of the Second Punic War, and many other remains.
You can visit the archaeological site on foot, but if you are tired or can’t walk too much, there is also a tourist train shuttle service. It goes from one entrance to the other and cost 3€ one way.
Weekdays: 08.30 am–10 pm (exit by 11 pm), public holidays and pre-holidays: 08.30 am–11 pm (exit by midnight). From July 10 to September 12, 2021, the site will be open until 10 pm (weekdays) and 11 pm (Saturdays and Sundays).
Entrance fee: 12€ p.p./ 14.10 $ p.p. (+1€/1.17$ for the site map).
Almost at the end of the visit, we got caught in an unusual storm for almost an hour, and when we could get back to the parking lot, we found our car completely stuck in the mud so much so that the towing car had to come to pull us off. After visiting the Valley and the adventure with the mud and the towing car, we drove directly to Cefalù.
In Cefalù, we stayed in a B&B just opposite the railway station.
Upon arrival, we parked at Parking Historical Center Dafne Cefalù, but then, after our stroll, we could find a free spot just in front of our B&B door.
We took a stroll through this enchanted seaside spot on Sicily northeastern coast built at the behest of the Norman King, Roger II.
We had dinner and then a delicious pistachio granita at the extremely recommended Antica Porta Terra (for more info about this typical Sicilian dessert check out “My Ultimate List & Guide of 16 Sicilian Unmissable Foods” downloadable for free by clicking here, or my article called “An unforgettable 2-week road trip through Sicily” by clicking here).
Then, we took some classic pictures from the “molo” (“dock”) at night with the beach and buildings of Cefalù, which makes it seem like you were in the production set of one of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies.
The following day, we had a delicious breakfast in Duomo Square, and after that, we visited the famous Cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage Site along with the one in Morreale and many other Arab-Norman churches and palaces in Palermo (for more info about the latter and many other places worth a visit in Palermo, check out my article called “An unforgettable 2-week road trip through Sicily” by clicking here).
According to legend, they built the cathedral in this city rather than Palermo, the kingdom’s capital, because of Roger’s commitment to the Holy Saviour after escaping a storm and landing on the village’s beaches. Given the connotations of the territory, the undeniable characteristics of a natural fortress, and the off-scale proportions of the Basilica, all magnified by the old city megalithic walls whose evidences remain along the cliffs of the Giudecca (Postierla) and at the ancient Porta Terra, political-military motivations are more likely (today Piazza Garibaldi).
The Cefalù Cathedral is indeed an exquisite example of “Sicilian Romanesque” and, thanks to the splendid gold mosaic of Christ Pantocrator above the altar, twinned with the Palatine Chapel in Palermo and the Duomo in Monreale.
Opening hours: Monday to Sunday 8 am – 1 pm/ 3 pm – 7 pm.
Entrance fee: the entrance to the Cathedral is free, but if you want to see more, you can buy one of the following itineraries:
- Red itinerary (Towers, Southside roofs, Mosaics, Sacristy, Museum, Bishop’s Chapel and Cloister) for 10€ p.p./ 11.75 $ p.p.;
- Blue itinerary (Towers, Southside roofs, Mosaics) for 7€ p.p./ 8.22 $ p.p.;
- Green itinerary (Sacristy, Museum, Bishop’s Chapel and Cloister) 6€ p.p./ 7.05 $ p.p.
After that, we visited Bastione Capo Marchiafava, a 17th-century fortification from which you can enjoy incredible views over the Cefalù promenade, the “molo” by day, had a walk through the seafront and then headed back to our B&B, rested the night, and left the rest for the following day.
Finally, we saw the Mediaeval wash house (“lavatoio”), fed by a natural spring, on Via Vittorio Emanuele, and wandering through Cefalù stunning little streets, we drove to Monreale.
Monreale is a historic hill-town just outside Palermo. Its name is a contraction of “Monte Reale” (“Royal Mountain“).
We parked at Parking Monreale Duomo, a stone thrown from William II Square, where you can find one of the greatest existent examples of Norman architecture, the Monreale Cathedral, part of the Arab-Norman Palermo and the Cathedral Churches of Cefalù and Monreale UNESCO Heritage site since 2015.
The cathedral and cloisters date to the 12th century, when the Norman ruler William II, known as William the Good, founded a Benedictine monastery here; this Duomo was its abbey.
This church amazed us. It truly left us breathless. The size (6.500 m²/ 69970 ft²) and the magnificence of its gleaming gold mosaics, almost certainly created by Byzantine artisans, are only comparable to the ones in the wonderful Palatine Chapel that we saw in Palermo inside the Norman Palace this summer (2021). They depict Christ Pantocrator, considered the symbol of Norman style, draped in a blue robe, his hand raised in blessing, saints, kings, angels, and stories from both the Old and New Testament, such as scenes of Noah’s ark and the life of Christ, arranged in tiers, divided by horizontal and vertical bands.
Opening hours: on weekdays: from 09 am to 12.45 pm (last admission) – from 2 pm to 5 pm (last admission); Sunday and holidays: morning visits suspended – afternoon from 2 pm to 5. pm (last admission). During the Liturgical Celebrations, they suspend the guided tours.
Entrance fee: 4€ p.p./ 4.7 $ p.p.
Next door to the Cathedral is an entrance to the cloisters (“chiostro”) of the Benedictine monastery, a large quadrangle lined with over 200 twin columns, many of them fancily ornamented with mosaic or sculpture. They finely carved the capitals of the columns with sculptures, some inspired by the Bible but frequently enigmatic.
Entrance fee: 6€ p.p./ 7.5 $ p.p.
After visiting the Cathedral and the cloister, we had delightful “Pasta alla Norma” and “Pasta con le sarde” at “Trattoria Pizzeria Monreale” in Piazzetta Ritiro, and tasty ice cream with “brioscia cu tuppu” at “Bar Gelateria Mirto Rosario” (for more information about the food we had, check out my “An unforgettable 2-week road trip through Sicily” by clicking here, or “My Ultimate List & Guide of 16 Sicilian Unmissable Foods by clicking here).
Hope this brief article can help you get a better overview of this big, beautiful island called Sicily, a land of contradictions with an important and diversified past which made it as amazing and complex as it undeniably is.
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Want to know more about any of the typical Sicilian food I mentioned in this article, download “My Ultimate List & Guide of 16 Sicilian Unmissable Foods” completely FOR FREE by clicking here.