Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Kolymbetra Garden

Looking down in to the Kolymbetra Garden 
Paradise is one of those elusive concepts we tend to stereotype as a tropical beach at sunset or the Garden of Eden, from which Adam and Eve were kicked out for wanting to know more.  It is a place of positive, harmonious energy in bountiful quantity.  The air is sweet, the water pure, and all is good.  In the Bible and Koran it is a place free of the miseries of Earthly existence, where clear waters flow freely and sustenance is abundant.  For the Greeks there was a place called the Elysian Fields, an idyllic island landscape where the souls of those chosen by the Gods would reside in eternal happiness and fulfillment.
The ruins of the Dioscuri Temple (Temple of Castor and Pollux) above the Kolymbetra Garden
In the 6th century BC, the ancient Greeks built the city of Akragas on the southern coast of Magna Graecia, on the island today known as Sicily.  Akragas lies on a ridge overlooking the sea bordered by two rivers that were rich with crabs, or Akragas, which lent the city its name.  In its heyday the city had a population estimated to be as many as 200,000 people.
An illustration of what the ancient Greek city of Akragas looked like
The city became one of the richest in the empire, especially after the defeat of the Phoenician Carthaginians in present day Tunisia in the battle of Imera in 480 BC.  The ruins of this ancient city are now a UNESCO world heritage site near the city of Agrigento, famed for the remains of its many temples.
The Temple of Concordia is the best preserved of Agrigento's Greek Temples
The Kolymbetra garden was built in a ravine between sandstone cliffs leading down to a river valley.  The protected area creates a microclimate perfect for growing crops, shielded from cold winds in the winter, and providing shade from the intense heat of summer.  The garden has been at times associated with the Garden of Eden in historical texts.
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The tyrant Emperor Theron (he must have been cruel because he is always referred to as a tyrant in the texts I have been reading) used Carthaginian slaves to construct an extensive hydraulic system to bring water to the basin called Colimbetra, which filled an enormous reservoir 'a circumference of seven stadii and a depth of twenty cubits'.  This was used as a fish farm and became a refuge for water fowl until it fell to neglect and silted up by the first century BC.
A restored tunnel aqueduct, a hypogeum, excavated by Carthaginian slaves still provides water for the gardens today
An almond tree reflects in a small tank holding water that can be diverted to garden terraces.  
An irrigation system using small canals of compacted earth and flumes lined with clay tiles distribute water throughout the garden today, based on the system used here for centuries.  These could be diverted to flood tree wells and ditches surrounding vegetable beds.
Clay tiled channels distribute water by gravity flow throughout the garden
The silt that collected in the reservoir provided a rich layer of alluvial soil on which to grow crops.  The calcareous sandstone cliffs on either side of the ravine provide an ideal protected microclimate for growing crops and so it was natural for a garden to be developed over the following centuries.  And so began a tradition of farming that has lasted over 2,000 years, making Kolymbetra on of the oldest gardens still existent in the world.  There is an ancient olive tree here that has been estimated to be over 800 years old!
An olive tree estimated to be over 800 years old
The knarled trunk of this ancient olive tree
Antonietta at the entry kiosk
Descending a flight of stone and earth steps through thick vegetation from the Temple of Dioscuri I came to a kiosk, where I met a veritable goddess, Antonietta, a charming woman with a cascade of henna red hair with whom I bonded immediately.  She made me an Italian espresso and we talked about the garden at length.  IN 1999, the National Trust of Italy (FAI) began an inventory of what remained of the garden.  They were able to restore terraces, the ancient aqueducts and irrigation systems, and renew cultivation practices.  The overgrowth of weeds were removed, and the orchard trees pruned by experts to rejuvinate their productivity.  70% of the existing orchards were preserved and new trees were planted in areas to replace the original plants that had died.

