Sicily is known for its gorgeous landscapes, but few places are quite as stunning as the Alcantara Gorge. Nestled between Messina and Catania, la Gole Alcantara (lah goh-leh ahl-kahn-tahr-ah) makes a great day trip for anyone who’s looking to get outside – and maybe hear a fascinating story.
La Gole Alcantara
Less than an hour from Taormina, la Gole Alcantara is a gorge along the Alcantara River on the eastern coast of Sicily. The river itself is essentially the border between the provinces of Messina to the north and Catania to the south. It’s also one of those places that you don’t really hear about unless you’re doing a cruise, and your crew suggests a day trip that spends the morning on Etna and the afternoon body surfing in Alcantara as one of your land excursions.
Today, visitors to the Alcantara Gorge get to it by entering through the nearby botanical gardens. There are lovely walking paths, lookout points, and a set of stairs that take you down to the water’s edge. All along the way, there are signs that explain what you’re looking at, and why it’s more than just pretty rocks.
Several thousand years ago, the earth split open.
It spewed fire and ash, and molten rock oozed everywhere, cooling and hardening as it went. The new rock covered all of the old land, and green things could grow no more. The hardening rock spread and spread, seemingly unstoppable. Until it came to a river.
The river was very cold, much colder than the lava, even as it was cooling. As the lava slid into the river, the ice-cold waters chilled it faster than it could handle, and it cracked. Lava learns no lessons, and the process continued. Lava would slide into the river, and the river would freeze it, and the new lava-rock would crack.
At least, that’s my understanding.
According to geologists, the formation of the volcanic rock that forms the canyons started over 300,000 years ago. However, the main action took place about 8,000 years ago. The Alcantara River wound its way over the rocks, eventually eroding it down into a deep gorge.
My knowledge of geology is pretty much nil, so all the information I read online before going didn’t really help me understand anything about the place. Luckily for me, the signs that I read all around the Gole Alcantara described the formations in the rock and how they could come from a volcano. (We’ll leave out the part where some of the signs were designed for children.) Even back then, the water in the Alcantara River must have been very cold, because none of the rest of the lava rock in this region looks quite like the lava rock in Alcantara.
A Love Gone Cold
The signs (the ones not intended for children) also told another story. This one is about love and betrayal in the icy waters of the Alcantara River.
Legend has it that none other than Venus herself liked to take dips in one of the natural pools formed by the rock bed and the river. Vulcan lived nearby, just over by Mount Etna. In fact, it was his forges that caused the mountain to run hot. He fell in love with the beautiful Venus, and they courted a bit. As a sign of his devotion to her, Vulcan used his forges at Etna to make the water in Venus’ favorite bathing place warm.
Unfortunately for Vulcan, Venus had a notoriously fickle heart. Pair that with her wandering eye, and that spells the tragic end of any love affair. When he learned out that she’d found someone else, he stopped warming the river for her. To this day, the water in the Alcantara River is ice cold.
Toes in the Water
Ice cold is not an exaggeration.
I went on a lovely early-summer day, when it was about 75 degrees in the shade. A friend of mine had told me not to go into the water. She implied that my legs would freeze and fall off if I did. Psh, I said. I’m from Michigan, I said. It can’t be that cold.
It was actually that cold. Vulcan doesn’t mess around.
Visiting the Gole Alcantara:
Getting there: Take the train to the Taormina-Giardini station. At the station, go into the bar at the far end of the station, and ask the man at the counter for a return ticket to Alcantara. It’ll cost just over €4. Then, go outside and wait for the bus. You can check the times for the bus at interbus.it, searching Giardini Naxos to Gole Alcantara. You can ask your bus driver to announce the stop for you.
Admission: If you enter the Park by yourself, there is no charge for entry, although there is an admission charge of €13 for the Botanical Gardens. The park offers some experiential packages, which include tours and wine tastings, which start at €4. If you decide to take a tour, you’ll have to pay the tour price – those range between €50 and €75, depending on the package.
Opening hours: Open daily from 8:00 AM to 7:00 PM.
Good to know:
- The bus stop for the bus going to Alcantara is across the street from the station. No one told me this, and I had to wait about an hour and a half after I missed the bus because I was on the wrong side of the street.
- The paths in the Botanical Garden are quite easy, so even if you’re not in the best shape, you’ll be able to enjoy the visit (just wear suitable shoes).
- If you’re a more serious hiker, look for the National Park entrance, which is 150 meters farther up the road.