By Jeanne Outlaw-Cannavo
I’ve often focused on telling our readers about the many beautiful sites and history of Sicily. I have a true and lasting connection to il bel paese but the island became my second home and continually calls to me like the sirens did to ancient mariners.
During one of our first summers in Sicily the family told us about the nearby Gole Alcantara. A local attraction, over the years it has become more popular with tourists who increasingly flock to Sicily. It turns out we had driven several times past what is one of the island’s best-kept secrets, the Alcantara River Park, Parco fluviale dell’Alcantara, in the Alcantara River Gorge.
The park was established in 2001 for the protection of the river, and to encourage its use as a relaxation area and tourist destination. The columns and surroundings can be seen in the 2015 film “Tale of Tales.”
The 32-mile-long Alcantara has its source on the south side of Monti Nebrodi and its mouth in the Ionian Sea at Capo Schiso in Giardini-Naxos. The name Alcantara is of Arabic originالقنطر , al-Qanṭarah, “the Arch,” and refers to a bridge from Roman times found by the Arabs.
Several thousand years ago, the river bed was blocked by a lava flow from Mount Etna. As the lava was cooled much more quickly by the water than it would have done otherwise, it crystallized in the form of columns. Over the next millennia, the river naturally eroded a channel through these columns, resulting an impressive gorges and ravines.
On our first visit we walked through the parking lot to the snack bar so we could pay for a tour to the upper gorge. Guides and proper gear are essential as there have been numerous incidents of people venturing there on their own and falling on slippery rocks. A poster board near the entrance highlights the tour and gives you an idea of what to expect. We purchased our tour tickets and then took the elevator down approximately 223 feet.
The view from the parking lot is impressive but even more striking from the bottom looking up. We explored the immediate area with a small beach and snack bar after wading through a shallower part of the river. This took some doing as the water is quite cold.
The lava canyons and basalt rock have been shaped for centuries by the river that flows through and can be slippery in many areas as well as jagged. The patterns of the gorges, splayed with sunlight in some areas and darkened by the narrowness of the gorges in others, could only have been fashioned by the awesome power of Mother Nature.
While there are several walking trails through natural botanical gardens, for us the highlight of our first trip was our journey through the main gorge up to a canyon with a waterfall which feeds the river.
After watching several groups of people led into the canyon it was finally our turn. We suited up and put on helmets and were asked to confirm that we could all swim. It was a small group that ventured into the entrance and before we had walked to far the water became over our heads and we had to swim for a short distance. Then the rapids began and the gorge became narrower and we had to start climbing up rocks to bypass spots where we could not stay in the water. There was lots of joking but also warnings to go slow and take care, but we finally made it to the top.
We all stood in silence when we reached the circular cavern, turning in circles to watch the waterfall cascade into the shallow pool below. I noticed the rest of the group had circled around the guide and one of the visitors was lying flat on their back with their arms crossed over their chest and their legs held straight together. I wandered over to see what was going on and soon found out that though we had swam, walked and climbed our way up we were not going back in the same way!
I heard the words “body surf,” and suddenly realized why we had on thick rubber wetsuits and helmets. The first person was pushed off and whirled through a series of rapids and chutes. I wasn’t so sure I wanted to go back this way but I had to set an example for my nervous daughter. I blurted out I was ready, lay down and was pushed off before I could change my mind. My body whipped down the chute-like rapids, and dropped into a whirlpool where my head (protected by the helmet) banged a few times against the rock wall and then swept off again as I brought my legs back up. Finally I reached the bottom and stood up. It was exhilarating and I began motioning to my daughter that I was OK and she should come next. Suffice it to say she was having none of it and had to ride in tandem back down with the guide. We still talk about this experience to this day.
In subsequent visits we enjoyed more of the Gole, following the river in the other direction where there are large sauna-like whirlpools formed by massive boulders. On a hot day we love to alternate between wading in the water or sitting on the beach and talking to people from all over the world. On our last visit two years ago my grandson made friends with locals and children from France and England as they played a game of water soccer.
At the end of the day the skies turned cloudy with a storm rolling in. We quickly gathered our towels, waded across to the steps (over 100) and ran up them as fast as we could laughing as the rain soaked us thoroughly. Fifteen minutes later the sun was shining again.
If a visit to Sicily now is on your bucket list, be sure to include the Gole Alcantara on your itinerary. IAH
Into the gorges of Alcantara
By Jeanne Outlaw-Cannavo