Along the eastern coast of Sicily, at the bottom of the most active volcano in Europe, there is the so called Coast of the Cyclops. We are a few kilometres north from Catania, also known as the black city of Etna, after it has been nearly totally rebuilt in black basalt being surrounded by lava in 1669 and completely destroyed by an earthquake in 1693.
There is a few small fishing towns along this coast, such as Aci Trezza and Aci Castello. But why do we call it the Cyclops coast? Who were the Cyclops and where did they live?
To answer these questions we need to go back to Homer and the Odyssey‘s legend about Ulysses being imprisoned by Polifemo the Cyclop. This giant with one eye in the middle of his forehead, lived on Etna and worked at the forge of Hephaestus, the God of Fire, also known by the Latin name of Volcano. It is only thanks to his cunning that Ulysses managed to fool the Cyclop and blind him by poking his eye and escape along the coast, causing the giant to rage and throw lava stones at him.
These stones never got to hit Ulysses but ended up in the sea, a few hundred meters from the coast, and are now known as the Faraglioni of Aci Trezza.
This is obviously only a legend by Homer, the geological explanation is a little different. About 570.000 years ago, Etna did not exist and instead of the volcano there was a big bay called the pre-Etna Gulf.
During the submarine volcanic activity, volcanic material came up on the surface creating lava pillows and basalt columns. The sea at Aci Trezza is today a natural reserve called “Protected marine area of the Cyclops Islands”.
The riserva naturale integrale Isola Lachea e faraglioni dei Ciclopi goes from the north Capo Mulini to the south Aci Castello. Aci Castello is known for the fortress built on the 12 th century on pre-existent ruins from the Byzantine and even earlier Roman period. It is placed on a lavic rock 20 meters high characterised by the peculiar geological formation of pillows of lava. Inside the fortress there is a small civic museum, and without any doubts the incredible view of the coast will make it up for the fatigue after climbing it.
Another mythological legend tells us about the names of these small towns. Who was Aci?
The real name was Akis, a young shepherd in love with the nymph Galatea. Unfortunately he had a competitor, Polifemo the Cyclop. Polifemo knew that Galatea did not love him back, and that is why he killed Akis with a huge lava stone, hoping that once he was gone for ever, she would start loving him.
But Galathea got so upset knowing that his beloved one got killed by a stone, that she cried all her tears. The Gods felt compassion for the nymph’s grief, so they turned Akis into a river so as she could reunite with him for eternity.
All the villages and cities around the river got the name Akis, that with time became Aci. The river nowadays flows underground, being covered by several lava flows caused but multiple eruptions of Etna. Occasionally during strong rain the river comes out somewhere above the surface, and for the local inhabitants it is Akis showing himself once again.