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.
La Gole Alcantara (lah goh-leh ahl-kahn-tahr-ah; Alcantara Gorge) is a gorge along a major river on the eastern coast of Sicily, near Taormina. 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. I only found it because I was trolling around Viatour, looking for some ideas of what to do on my free weekends here.
My understanding of geology is pretty much nil, so all the information I read online 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 as the result of volcanic activity somewhere around 8,000 years ago (we’ll leave out the part where some of the signs were designed for children). Even 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.
The signs (the ones not intended for children) also told another story: one of love and betrayal in the icy waters of the Alcantara River. Legend has it that Venus 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, and he fell in love with the beautiful Venus. They courted a bit, and as a sign of his devotion to her, he used his powers in the forges of Etna to make the water in Venus’ favorite bathing place warm.
Unfortunately for Vulcan, Venus had a fickle heart, and when he found 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.
This 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.
To visit the Gorge: The park is more like a botanical garden than an actual hiking point, so even if you’re not in the best shape, you’ll be able to enjoy the visit (just wear suitable shoes). However, on my way out, I noticed a sign for a public entrance to the Gorge, about 150 meters up the road. I think that more serious hikers might find something to their liking up there.
Otherwise, getting there is fairly simple.
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.
Note: The bus stop for the bus going to Alcantara is across the street from the station. No one told me, 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.