The gardens have been beautifully and sensitively restored retaining the rustic character of the place.  The signage is excellent, in Italian and English, eloquently explaining the history and significance of the garden and the plants.
A detailed plan of the garden
A Sicilian garden traditionally is a place to grow food rather than ornamental plants.  In February there is a festival of the Mandorlo, or Almond trees as this is the time of year that they bloom.  The pale pink flowers lighten the green hillsides and scent the air with a delicate fragrance.  The fruit ripens in August and is harvested by knocking them from the branches with long canes which are harvested from the banks of the stream that runs through the valley.  Almonds are used in a number of delicious Sicilian pastries and Marzipan.  There are over 300 varieties cultivated at the Living Museum of the Almond, near the Temple of Juno. preserving the biological diversity of this valuable crop.
An Almond tree blooming by the Temple of Vulcan
In the 9th Century Arab conquerers brought the first citrus to Sicily.  These were at first bitter oranges which had to be sweetened to make them palatable.  The vitamin C in the fruit was essential for the treatment of scurvy, a common affliction of the time.  The bark also has beneficial medicinal properties.  Sweet oranges were introduced in the 16th Century.  The garden was planted with extensive orange and lemon groves and the trees were laden with fruit at the time of my visit in February.  Citrus groves make up 30% of the garden.  There are nine varieties that are heirloom relics not seen in cultivation anywhere else.  The beauty of these evergreen trees, the cool shade they cast, the fragrance of their flowers, and the sweetness of their brightly colored juicy fruit, make them an essential element of a Mediterranean paradise garden.  Antonietta made me a glass of delicious fresh squeezed juice when I first arrived at the entry kiosk, and I gorged myself on a dozen different types and left with a full bag.  She told me I could stay as long as I wanted past the closing time so that I could fully appreciate the beauty of the garden.
Numerous varieties of oranges are laden with fruit in winter
Luscious oranges

Lemons were introduced by the Arabs in the late ninth century AD.  Unlike oranges, lemons bloom almost continuously and provide fruit throughout the year.  The most common variety is called Femminello, referring to its seemingly boundless fertility.  Lemons can be forced by withholding water until July, triggering a bloom that results in summer fruit.
A slender variety of Lemon
A old photo of a girl and donkey in the garden
Many other varieties of orchard trees are grown in the garden.  Black Mulberry, Morus nigra, an Oriental tree, has been grown in Italy for centuries.  Mulberries are depicted in frescos in the ruins of Pompeii.  Japanese Loquat, Eriobotrya japonica, is native to Japan and Eastern China.  The sweet fleshy fruit is eaten fresh or made in to marmelade and nectar.  Pomegranates come from Western Asia and have been grown in Italy for millennia, as have domestic Figs.  These two trees are a symbolic tree essential to paradise gardens with succulent fruits that conjure divine bliss when eaten.  There are Medlars and Pistachios and Plums to add to the cornucopia.  This rich medley of fruits would have been a great luxury in ancient times.  We tend to take for granted the variet of fresh produce available to us today with fruit and vegetables imported from throughout the world.

The Nopale of Mexico, or Prickly pear, Opuntia ficus indica, is a Mesoamerican plant that grows to great size on unirrigated slopes.  The fruit is fleshy and sweet and is eaten fresh or used to make sweets.  The paddles shaped leaves were used to make plates and bowls for serving food in Sicily.  They thrive in this climate, growing to form huge clumps wherever they take hold.
Prickly Pear and a carpet of mustard surround an abandoned house by the Temple of Vulcan
Vegetable crops are grown in beds between the trees and along the winding paths.  In the winter there are artichokes and Fava beans and mustard greens.  Cow manure has been traditionally used to fertilize the soil for planting.  When the garden was restored, enormous quantities of weeds were removed to open up the garden, and expert pruners came in to teach people how to properly prune the orchard trees to regain their productivity.  70 percent of the original trees were saved and new ones planted to replace those that were lost.
A crop of Fava Beans improves the soil with nitrogen fixing nodules that form on the roots of the plants
Artichokes line the top of a rustic stone wall
As I strolled the different terraces, which are well marked simple dirt paths that span the stream via two new bridges, my consciousness was elevated by the peace and quiet, the trickling sound of water, the light fragrance of almond blossoms, and the rich array of colors.  The ground was carpeted in yellow flowers of oxalis and mustard.  Fragrant native rosemary hedges line some of the paths, covered in blue flowers in February.
Rosemary in full bloom hedging a path
Euphorbia is another native plant that was in full bloom on the edges of the wild parts of the garden.
Wild Euphorbia in bloom

