ARCHAEOLOGICAL PARKS BETWEEN CATANIA AND TAORMINA
Not all the archaeological parks are surrounded by unspoilt nature and set kilometres away from the city centres. Some cities didn’t change a lot from their foundation to the present day. Don’t you believe it? You’ll have the proof by exploring the two archaeological parks between Catania and Messina.
Let’s begin with the Archaeological and Natural Park of Catania and the Aci Valley. The park opened recently (2019)
The first stage is the city of Catania. We find many archaeological sites among the streets of the beautiful Baroque city.
Catania survives time. Even the name of the Greek settlement, Katane, remains unchanged. The colony was founded shortly after Leontinoi (i.e. after 729 BC). Walking around Catania is like walking through time. Among the black Baroque churches and under the eye of Mount Etna, the city reveals its oldest remains.
Let’s start our tour with the Ancient Theatre and Odeion. The structure stands between Via Vittorio Emanuele, Via Crociferi and Teatro Greco. In the area, we find remains from the prehistoric era and features of the old theatre. The theatre was probably related to the sanctuary of Demeter and Kore (located in via Crofiferi ). The current structure dates back to Roman times. It was built in several stages and the first one dates back to the 1st century AD. Nearby are the Terme della Rotonda and the Terme Romane dell’Indirizzo. The formers are an example of a palimpsest. Between the 1st and 2nd centuries, a thermal structure with nine rooms stood in this area. In the 6th century, the structure was converted into a Church. Sacred images were painted inside, and a new series of frescoes were realised in the 18th century. Like the Terme della Rotonda, the Terme dell’Indirizzo also changed over the centuries. The baths are in Piazza Currò, near the old fish market. Their name comes from the Carmelite convent of Santa Maria dell’Indirizzo. A magnificent dome from the imperial era covers the octagonal hall. As we head up Via Bellini, we should stop to take a look at Piazza Stesicoro. It is the Roman amphitheatre (1st century AD). Continuing our walk towards Villa Bellini, we can also visit the Roman hypogeum, a monumental tomb from the Imperial Age (I-II AD). The last stop in town is at the Ex Manifattura Tabacchi. Here we will see the permanent exhibition Katane tra mito e rito, where we can admire several finds from the Greek period. On display are Attic vases, fictile small sculptures and a selection of votive items donated by the ancient inhabitants of Catania to Demeter and Kore.
Let’s move north from the centre of Catania and reach the archaeological area of Santa Venera al Pozzo in Acicatena (CT). The site lies on a green hill a few kilometres from the sea and stretches over nine hectares. The settlement was founded in the late Eneolithic period thanks to the presence of water springs with thermal properties. From the 5th century BC, cults dedicated to Demeter and Kore took place. Clay statues of the two Greek fertility goddesses give proof of cult activity. Numerous thermal rooms are still visible today, and all of them date from the 1st to the 4th centuries AD. The Church of Santa Venera (12th century, still existing) was built in this area during the Middle Ages. The Saint is related to the miraculous healings of the thermal waters. From 1873 the waters of Santa Venera were no longer used, and they were conveyed into the modern thermal baths of Acireale.
Let us move away from the coast and enter the hinterland until we reach Caltagirone. We visit the Museum of Ceramics in the Public Garden. The museum was founded in 1965 and is the second in Italy after the one in Faenza. Its collections are mainly composed of vases and ceramic items from the Middle Ages to the 19th century (not only from Caltagirone), but they also include some archaeological findings from the area. An interesting find is the limestone relief from Monte San Mauro (from the Greek period) with a pair of sphinxes (540 BC). We should also pay attention to the large Attic black-figure krater with Gigantomachia on side A and the fight of Heracles with the Nemean Lion on side B. Don’t miss the red-figure Attic goblet krater representing a potter working on a potter’s wheel (a very unusual scene for a pictorial representation). Head north again to reach Adrano, the last stop in the Catania Park. The site is on the slopes of Mount Etna. Here we visit the Mura Dionigiane (4th-2nd century B.C.), part of the ancient Adranon walls. We continue our visit with the Norman Dongione. It is a medieval castle that almost suddenly appears in Piazza Umberto. Let us take some more time to visit the Regional Museum, where we will admire some archaeological collections. The findings come from the western slopes of Mount Etna and the Catania plain.
Head north-east to enter the Archaeological Park of Naxos and Taormina. Naxos is located on the Schisò promenade (Giardini Naxos) and is the first Greek colony in Sicily. It was founded in the second half of the 8th century B.C. The remains of the ancient city are the ruins of 13 dwellings from the end of the 8th century B.C., some fortifications from the 6th century B.C. and the sanctuary dedicated to Hera or Aphrodite. We also visit the Archaeological Museum, whose collections include artefacts from excavations carried out for more than 50 years. Among the city’s most representative items are the antefixes (carved and painted tiles) with Silenic masks. They bear witness to the cult of Dionysus. Not far away is the Naval Arsenal: this is the former port area, which stretches north of the town centre. It housed the most famous warships of antiquity, known as triremes.
We arrive in Taormina. The city needs no introduction. The first site of archaeological interest that we discover is very famous. It is the Ancient Theatre. It stands in a dominating position at the top of the hill. The theatre is famous not only for the beauty of the view but also for the stunning shows. The cavea measures 109 m in diameter. After the one in Syracuse, it is the largest theatre in Italy and Africa. The original structure dates back to III-II BC. The Casina degli Inglesi is home to the 19th-century Antiquarium of the Theatre and houses the epigraphic collection of Taormina.
Strolling through the streets of this beautiful city, we can also visit the Odeon. Here we see the remains of a peripteral temple, partially enclosed in the foundations of the Church of Santa Caterina. Behind the Carabinieri barracks, we can admire the thermal baths. We take a last look at the famous Isola Bella, one of the most evocative and renowned landscapes of the Mediterranean (numerous underwater archaeological finds testify that it was a popular place in antiquity). Moving away from the centre, we see Castel Tauro, a monumental complex founded by the Arabs in 902. The Greek acropolis stood on this site. You can reach the castle on foot from the Salita Castello in Via Circonvallazione or from the Salita Branco in Via Dietro i Cappuccini in Taormina.
Are you tired? The tour is about to end. Let’s visit the other sites included in the park: the archaeological area of Francavilla di Sicilia. It is in the heart of the Alcantara Valley, and here we can see the remains of a mysterious, unidentified Greek city. Further north, in Castelvecchio Siculo, we find the Monastery and Basilian Church of Saints Peter and Paul, a fortified monastery with a defensive function. This monastery was a military fortress: the monks had weapons and swords. It is the best- preserved fortified monastery in the province of Messina.