On 9 November 2001 the Giardino della Kolymbethra was inaugurated. This is a property in the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento, which in 1999 was given in concession by the Sicilian Region to FAI. Thanks to the Foundation, today it is an authentic archaeological and agricultural jewel.
“A small valley which, because of its surprising fertility, resembles the valley of Eden or a corner of the promised land”, Abbot of Saint Non, 1778.
It was 9 November 2001 when the Giardino della Kolymbethra was finally opened to the public, two years after the agreement was signed between the Region of Sicily and FAI, to which the site was entrusted for 25 years.
A historical, naturalistic and landscape asset of great importance, the Giardino della Kolymbethra is located in a small valley in the heart of Agrigento’s Valley of the Temples, between the Temple of Castor and Pollux and the Temple of Vulcan. Included in the normal tour circuit, it offers refreshment and a break in the greenery to those who visit the UNESCO World Heritage archaeological site: a shady corner of paradise where ancient olive and citrus trees flood this garden with their scents.
A pathway now runs through the Giardino della Kolymbethra, taking the visitor on an evocative walk among the plants of the Mediterranean maquis: myrtle, lentisk, terebinth, phillyrea, euphorbia and broom. At the bottom of the valley – beyond the small river bordered by reeds, poplars, tamarisks, willows and fed by the ancient Phaeacian aqueducts still in perfect working order after 2,500 years – a citrus grove with lemons, mandarins, citrons and oranges of ancient varieties and irrigated according to the techniques of the ancient Arab tradition. Where the water does not arrive, mulberry trees, carob trees, prickly pears, almond trees and giant ‘Saracen’ olive trees grow.
But to be able to admire the Giardino della Kolymbethra as it is today, it is necessary to start from the beginning, not only through the painful and troubled history of neglect and disinterest in heritage, but also through the intuition and courage of those who believe that things can be changed, even in a land like Sicily. Giuseppe Lo Pilato, agronomist and operations manager of the property, tells us: “While I was struggling with that part of my city, Agrigento, that thought it could create wealth by transforming the countryside around the temples into a prestigious residential area, and once the attempt to tear down the constraints protecting the archaeological area was rejected, I realised that in order to defend the Valley of the Temples it was no longer enough just to fight the conspiratorial aims of illegal building, but it was also necessary to develop ideas and initiatives that would serve to actively protect it. And it is from this new awareness that an important and exciting story began in 1998, one that at first seemed like an impossible dream, but in the end came true”.
Lo Pilato discovered this place at the end of the 1980s, cared for by a local farmer, Mr Antonino Vella. When he returned in the 1990s, Mr Vella had retired and everything around it was abandoned: a tangle of brambles, the waterway was a kind of foul-smelling, foaming sewer, the citrus trees were in terrible condition, and there was an enormous amount of rubbish. What had once been a garden had become an open-air dump in the middle of the Valley of the Temples. “I perceived with great pain,” Lo Pilato continued, “that before my eyes there was an ancient beauty that had lasted for centuries, and that the absence of cultivation care was prematurely ending its story”. Lo Pilato decided to contact FAI, flying to Milan with a folder containing a report and a wealth of photographs on the state of the sites. Not even a month later, Vice-President Marco Magnifico arrived in Agrigento to see for himself not only the ruin, but also the possibility of recovering and reviving that little “corner of the promised land” as the Abbot of Saint Non described it in 1778. So it was that for the first time a Sicilian state property was given in concession to a private foundation to raise the funds needed to restore the area and open it to the public for tourist and cultural enjoyment.
After two years of work, the Giardino della Kolymbethra was inaugurated on 9 November 2001 in the presence of the then President of the Region of Sicily, Capodicasa, the Councillor for Cultural Heritage, Morello, the Superintendent Fiorentini and FAI Founder Giulia Maria Crespi.
“My dream of beauty has come true thanks to FAI. We must not forget that we started from a “feeling”, stopping a degradation that was erasing a priceless heritage. This has been a project with a strong cultural character because the signs of history have been recovered and preserved,” Lo Pilato told the daily newspaper “La Sicilia” in a recent interview.
The restoration project of the Giardino della Kolymbethra is to be considered to all intents and purposes a great and successful work of recovery not only of a Mediterranean garden in an archaeological context, but also of the historical memory of the farming tradition and of the ancient techniques of agriculture and irrigation, in order to hand it over to the most curious and interested visitors and to the new generations. This has been our daily commitment for 20 years.