Gurne dell’Alcantara – trail of the river trapped in the basaltic rocks.

Recently I went again on a trip to the Alcantara River Park (Parco Fluviale dell’Alcantara). I always liked this route. Trail for weaker days, easy, without need to climb.  The walls of the ravine and high trees cover the river with its greenery and protect from the wind. It will take us around two hours to complete the trail.

This part of the river is less known and less frequented than the famous Alcantara River Gorge (Gole dell’Alcantara what allows us to relax away from the groups of tourists.

Alcantara is born near the town of Floresta in the mountains of Nebrodi. It runs for 53 kilometers between the slopes of Nebrodi, Peloritani and Mount Etna to reach the Ionian Sea in the picturesque Giardini Naxos.

Al quantar “The Bridge”, that’s how Arabs who dominated Sicily in 9th century called the river, probably referring to the bridge built by the Romans in the vicinity of town Francavilla di Sicilia, at the foot of which flows Alcantara. This name has remained in use to the present day.

The history of the human settlements in these areas since the prehistoric times is closely related to the existence of the river. Archaeological excavations confirm the presence of human settlements in the territory of the Valley of Alcantara (Valle dell’Alcantara) already in the first period of the bronze age (about 2500 p.n.).

At the entrance to the trail of the natural reserve we spot a fenced and covered with decayed sheets of eternite remnants of the Greek settlement on 5th century BC. Unfortunately, there is nothing to see here, because the whole site is simply abandoned. It has survived for nearly 2,500 years, so hopefully it will last long enough to survive the impotent Sicilian administrators, who having in their hands such a treasure are not able to use it.

Along the road we pass also stone made water channels (it. saja), forming an irrigation system which in the past watered the nearby fields. This type of irrigation was introduced by Arabs.

At the beginning of the trail we go down the beaten path, along which grow countless species of trees, shrubs, grasses, and flowers. The most noteworthy are the aged oaks (Quercus pubescens). There are also olive trees, citrus trees, apple trees, walnuts, prickly pear, hackberry (Celtis australis) – called in italian “spaccapietre”, a tree of wood harder than stones.

So far, we do not see the river, but we start to hear its sound coming from the bottom of the ravine.

While walking we admire the view of the ruins of the fortress in Francavilla di Sicilia (Castello di Francavilla), probably built by the Normans. Also in this case medieval ruins are completely abandoned and the road leading to them is covered with rocks and bushes.

Through the leaves of shrubs and trees, we can finaly see turquoise water. We reach the path that leads us to the rocky riverbed. We walk carefully upstream on the water-carved stones, admiring the small waterfalls, the lush vegetation and the view of Castiglione di Sicilia, a picturesque town from the Norman domination. After a few tens of meters we go back to the main trail again.

We reach the road leading to the ruins of the Ciappa mill. This mill was part of an experimental project, thanks to which in the middle of the 19th century the towns of Castiglione and Francavilla were supplied with electricity produced using the Alcantara stream. These two towns were the first in Italy, next to Milan and Acireale, with the electricity provided.

We descend down the stone steps. On the way we meet a small chapel, which was built to cheer travelers who attend this route.

Again we reach the river bed. We come to a water dam constructed by ENEL, an Italian national power plant. The dam is still operating and is used in emergency situations. Despite the ban signs exposed on the bridge, we can easily go up (the bridge is completely safe and the signs are placed so that in case of any incident ENEL is exempted from civil liability). The view from the top is really phenomenal.

After crossing to the other side of the bridge, we continue the next section of the route up the river. We pull the shoes and wet our feet in the icy water. In the summer you can even swim here. Along the river grow oleanders, poplars, willows, platans (Platanus orientalis) and many other species of Sicilian fluvial flora. In the spring time in the park we can also admire the wild orchids.

Along the whole route there are a total of 16 lakes (gurne) of different sizes and depths. The landscapes are incredibly picturesque and relaxing. After about 2 kilometers up the river we return the same way.

The Alcantara river has been interrupted several times and its course changed as a result of the lava flowing through its bed. The volcanic basaltic rocks create in some places very characteristic structures. The most famous part of the park is Alcantara River Gorge (Gole dell’Alcantara) which walls in some points reach hights up to 40 meters. Its geometrical shapes and columns were formed as a result of the rapid cooling of the lava, which flowed into the icy river from the near volcanic cone. Alcantara Gorge was created by an earthquake that provoked the lava blocks to burst forming this natural fracture.

Gurne dell’Alcantara instead owe its gentle forms to the river flow, which through the millennium has carved specific geometries that make up the game of lights and shadows. These natural contrasts seem to create suggestive optical illusions. Their magic, along with the surrounding greenery, makes the trail along Alcantara a unique, surreal visit during which we are immersed into the world of nature and history.

Practical considerations.

  • As I have written before, the trail is easy and pleasant, adapted also for children. The length of the trail is about 4km to complete in 2 hours time.
  • Entrance is free of charge. There is no official entry.
  • There is no need for professional clothing or footwear. When walking down the river bed, you can either slip and wet your cloths. Take a swimsuit in the summer.
  • To get to Alcantara Fluvial Park by the means of public transport is not very easy. You can arrive at Francavilla di Sicilia with Interbus which run directly from Taormina or Giardini Naxos. Travel time is about 1 hour and cost €5.00 for a round trip. Timetable can be found on the Interbus website.
  • Check this helpful website with maps, descriptions and other useful information Naturalmente Reggia Valle dell’Alcantara

If you would like to book a private guided tour, please call 0039/3284375138 or write on trailsofsicily@gmail.com or on the Szlakami Sycylii – Trails of Sicily on Facebook.
Pick up from the hotel is possible.

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