Sicily is the largest and most populous island in the Mediterranean Sea, and one of the 20 regions of Italy. It has a rich and unique culture, especially with regard to the arts, music, literature, cuisine, and architecture. It also boasts a diverse and stunning natural landscape, with mountains, volcanoes, beaches, and islands.
One of the most impressive and lesser-known attractions in Sicily is the Gole dell’Alcantara, a basaltic canyon carved by the Alcantara river in the eastern part of the island. In this article, we will explore the history, geology, and beauty of this amazing place, and give you some tips on how to visit it.
The Gole dell’Alcantara have a long and fascinating history that dates back to ancient times. The name Alcantara comes from the Arabic al-qantarah, meaning “the bridge”, referring to a Roman bridge that crossed the river near the town of Francavilla di Sicilia. The river was also known as Akesines by the Greeks and Assinus by the Romans.
The canyon was formed by lava flows from Mount Etna, the largest and most active volcano in Europe, that cooled rapidly in contact with the water of the river. The lava cracked into polygonal columns of basalt, creating a spectacular geometric pattern on the walls of the gorge. The canyon was largely unknown until the 19th century, when it was explored by naturalists and geologists.
In 1951, it was declared a natural monument by the Sicilian government.
The Gole dell’Alcantara are a unique example of basaltic columnar jointing, a phenomenon that occurs when lava cools and contracts into regular shapes. The columns can have different numbers of sides, from three to twelve, depending on the rate of cooling and the stress conditions. The most common are hexagonal columns, which can be seen in other places around the world, such as the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland or the Devil’s Postpile in California.
The columns in the Gole dell’Alcantara are mostly vertical, but some are horizontal or curved, forming different configurations such as “woodpile”, “harp”, or “rosette”. The columns can reach up to 30 meters in height, and vary in diameter from 30 to 50 centimeters. The color of the basalt ranges from black to gray to brown, depending on the oxidation and weathering of the minerals.
The Gole dell’Alcantara are not only a geological wonder, but also a scenic attraction that offers stunning views and experiences. The canyon is about 6 kilometers long, but only 3 kilometers are accessible to visitors.
The gorge varies in width from 2 to 5 meters at its narrowest points, to 50 meters at its widest. The depth of the river also varies from a few centimeters to several meters. The water is crystal clear and cold, with an average temperature of 8 degrees Celsius.
The contrast between the dark basalt and the turquoise water creates a striking visual effect that changes with the light and the seasons. The canyon is surrounded by lush vegetation, with olive trees, citrus fruits, almonds, figs, and prickly pears growing on its slopes. The canyon is also home to a variety of wildlife, such as birds, fish, frogs, lizards, and butterflies.
How to visit
There are several ways to visit the Gole dell’Alcantara, depending on your preferences and abilities. The easiest way is to enter from the Botanical and Geological Park (Parco Botanico e Geologico), located near Motta Camastra. Here you can access a platform that overlooks the canyon from above, or take a staircase that leads you down to the riverbed. You can walk along the river for about 200 meters, admiring the basalt columns and feeling the cold water on your feet. You can also rent rubber boots or wetsuits if you want to go further into the water. The entrance fee for the park is 13 euros for adults and 8 euros for children.
Another way to visit the canyon is from Francavilla di Sicilia, where you can follow a trail called Le Gurne that runs along both sides of the river. This trail is free and allows you to see different sections of the gorge and some waterfalls. You can also cross a wooden bridge that connects the two banks of the river.
A more adventurous way to visit the canyon is by doing body rafting or trekking fluviale (river trekking), which consist of floating or swimming down the river with the help of a guide and a life jacket. This way you can explore the most hidden and wild parts of the canyon, and enjoy the thrill of the rapids and the jumps. You can book this activity with several agencies that operate in the area, such as Gole Alcantara or Alcantara Discovery. The price ranges from 30 to 50 euros per person, depending on the duration and difficulty of the tour.
The Gole dell’Alcantara are a must-see for anyone who loves nature and adventure. They are a unique and beautiful example of how volcanic activity can shape the landscape and create amazing formations. They are also a place where you can enjoy different activities, from relaxing walks to exciting water sports. If you are planning to visit Sicily, don’t miss the chance to discover this hidden gem in the heart of the island.