discovering the old city center

Girgenti, the old centre of Agrigento, is a fascinating maze of narrow streets and monuments: a colourful tapestry woven over the centuries. Shortly after the coronation of Charlemagne, in about 827 AD, Agrigento was conquered by the Saracens. By then the population of Agrigento had already abandoned the Valley and had established the centre of the town on the hill in order to defend it from the barbarian incursions. The Saracens further developed the town, giving it a typical Islamic layout: an intriguing labyrinth of courtyards and alleys still characterizes the old centre today. Two centuries of Arabian domination have also had a lasting influence on local dialect, names of people and places and even on local cooking. For example, both the recipe and the name of the renowned Sicilian “cassata” derives from the Arabian “quas’at” which means ’round bowl’ and refers to the shape of the mould in which it is prepared.

Two centuries later, in the period of the first crusade, the Norman Count Roger de Hauteville conquered Sicily and put it back into Christian hands; Agrigento was freed in 1087. The Norman domination was characterized by an unprecedented degree of tolerance and civilization and various races and religions co-existed. This led to an original stylistic fusion in architecture and other cultural sectors. Many of the most important monuments and churches date back to the 12th century or shortly thereafter, although subsequent renovations and modifications have left visible traces. The most remarkable example is the Cathedral, built by the first Norman Bishop of Agrigento and current patron saint of the city, Gerlando of Besancon.

Not far down via Duomo there are several other wonderful monuments: the Lucchesiana Library, the Bishop’s Palace – which houses the diocesan museum MUDIA – and the Church of Santa Maria dei Greci, built on the foundations of a Greek temple. The main shopping area is located in via Atenea with its boutiques, trendy bars and cozy restaurants; strolling along via Atenea you will encounter mysterious alleys and flights of stairs which conduct deeper into the historical centre of town to hidden pearls such as the Monastery of Santo Spirito. This monastery and its adjacent Church of Santo Spirito boast splendid baroque stuccoes and magnificent arches in typical Chiaramontine style. In piazza San Francesco a stone staircase leads down to the small convent in Chiaramontine style of the Friars Franciscans Minor : another gem representative of the Medieval Era.