Tag Archives: Valley of the Temples

When in Rome…Don’t Drive a 12-passenger Van

The debate on how to organize the torrid tales that I’ve collected has raged on for about 2 days now…and let me tell you, it’s been heated.  I’ve asked a lot of people that know me, and I’ve gotten quite a few good suggestions. Write chronologically, write your best stuff first, go by continent, type of trip, in reverse order by literacy rate. All good suggestions, but they just wouldn’t be me. I’ll start this the way I start everything else, without any planning or organization whatsoever.

So, there I was…in Agrigento, Sicily.

Fortune and glory Shortround, fortune and glory...

We’d been working in Sicily for a while, and we (“we” being myself and a rowdy cohort of my buddies, not the royal “we”) decided that a day off was in order. Agrigento immediately jumped to the top of my list of places to see I when read about the abundance of Indiana Jones-fantasy-inspiring ruins in its Valley of the Temples. If you don’t like Indiana Jones, you might as well never read this blog again. Fair warning.

Back to the story. Please stop distracting me.

We travel around Sicily in these enormous Mercedes Monstrosities, pretty sure that’s the actual model name, which I’m fairly certain could accommodate most of the Chicago Bulls, both in headroom and seating. So we get ahold of one of these massive beasts and, with my chum Jeff navigating from shotgun with his t-Mobile iWish I Was an iPad, begin our pilgrimage to Indiana Jones Land, which is about two and a half hours from where we’re stationed.

Do not shrink me gypsy

Jeff’s refusal to get on the iWagon was likely to blame for the first problem we encountered, about 20 minutes into our drive. The iImposter’s navigation app failed to tell us that every Sicilian road for a billion miles was under construction on that particular day. Apparently, after 2000 years of coping with their pre-Roman infrastructure, the Sicilian Highway Department had decided to take a stand. Perfect time to join the 21st Century, thanks guys. On the bright side, every time traffic ground to a halt we were accosted by weird Gypsies selling pinwheels and other shiny baubles, so that was nice. After navigating endless miles of dusty Sicilian road construction, we finally reached our destination.

Aside from the weird modern statues of winged butts with faces in them, Agrigento did not disappoint.

Winged butt...with face

To all those of you with unfulfilled dreams of being a Nazi-fighting archaeologist, I highly recommend it. To those with different dreams… do whatever you want I guess.

I guess I should have warned you, the Valley of the Temples is not the focus of this story so much as the journey home. Maybe that’s why that clown Rick Steves has a travel show and I don’t. So, leaving. I corral my small herd of friends into the van and we decide to get something to eat before we start the Trail of Tears back to our base. As it so happens, Agrigento is perched on a very steep hill, much like many cities in Sicily. Pretty sure they didn’t build those with paid laborers, because no amount of money would have convinced any human being to carry building materials up these mountains.

Back to the story. Please stop distracting me.

By this point in our stay in Sicily, I’ve earned the reputation for taking these behemoth vans up roads much steeper and much more narrow than is prudent. So my friends begin to goad me, “Blake, I bet the best restaurants are at the top of this hill!” I don’t even flinch, up we go. Up and up and up. After numerous close calls and many irked Agrigento-an drivers, we reach a large parking lot at the base of the local cathedral. No restaurants. There are two roads leading away from this square, the road we’d just ascended, and a small unassuming goat path down the other side. Obviously we choose the goat path. By this point, I don’t even need my friends’ challenges, I’m boldly going where no 12-passenger van has gone before. The goat path is paved with the customary chariot wheel-scarred limestone that most Sicilian streets are made of, and the grade is a few notches below vertical. Once we start down, there’s no turning back. Barely wider than the van, this road takes multiple 90-degree turns (invisible from the top) and at one point I’m driving with two tires on a flight of stairs. My passengers are weak, scared…but not me. I confidently maneuver the Goodyear Blimp of vans down this street, until up ahead I see a small piazza. I’ve won. As we drive triumphantly into the square (with the mirriors folded in because the buildings are 2 inches from each side of the van) we notice a frantic woman shouting something at us from a second-story veranda. One of my compatriots scoffs, “What is that nut screaming about, can’t she see we already made it down the road?” It is then that we realize that the piazza that we had thought was our salvation might very well be our undoing. We’ve driven into a trap. This “piazza” is barely a driveway. My 7th grade YMCA basketball team couldn’t even play half-court on this thing. There’s no way we can turn around, we’re going to have to keep driving.

Descending the Goat Path Toward the Piazza of Doom

I start to sweat.

My buddy Nate hops out of the van to recon the area, we can see about 3 different roads leading away from the “square.” As he gets far enough from the van to see down the streets, he starts to shake his head incredulously. The roads are all more narrow than the van.

I start to sweat some more.

We’re going to have to go back the way we came.

My confidence is shattered.

My bravado is deflated.

There’s an Ethiopian guy next to my window.


Yeah, that’s right, somehow this creepy guy got right up to my window without me noticing. He starts talking to me in some moon-man language that I cannot decipher, and I decide he wants to help us turn the van around in this space about as large as…the van.

Everyone gets out to turn this thing around, but we’re all thinking one thing…there’s no way this van is turning around. We’re going to have to leave it here and take a cab home. By the time we get back to retrieve it (possibly with a helicopter) it’s going to be stripped of all valuables and up on blocks…possibly by this Ethiopian guy.

It takes two hours. Two long hours of lurching back and forth, 3 inches at a time. It’s like that scene from Austin Powers, except with an Ethiopian guy yelling at me, and some crazy witch lady still haranguing me from her balcony.

By the time we get this van turned around to travel back up the street, we’ve started to get calls from our boss. Did I mention that we were about 100 miles further away than we’re allowed to be? She tells us to come home…oh if we only could.

We fold the mirrors back in for the ascent, to be honest, I don’t want to see the destruction I leave in my wake anyway. This street, which only two hours ago seemed like such an adventure, has turned into a nightmare. I start up the hill. The van’s tires slip and smoke against the limestone, warning lights blink on the dashboard like satanic Christmas lights, but we are moving upward. Then we stop. We’ve reached the first 90-degree turn and now we’ve lost our momentum. At this point I’m pretty sure that the van is going to tip over backwards. Everyone but me and one navigator/spotter disembarks…ostensibly to help us make the corner, but I know the truth. They don’t want to explode in a fiery van crash when our Mercedes Hindenberg flips over and cartwheels its way down Mount Doom.

With white knuckles, I coax the van forward. The lights flash, burned rubber smoke fills the air, but we make it to the top. Everyone gets back in the van and we sail over the crest of the hill, triumphant…and about 3 hours late getting back to base…and we didn’t get to eat.

Tagged ,