Giardini Naxos was one of the few archaeological sites within easy driving distance from the Catania area that we hadn't yet made an effort to visit, that is until last week. It was on our mental list of things to do when looking for an outing, and finally, a Saturday morning ALONE appeared before us (toddler is now attending a local preschool..and I have to say as a parent I am LOVING the Italian system of 'school on Saturdays'). We jumped the chance to scoot on the road and get out of our 1 km radius comfort zone.
It felt great to take the highway towards Taormina. And less than 45 minutes later, we found ourselves in modern Giardini Naxos, a not so pretty resort town (although I did see a cute little playground just across from the sea) that hugs the rather stunning Naxos Bay, all in the shadow of Taormina's breathtaking outline. More than archaeology, this place is famous for the bay's crystal clear water, the stunning view of Mt. Etna behind it, and its proximity to Taormina.
The archaeological site, named after the Greek island Naxos its settlers were believed to originate from, is located next to the town's small port. While the natural surroundings are beautiful, the town itself is a little concrete jungle with very few signs of history to be seen. However, once you step through the entrance gate of the archaeological zone, all that suffocating construction can pretty readily be forgotten, helped by the unobstructed views of Taormina always visible in the distance (as seen in the photo).
Imagine rustic stone country house converted into a museum. Meandering path through fields overgrown with weeds and wildflowers. Scraggly citrus trees (giardini means citrus grove in Sicilian). The occassional sign-posted ancient basalt stone remains. And, except for numerous personnel in the museum (all reading newspapers by the way), and one friendly (and I imagine lonely, or bored, or both) guard on the site, we had the place entirely to ourselves.
After a visit to the little museum (the well-preserved painted terracotta architectural elements were my favorite), we followed the marked path through the site, at least a 10 minute walk. For most of that, the feeling of being in a secluded natural paradise dominated, rather than the feeling of being in the first Greek settlement in Sicily. This is an extremely important site, but judging from the abundance of weeds, there are apparently no resources going into maintaining the uncovered remains in a visible or understandable state. The majority of the remains themselves are not that impressive, and the overgrown condition of the site certainly didn't lend to their appreciation. Not that the nature-loving/romantic side of me really minded, as it was suggestive and beautiful all the same, but working in the field of cultural heritage preservation, my professional self felt sad to see such an important ancient site for this region relatively neglected. I can only hope that dry summer months make the site look more like it is pictured on the web link above.
It was only at the very end of our walk that the site's most impressive structures could be seen and appreciated, weeds and all: a 5oo meter stretch of the ancient city's wall, and two very well preserved ancient pottery kilns sheltered by an impressive covering. The lengthy wall truly gave a sense of the place's size, while ancient kilns are rarer to see making it an exciting discovery for us. Reading in the guidebook post-visit (oops) I realized we missed seeing well-preserved polygonal walls and the so-called Sea Gate, which apparently no longer has views of the sea, which are unfortunately blocked by a row of seaside houses conveniently just outside the 'archaeological zone'.
On leaving the site, the shock of the 1960s Sicilian new may have been more disturbing than on the way in. But I managed to focus on the parts I liked (the views, the water) and bottle up the sensations of the experience--peaceful, invigorating, interesting--tightly enough so they stayed with me all the way home and well throughout the day. A success I'd say!