Was the letter in the photo above actually composed by Satan? It was discovered in 1676, clutched in the hand of Sister Maria Crocifissa della Concezione (Sister Mary Crucified of the Conception), as she lay collapsed on the floor of her Sicilian convent, covered in ink and gibbering incoherently. As anyone would be, after spending the night fending off the Devil’s advances. When she could talk, Sister Maria Crocifissa said Beelzebub forced her to write the letter, composed of strange characters and symbols, in an unsuccessful attempt to persuade her to abandon her faith and follow him.
Naysaying cynics suggest Sister Maria Crocifissa might have been schizophrenic. But the Church took her seriously, launching a 100-year study of the incident that ended in nominating her for sainthood. Her body remains in the convent chapel, an object of veneration, but the letter is kept in the cathedral of Agrigento, where Rich and I are now. Yes, of course I made a beeline to see it. Sadly, the original is stored in the archives, so I could only view the copy. But still!
Scholars struggled for centuries to decipher the bizarre document, but it remained a mystery until 2017. That's when Sicilian scientists announced they’d translated the letter using a military codebreaking algorithm they found on the Dark Web (so obviously totally legit and reliable). They said the letter was composed of scrambled Latin, ancient Greek, Arabic, and Runic alphabets, all languages the nun knew from her work as a linguist. The text attacked Christianity, saying God was invented by man. It described God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit as “dead weights” and said, “This system works for no one.”
Sister Maria Crocifissa rejected the message and the messenger, causing Satan to depart howling with frustration. And although I am rarely one to have sympathy for the Devil, I must confess I have frequently felt very similar sentiments here in Agrigento.
This ancient, once-powerful town on Sicily’s southern coast looks charming and has great stuff to see and do, but it is mind-bogglingly difficult to navigate. There’s practically no dependable information available on anything, starting with the location of tourist information offices, which appear on maps but nowhere else.
Supermarkets have proven equally elusive. Our first afternoon in town, GPS led us out of the old center into increasingly dubious and deserted neighborhoods. As the sky began to darken, we were surrounded by scattered garbage and feral cats and decided we didn’t need provisions that badly. Later, I learned all the supermarkets and greengrocers had fled to the suburbs. In the center, a few tiny mini-marts are the only option. How I miss Palermo’s farmers markets!
What’s truly staggering is how difficult it is to visit Agrigento’s main claim to fame: The Valley of the Temples. This is the largest archeological park in Europe, visited by somewhere around a million people a year (nobody has verifiable numbers, of course). The centerpiece, the Temple of Concordia, is one of the best-preserved ancient Greek temples on the planet; it impressed UNESCO so much they based their logo it.
The Valley of Temples is considered a must-see for anyone visiting Sicily. But they sure don’t make it easy to get there.
The site is just two miles from the city, and yes, there is a shuttle, but the bus stop is so shabby and poorly marked we kept bypassing it during our search. When we finally realized we were looking right at it, we discovered there was no schedule posted at the bus stop — or online either. Foreign visitors milled aimlessly about in the stunning heat, frowning at their phones in bewilderment.
When the bus finally arrived and we were on our way, I said to Rich, “What is it about withholding information in this town? Some form of omerta? If we tell you, we’ll have to kill you?”
The Valley of the Temples was truly spectacular. Of course, it isn’t really a valley but a ridge; the Greeks loved to place their temples high on windy outcroppings. Why? “Think about the air passing through these columns. Think of it like a wind instrument,” says architect and travel writer Sarah Murdoch. “As the air passes through these columns, it would produce vibrations that you can’t hear. But the Greeks had the idea that the vibration, once it passed over the Greek city, would create a sense of peace and harmony amongst the people.” Wow, can we bring that architectural concept back now?
After tramping across the site for hours under the sweltering sun, Rich and I weren’t thrilled by the prospect of the long walk back to the entrance followed by a wait of indeterminate length for the shuttle to the archeological museum. Consulting his GPS Rich announced, “I can get us there another way. There’s a path.”
“Is this going to be like the hunt for the supermarket?” I asked skeptically.
“Of course not.”
I could see the path and the archeological museum a mile away. “Won’t there be a fence? I am not climbing a fence.”
“Of course not.”
“If there is a fence at the end of this long, hot walk, I am sitting down until you return with bolt cutters.”
“It won’t come to that.”
It very nearly did. We trudged alone through olive groves, the sun breathing down the back of my neck like a dragon.
After a small eternity, we found ourselves close to the archaeological museum and — you guessed it — our way was blocked by a high chain-link fence. Eventually we discovered the fence had a small gap, maybe ten inches wide, where others had slipped in and out. “Perfect!” cried Rich enthusiastically. He began wriggling through to find himself standing on top of a six-foot wall. “No problem!” He shinnied down using parts of the adjacent gate for footholds. “Now you!”
I can never decide whether squirming through that gap was the best or worst moment of the day. I kept expecting to hear my trousers ripping as I fell to my death, or at least to a broken ankle. When I made it safely to solid ground, I knew I’d feel tremendously euphoric if I ever managed to catch my breath again.
I’ll say this for Agrigento: it keeps you on your toes. Even our apartment has its challenges.
Airbnb never mentioned this apartment has four different levels joined by smooth marble stairs completely lacking in handrails. I don't dare risk wearing my slippers on them. If I get up in the night, I have to put on my sure-grip sneakers, my eyeglasses, and all the lights, turning what's normally a quick trip into a major production.
Yes, here in Agrigento, I am really living on the edge. My life is all about survival now. I can’t buy healthy groceries. The stairs in my apartment are a fatal accident waiting to happen. I'm in a constant state of ignorance and bewilderment. But I am heartened to discover that I can still sneak through a fence without getting caught, something I haven’t undertaken in decades. Who says travel doesn't keep you young?
JUST JOINING US? THE NUTTERS' WORLD TOUR SO FAR
RIGHT NOW: SICILY
Palermo: The Good, the Bad & the Nutty
SUMMER 2023: CALIFORNIA
SPRING 2023: SPAIN
WANT TO STAY IN THE LOOP?
Subscribe to receive notices when I publish my weekly posts.
Just send me an email and I'll take it from there.
And check out my best selling travel memoirs & guide books here.
PLANNING A TRIP?
Enter any destination or topic, such as packing light or road food, in the search box below. If I've written about it, you'll find it.
This blog is a promotion-free zone.
As my regular readers know, I never get free or discounted goods or services for mentioning anything on this blog (or anywhere else). I only write about things I find interesting and/or useful.
I'm an American travel writer living in Seville, Spain. I travel the world seeking eccentric people, quirky places, and outrageously delicious food so I can have the fun of writing about them here.
My current project:
OUT TO LUNCH IN SEVILLE
Don't miss out!
SIGN UP HERE
to be notified when I publish new posts.
Planning a trip?
Use the search box below to find out about other places I've written about.
Winner of the 2023 Firebird Book Award for Travel
#1 Amazon Bestseller in Tourist Destinations, Travel Tips, Gastronomy Essays, and Senior Travel