If there is one thing I really don’t like – what an odd phrase – anyway, if there is one thing I don’t like about travelling solo it’s not so much getting lost – an annoying, but not unexpected experience in a country where the placement of any road signs that would be at all useful to visitors is often, to put it diplomatically, random. No, what is guaranteed to turn my usually buon umore into a molto cattivo mood (and in case you aren’t sure, cattivo means ‘bad’) it’s having to turn around and drive back along the same wretched road that got me lost in the first place. Yet, after two days in the B&B overlooking the Valley of the Temples, I got back on the SS115 and retraced my steps. On purpose.
There were two more ‘must-see’ sites in the area and I was hoping that the drive to these sites from an agriturismo east of Agrigento would be a little less stressful than from the otherwise delightful Villa San Marco. (As to why I didn’t stay at the agriturismo first and then continue west to the B&B, that, like the real name of the Temple of Concord, is lost in the mists of time.)
It was late in the afternoon when I arrived. I was tempted to go for a swim right away. The problem with that plan was I had a feeling that after the swim I might be in the mood for a bit of the local white while I dried off and gazed out over the countryside and before I knew it, it would be time to get changed for dinner and I wouldn’t have seen anything of the property. So instead, I went exploring first.
Unlike at Il Limoneto (the agriturismo I stayed in at the beginning of this trip), where the agri part of their activities was focused on one crop – citrus fruits – here things were much more diversified. Wine, olive oil, grains and various fruits – but surprisingly, no citruses. Looking over the railing that surrounded the pool terrace, I saw a dirt lane that led into the fields.
I was surprised at all the apricots lying on the ground. They looked fine, but thinking that maybe there were worm holes or rot or some other problem I couldn’t see I picked up a few. They looked perfect to me. Later I asked the manager why so many had been left on the ground. He sighed. The company that bought the apricots had very high standards. Even the smallest imperfection meant rejection. The sight of all those perfectly good apricots lying on the ground reminded me of the ‘Gardens of the Seven Deadly Sins’ I’d seen at Chaumont-sur-Loire the year before. (July 20, 2014)
Early the next morning I set off to visit the two sites that had drawn me to this location. The first was Villa Romana del Casale, a luxurious Roman villa built at the beginning of the 4th century, which turned out to be bad timing given that the Roman Empire would fall, officially, in 476 A.D, only a century later.
The villa was built as a magnificent country retreat for a powerful Roman, who was a member of the senatorial class or perhaps the Imperial family, but nowadays it is best known for its mosaics, the largest and best preserved collection in the world. Its remarkable state of preservation is mostly due to an otherwise catastrophic natural disaster – an earthquake/mudslide in the 12th century that ended up burying most of it. This might well have been the rather ignominious end of the once luxurious villa, but for a farmer, who, in the early 1800’s had the misfortune to find a few pieces of mosaic while tending his crop.
The closest town is Piazza Armerina, 3 km away, which is where the survivors of the 12th century mudslide resettled. Piazza Armerina is 60 km from Campobello di Licata, the town closest to the agriturismo. A usually reliable website gives the time to cover those 60 km as 1h23m. A rather long time. But not as long as it took me – almost 2 1/2 hours. And I only got lost – or rather, thought I was lost – a couple of times.
To give you an idea of what is involved in getting to some of these places – including UNESCO World Heritage Sites – I thought I’d share with you the directions I optimistically printed out before leaving home. I say ‘optimistically’ because the road signs were so few and far between, most of the time I just headed in what I thought was the right direction, using the sun as my guide. (Cloudy days are right up there with retracing my steps.)
From Campobello di Licata I was to head north on the SS557, which for some unknown reason, after a few kilometres becomes the SS644; turn right onto the SS190 which heads south-east; turn left at a T – keep a sharp eye out for this because it won’t look like a ‘T’ from your point of approach; continue north-east along the SS626 – even after it becomes the SP27, which, in a kind of manic equal opportunity event for numbers, morphs into the SS191, then the SP13, then the Sp26, and finally the SP169 which at a ‘Y’ joins up with the numerically senior SP15, and continue along what is now the SP15 into Piazza Armerina. At this point, whether you’ve been driving or trying to follow the directions – or worse, both – you’re probably in the mood for a (large) glass of the local white. Instead, I (uncharacteristically) recommend a cappuccino or even an espresso. You’re not at the villa yet.
Once you’re in Piazza Armerina, don’t drive past Via Roma as I did on the first go, thinking there was no way a road so narrow and so steep could possibly be the main road to a UNESCO site. Instead turn left and continue driving. Don’t bother looking for a sign, if you haven’t already given up on that approach, because Via Roma ends at the town limits and you’ll be on the SP89a. After a while of driving along this narrow, country road you’ll feel like you have covered a lot more than 3 km, and although you may see a sign informing you that you are now on the SP15 again, you won’t see anything that would encourage you to think you’re still on the right road. Anything that is, except the line of cars ahead of you that have appeared seemingly out of nowhere – all bearing foreign licence plates.