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Introducing Agrigento

At one time the fourth-largest city in the known world, Agrigento, or Akragas as it was then known, is home to Sicily's most impressive Greek ruins. Situated about 3km below the ugly modern city, the Unesco-listed Valley of the Temples is one of the most mesmerising sites in the Mediterranean, boasting the best-preserved Doric temples outside Greece. On the travel radar since Goethe sang their praises in the 18th century, they are now Sicily's single biggest tourist site, with more than 600,000 visitors a year.

Up the hill, modern Agrigento is not an immediately appealing prospect. Huge motorway elevations converge on a ragged hilltop centre scarred by brutish tower blocks and riddled with choking traffic. However, hidden behind this depressing outer ring is an attractive medieval kernel with some fine accommodation and a lively evening buzz.

Ancient Akragas was founded by settlers from Gela and Rhodes in 581 BC. The presence of a ready water supply ensured its rapid growth and by the 5th century BC it had become one of the Mediterranean's great cities, with a population of 200,000 and a reputation as a party hot spot. The Greek poet Pindar described it as 'the most beautiful (city) of those inhabited by mortals' and wrote that its citizens 'feasted as if there were no tomorrow'.

Its good fortunes began to waver in the 4th and 3rd centuries BC as it passed successively between Greek, Carthaginian and Roman hands. The Romans, who took the city in 210 BC, renamed it Agrigentum and encouraged farming and trade, thus laying the foundations for its future as an important Byzantine commercial centre.

In the 7th century most of the city's residents moved up the hill to the site of the present-day city, virtually abandoning the old town. Experts don't know exactly why, but the most credible theories suggest it was to escape the threat of the North African Saracens. As a defence policy it worked for close to 200 years until the city fell to the Saracens at the start of the 9th century.

Agrigento didn't change much until the 19th century, when the western half of the city was built. Allied bombing in WWII forced a second wave of development in the post-war years, culminating in a bout of construction in the '60s and '70s. Many of the tower blocks that overshadow the Valley of the Temples date to this period.

The centre of the town's lively, medieval core is Via Atenea, an attractive strip lined with smart shops, trattorias and bars. Narrow alleyways wind upwards off the main street, through tightly packed palazzi.