The Alcantara Gorges, characteristics and history
Sicily offers beauties for all tastes, both artistic and natural. The Alcantara Gorges belong to this second category, located in the valley of the same name that embraces the municipalities of Castiglione di Sicilia (in the province of Catania) and Motta Camastra (in the province of Messina). Let’s get to know this naturalistic spectacle in more detail.
Historical notes and description
The formation of the Alcantara riverbed dates back to about 300,000 years ago, although it is “only” in the last 8,000 years that the current appearance of the gorges has formed. A process that has therefore led over the years to the formation of this natural canyon, with gorges up to 25 meters high and 2 meters wide in the narrowest points and 4-5 meters in the widest points.
The Alcantara river flows between lava stone, which forms its characteristic riverbed. On the territory of Motta Camastra (specifically, in the locality of Fondaco Motta) there is the most impressive and famous gorge of the Alcantara, more than 6 kilometers long and easily accessible for the first 3.
The peculiarity of this gorge consists in how its walls are structured, created by basaltic lava flows (poor in silicon but rich in iron, magnesium and calcium). The lava then cooled very quickly creating pentagonal and hexagonal prismatic shapes, which recall the molecular structure of the materials that constitute it.
The appearance of the river in the stretch of the gorges is traced back to the magma flows of the last 8,000 years. In this sense, there are various theses. The most recent identify three successive flows from cracks and mouths that opened in the area of Monte Dolce, in the lower-middle Etna slope. These flows appear overlapping, specifically along the left wall of the river.
The oldest flow is the one that reached Capo Schisò, on the sea. The columnar basalts (rocks of volcanic origin) visible in the gorges are those of the less ancient flow and would be the product of rapid cooling, caused by the presence of river water. These form prismatic structures of different configurations: “stack”, “harp” and radial. The vertical “organ pipe” formations in some cases reach 30 meters.
Excursion and activities to do
To visit the Alcantara Gorges to their most pristine parts, a recommended activity is a Body Rafting excursion. After putting on the technical equipment (a wetsuit, a helmet, river shoes and a life jacket) you start walking inside the river in the canyon section where the 30 meters high walls made of lava rocks are a geological marvel and the biggest attraction of the Alcantara river park. Along the ascent of the river you climb the rocks, swim against the current and pass some spectacular rapids. An unusual experience and definitely not to be missed.
There is also the possibility of not limiting your tour to the Alcantara Gorges only. In fact, if other natural attractions are also of interest, such as the entire Alcantara Valley, there is the possibility of taking long and relaxing walks. For those who prefer something more stimulating than a simple walk, it is advisable to visit the area by mountain bike or quad.
Places to visit near the gorges
During the journey that takes you to the Alcantara Gorges, there are also other places that may attract your attention. Among the municipalities that embrace the homonymous valley there is in fact the aforementioned Castiglione di Sicilia, considered one of the most beautiful villages in Italy. Inside – among the many noteworthy monuments – it houses the Cuba of Santa Domenica, probably the most important Byzantine cuba present in Sicily.
Another interesting place in the area, especially for nature lovers, is the Alcantara River Park. It is an area dominated by the Mediterranean scrub, with various species of broom and Peony mascula. Going further south, dense hazelnut woods, citrus groves and vineyards alternate. As a fauna there are instead about 200 species of birds including the peregrine falcon, the kestrel and the lodolaio. Other animals present are the fox, the wild cat, the marten, the dormouse, the hedgehog, the porcupine, the Savi vole and the Sicilian crocidura. Near the banks you can find the painted discoglossus (typical amphibian of Sicily) and the leopard snake (a beautiful and rare reptile). Finally, among the fish species we find the rainbow trout, roach, eel and goby.
How to get to the Alcantara gorges
Leaving by car from Catania, take the A18 motorway towards Messina and exit at Giardini Naxos. From the motorway exit, you must continue for twelve kilometers in the direction of Francavilla di Sicilia. Coming instead from the Bronte-Randazzo, you have to get to Castiglione di Sicilia and from here continue to Naxos.
If, on the other hand, the starting point is Messina, you must take the SS 114 (which goes to Catania), turn off at Giardini Naxos towards the SS 185 in the direction of Francavilla di Sicilia and after twelve kilometers you will reach the Alcantara Gorges.