Sicily’s National Parks
Sicily boasts some of the most stunning landscapes and areas of outstanding natural beauty in the Mediterranean, including a great number of nature reserves, national parks and other natural attractions. Here we detail three of Sicily’s national parks that are a ‘must see’ for the visitor or tourist.
Alcantara National Park
Among Sicily’s most beautiful sights are the Alcantara Gorges, situated on the northern slopes of Etna Volcano. Taking their name from Al Qantarah, an Arabic term for a sturdy Roman bridge strong enough to withstand frequent flooding, the Gorges are only a few kilometres away from the popular seaside town of Taormina, where Nobel Prize winner Halldor Laexness wrote most of his first novel. Taormina is an ideal destination for day trips.
The Alcantara Gorges are true wonders of the natural world, marking the point where the Alcantara river, which is one of the few streams in Sicily to have water running its length all the year round, crosses the path of several lava flows. The result of this meeting is a unique series of rock formations, formed from basalt as the lava cooled and then eroded over time by the passage of the river.
The walls of the Gorge are comprised of black lava, reaching up to fifty feet in places, and this environment is home to a number of rare species of animal, including wildcats, martens and weasels. Visitors to the Gorges can even go down into the water, either by stairs or elevator, although it is worth bearing in mind that it can be very cold, so appropriate footwear is recommended for those planning a visit. The Alcantara Gorges offer a number of hiking and walking trails of varying lengths and difficulties, with something to suit everyone. Due to the variety of paths they are accessible even during flood season. For those of a more culinary bent, there are also classes in Sicilian cooking held in the area, as well as more strenuous activities such as body rafting. There is also Gorge Beach; the perfect place to relax after a day spent exploring these beautiful surroundings.
Nebrodi National Park
On the other side of the Alcantara river from Mount Etna lies the southern edge of the Nebrodi mountain range, running across the northeast of Sicily and forming part of the Sicilian Apennines. Named for an extinct species of Sicilian deer, the Nebrodi reach their peak at Mount Soro, which is 1847 metres above sea level, making it the seventh highest peak in Sicily.
An area fiercely contested by America and Germany during World War 2 (due to its strategic importance as a base for the invasion of Italy), the Nebrodi region is today far better known for more peaceful reasons. It is Sicily’s largest natural park and an area of outstanding natural beauty. The area boasts a number of towns dating as far back as the fourth and fifth century AD, often containing the remains of Byzantine churches and monasteries. This includes the spectacular remains of the Roman basilica at Tindari, believed to have been built as a gymnasium at the end of the first century.
For those who are interested in the local wildlife, Nebrodi is home not only to the San Fratello wild horse, but also the Nebrodian black pig, from which the celebrated Salame Sant’Angelo di Brodo is made, as well as delicious hams. Still relatively unspoiled by tourism, Nebrodi is a fascinating region to explore for those of an adventurous bent, with plentiful opportunities for hiking and mountain biking. Most of its slopes feature olive groves, with olive and chestnut trees becoming common the higher up you go, while lower down near the water there are almost-wild orange groves. For those with a taste for all things equestrian, Nebrodi can be a wonderful place to take in the majestic scenery from horseback.
Madonie National Park
Equally beautiful is the regional national park of Madonie, located between Cefalu and Palermo, which contains rock outcroppings dating as far back as two million years and comprising a record of Sicily’s entire geological history. Comprised of fifteen municipalities and 400 square kilometres in size, Madonie is an ideal place to go walking, and from its higher reaches one can see some of the most spectacular views Sicily has to offer.
The Madonie mountain range’s highest peak is Pizzo Carbonara, which at 1979 metres is the highest point in Sicily apart from Mount Etna itself. Like Nebrodi, Madonie is an ideal location for hiking, mountain biking or horse-riding, and contains an adventure playground for the children, as well as playing host to the yearly Ypsigrock music festival in the summer, which has been a popular event for nearly twenty years. As well as the most southerly beech forests in Europe, Madonie is home to the majestic Bonelli’s Eagle. And if all this has tired you out, why not relax on the Piano Zucchi, the plain from which the mountains can be accessed and a sublime spot for a picnic, even featuring barbecues for public usage
For those looking to make the most of their trip to Sicily, whether that’s a tourist favourite like the Gorges or somewhere a little off the beaten track like the mountain parks, Alcantara, Nebrodi and Madonie national parks provide unparalleled opportunities to explore, have adventures, or simply to marvel at the wonders of nature and the rich historic and cultural heritage that the island has to offer.