In the mist of time, a small volcano north of mount Etna woke and poured forth an enormous quantity of lava which flowed down to the sea and beyond, to form Capo Schiṣ. The tortuous route taken by the lava flow was followed by a torrent of water which ploughed a channel through it, smoothing the lava and clearing away the aggregate. Towards the end of its journey, the water encountered more friable ground and, sweeping onwards, exposed two sheer cliffs of very hard basalt that had cooled and hardened into fascinating prism-like shapes. This is the gorge, only part of which is now accessible.
WHEN TO GO
The gorge is accessible when the water level is low, for a stretch between 50m and 200m. At the entrance to the gorge, waders can be hired to keep out the always freezing cold waters of the river. Normally, it is possible to walk up river from May to September. In the rest of the year, it is only possible to reach the entrance to the gorge. A lift can take visitors back up to the top of the gorge. Special camping facilities are available nearby. The river name, and valley’s, derives from Arabic Al Qantarah, dating back to the Arab domination, referring to the arched bridge built by the Romans that was capable of withstanding the force of the river in full spate.
The descent of foot affords a spectacular view of the entrance to the gorge. The river-bed stone cliffs rise over 50 metres above the narrow tongue of water awkwardly stretching their cumbersome beauty. Black geometric forms seem to confront each other ominously as they surge skywards. Their axes intersect, forming pentagonal and hexagonal prisms, irregular shapes which interplay with the light, creating forms both graceful and monstrous. Their massive bulk exaggerated by shadow seems accentuated further up the gorge, where the world suddenly seems to be composed of three elements: rock, water and sky. All the while, the sun defines contour and profile by casting its bright light deep into the darkness; occasionally, this is refracted into a thousand tiny mirrors by miniscule droplets of water that have been ejected by the waterfalls, which then collect together into rivulets that stream down the sheer rock face.
At one time the Alcantara river flowed calmly along its course, without crags, rapids or sheer drops making the valley fertile. But people there were evil: they hurt each other and had no respect for nature. Two brothers lived in the valley and cultivated a field of wheat. One of them was blind. When the time came to divide up the harvest, the sighted farmer took the grain measure and began sharing out the wheat. One measure for himself and one for his brother. Then, overtaken by greed, he decided to keep most of the harvest for himself. An eagle, happening to fly overhead, witnessed what was happening and reported the incident to God, who hurled a thunderbolt at the cheat, killing him outright. The thunderbolt also struck the heap of grain that had unjustly been set aside, turning it into a mountain of red earth from which poured a river of lava which flowed down to the sea.
Legend from Al Qantarah by L. Danzuso and E. Zinna.