I will start by warning readers that in some parts of the world, particularly in Agrigento, Sunday really is a day of rest. Who’d have thought?! I assumed where there are 5th-century B.C temples, there are floods of tourists taking a hundred photos, taxis lined up, a massive reception offering guided tours, a shop selling overpriced bottles of water and a likely chance to find people like me, solo travellers, to meet and enjoy the day with. I was shocked to find such a celebrated archaeological site almost completely abandoned, save for myself and maybe a handful of others.
I took the coach from Sicily’s capital, Palermo, where I was staying in a beautifully quaint, family-run hostel. After asking several different people, including the hostel staff, shop assistants and bus drivers, I managed to successfully find the bus stop to Agrigento- just round the corner from the Centrale train station. Coach practically full of people, I dived into a book I was reading, stopping now and then to look up and appreciate the views of undisturbed countryside.
When the coach arrived I excitably grabbed my things and stepped outside. I looked around- couldn’t see any temples or any sign of any kind that could tell me where to go. I turned around and realised everyone who was on the coach with me had disappeared and a second later, the coach drove away. Stillness. I took out my guidebook but it only had driving directions and was of no use. I checked the bus times back to Palermo- the next one doesn’t depart until early evening. I sat on a step across the road and took out a cigarette, trying to think of a plan; I had no credit on my phone, I was in the middle of bloody nowhere- was I that dumb in thinking the coach would take me right to the entrance of the temples? I didn’t pack any food and only had half a bottle of water left. I thought of Bear Grylls: Born Survivor, a program me and my sister used to watch religiously, which made me laugh. Hundreds of thousands of people must come here all the time, I thought, it’s probably just round a corner somewhere. I went for a wander around; it wasn’t.
Back at the bus stop, I saw a guy having a cigarette next to what looked like his taxi. “Hello!” I called and hurried over to him. “Please can you take me to the Valley of the Temples?” I let out, breathless, to which was met with a blank stare… “Che cosa?”. Oh dear, we may have a problem. I rustled in my rucksack for the Italian phrase book I’d bought last minute back in England and flicked through it, “Uh.. voi.. prendere… yes, prendere, uh, me.. io.. to Valley of the Temples?”. “Aspettare,” he says, “uno minuti.” Oh thank goodness he understands! He opened his car and took out his mobile to call someone. I wait patiently until he passes the phone to me. “What?” I ask, “si, si!” he pointed to the phone. Okay………. “Hello?”, “Yes, hello, I am friend of him, what is problem?” a woman asked. “Oh, ok, well,” I slow down my pace, “I want to go Valley of Temples, I thought he is taxi driver, no?” She laughs, “No no taxi driver. I call friend, he take you.” then she hung up.
About 5 minutes later a car pulled up and out of it came an old man, probably late 60’s. His back was quite hunched over and his skin dark and wrinkled from the sun. “Hello my friend!” he called to me. “You need help?” I couldn’t believe it! I’d been in Italy for over 2 months and found that the older generations rarely spoke English, this is incredible. “Yes, oh my god please. I want to see the Valley of the Temples, but the coach just went here not there, I don’t know what to do! Are the temples far?” He smiled, “No not far to drive, I can take you there, no problem, eh?” and he beckoned me to his car. I thanked the other guy who made the phone call and got into the car. What a sweet man, but it didn’t stop there. We were driving along and he said, “I give you my phone number, then when you finish, call me, I take you back to bus.” Feeling absolutely blessed I thanked him for his kindness, before luckily remembering I had no credit on my phone. “No problem” he said before pulling into a little shop. Inside I was able to buy a bottle of water and some snacks as well as top up my phone. I couldn’t have done it without this guy though, as the shop assistant couldn’t speak English. He sorted out the SIM card and then, back in the car, he put it into my phone and typed in all the codes to top it up. “There.” he said softly, and handed the phone back to me and continued to drive.
It was a little far, down some twists and turns. Could have made it possibly if I had GPS on my phone. When we arrived at the entrance, there was no big reception entrance. Just a thin wooden gate with a poster attached to it. I pointed to it and asked him about the tours…. not on Sundays, apparently. “Did you forget today Sunday?” he laughed. Oh Sarah, you uncultured fool. We exchanged phone numbers and I thanked him again for his generosity.
I walked into the vast area and let out a breath of relief. Not as easy as I thought, but I’d made it. And I’d do it again too. There was hardly anyone there and so walking around felt mesmerising- just me and the temples. I walked slowly, there was no rush. No-one standing in the way of a good photo, no kids screaming or running around. Just me stood in the middle of magnificent ruins of the past. The sandy ground beneath my feet, blue skies and unpolluted air, trees baring olives and almonds and the glistening sapphire sea in the background; the experience felt almost transcendent. I just stood and stared at them. I read the plaques next to each temple with some information. I sat on some rocks to eat a snack when a stray browny-orange cat came and sat with me. I didn’t feel lonely, I felt delighted and care-free. It was such a world away from the struggles I faced the year before, and more recently of returning from Vietnam and finding it difficult to adjust back to normal life at home. There was no-one I wished to be there with me- I just greedily lapped up my surroundings and imagined it was my private back garden. A space both to reflect on the past and to feel inspired for the future. Look at what beauty humans are capable of creating!
After a thought-provoking day with the temples, I called my warm-hearted rescuer and he drove me back to the bus stop. I saw a picture of a young woman dangling from his rear view mirror and asked about her; he said she was his daughter, Elisabella, who had moved to London and married an English man. They’d given him two beautiful grandchildren. That’s why he decided to learn English, even at his age, to connect with his family overseas. “You must come and visit us” I told him, “Maybe someday,” he whispered, looking down at his feet. He lifted his head to look at me, “But I like Sicily best!” he beamed- and I couldn’t agree more.
Have you got any funny or perhaps frightening stories from getting lost on the road? Did you receive help from some kind strangers? I’d love to hear about it.