Simple paths and steps lead invite the curious to explore what lies around the bend
I love the way the garden is laid out to follow the topography of the land rather than imposing a formality to the landscape.     There is always something to discover around every corner, like a walk in the wild, but instead in a cultivated space where nature is allowed to soften the hand of man.
An old stone bridge 
The slopes of the orange sandstone walls are covered in native Mediterranean vegetation called Maquis.  The foliage of these plants tends to be thick and waxy in order to cope with the intense heat of summer.  The dense mixture of foliage makes good habitat for birds and small animals.  There are Carob trees, Ceratonia siliqua and Bay Laurel, Laurus nobilis, which have culinary applicatons.  Myrtles, Mirtus communis are usually a shrub in the wild but there are specimens in the garden that are so ancient that they have attained the size of trees.  Oleasters, which are wild olives, can be grafted on with domestic stock making trees that can grow to great age and size, evident in a number of trees that are several hundred years old.  The fruit of the Dwarf Fan Palm, Chamaerops humilis was an ancient source of food, and the fronds were used to make baskets that were used to collect the oranges.  They were also used to make brooms and the fiber, when pounded could be used to make rope.
The native and naturalized plants of the Mediterranean Maquis cover the slopes too steep for cultivation
A 400 year old Carob Tree, Ceratonia siliqua growing amongst the ruins of the Temple of Zeus
White Poplar, Populus alba is a common tree throughout much of Europe.  It grows along the watercourse that runs through the bottom of the ravine and was used as to make veneers and as a building material.  The white trunks in winter contrast nicely with the red walls of the cliffs.  There are many corners to explore and simple wood benches were added to provide places to sit and savor the peace and beauty of the garden.  I was impressed by the modest way in which the garden was restored to reveal what I imagine was the true ambience of the original garden.  I felt as if I had spent a few hours in the Garden of Eden, feasting on its fruits and aromas.  The garden is filled with doves, a symbol of peace on Earth.  Their cooing added an element of bliss that left me feeling fulfilled in a way that I experience in my own beautiful garden at home.  What a beautiful place.
White Poplar Trees growing along the stream banks
A rustic trellis along a path

Myrtles growing amongst the ancient ruins
An afternoon in paradise...  I would like to thank Alessandro Tombelli of Firenze for recommending that I visit the Kolymbetra Garden.  It was divine!

Thanks for reading as always, Jeffrey


  1. i can smell the perfume coming from oranges....

  2. An incredible pictorial tour, and such information, I almost feel as though I were there amongst the citrus and almonds and flowering trees. Thank you, this was wonderful.

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  4. What a beautiful place to have a home and live away from problems. Maybe it would be more better if we will do a few landscaping projects here.

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  5. I thoroughly enjoyed your essay. The research you apply always leaves me feeling more refined and educated, for some are subjects that I would not necessarily encounter unless I travel to or near them. I too smell the fragrance that you beautifully describe in bloom. Thank you Jeffrey ox.

  6. Many thanks. I had enjoyed holidays in Sicily without hearing of Kolymbetra until seeing it mentioned in Inspector Montalbano. Your excellent blog saved me missing out completely.

  7. Awesome blog. I enjoyed reading your articles. This is truly a great read for me. I have bookmarked it and I am looking forward to reading new articles. Keep up the good work!
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  9. I visited this garden in September and so enjoyed your take on this beautiful place. Thanks for sharing. P.S. I was quite excited to see a grass snake, a common European water snake, in an ancient rock-enclosed water catchment pond in the garden!