Monday, September 27, 2021

Zipline between mountain towns gives new meaning to phrase, “I gotta fly.”

Dave flies in from Pietrapertosa.
It’s called the Flight of the Angel, but “Fly Like Superman” might be a more appropriate name. Whatever you call it, soaring headfirst across a mountain valley on a steel zipline is an exhilarating experience that challenges the ordinary person’s boundaries of derring-do.

We hike up above Castelmezzano to start our Flight of the Angel.

When I first considered where to vacation in Southern Italy with a group of friends, the beauty of the hill towns of Basilicata caught my eye. But once I saw a video of people safely soaring nearly 3,000 feet above a valley that separates two of the most interesting cliffside towns in Italy, I knew this had to be on our list.

Castelmezzano (where we are staying for four days) and nearby Pietrapertosa, both seemingly glued onto the side of unusual rock formations, are incredible towns in their own right. They are part of I Borghi più Belli d’Italia—the most beautiful villages in Italy—by an Italian association that notes small towns of strong artistic and historical interest.

. . . and it was not an easy half-hour hike.
In 2007 Castelmezzano was chosen by Budget Travel magazine among “The best places you’ve never heard of,” while The Telegraph included the city among its list of “Italy’s 19 most beautiful villages” in 2017, calling it “one of southern Italy’s most stunningly located villages.” CNN in 2019 listed Pietropertosa, the highest town in Basilicata, among “20 of the most beautiful villages in Italy.”

Even with these distinctions, the towns suffered from a common problem among isolated Italian hill towns—dwindling population because of their remoteness. But Il Volo dell’Angelo has done wonders for the economies of these two villages. When we arrived at noon on a Sunday in late September, we could scarcely find a place to park in the outskirts of Castelmezzano. We had planned to take our flights the following day, but our bed and breakfast host informed us that the Volo only operates on weekends at this time of year. He made a quick phone call to reserve our spots, and we hustled to the ticket booth to receive instructions about how to arrive at the launching point. We bought our tickets and went back to our rooms, where we had an hour to eat lunch, catch a quick rest and make mental preparations.

With my helmet tipped back, I could see ahead, but it's still not easy to hold that position.

We learned that there are two zip lines between the towns, with different start and finish points. At 2:45 p.m., we caught a shuttle bus to our departure point. Well, not quite the starting point, because we still faced a moderately strenuous but beautiful and scenic 30-minute hike to a high rocky summit where our first flight would commence. At a shed at the top, helpful guides outfitted us with helmets and harnesses that we’d need to be fastened to the sturdy 4767-foot-long steel cable that runs to just outside of Pietrapertosa. We were told that another shuttle bus would take us into Pietropertosa, and we would have a couple of hours to explore it before taking the return zip line back to a point just above Castlemezzano, where another shuttle would return us to our point of origin.

The Norman castle in Pietrapertosa.

Were we scared? Of course, but I think a couple of factors helped keep us calm. One was knowing that thousands of people have already done the flight safely, so in that respect, this would be way safer than driving a car in Italy. The other is that putting on all the gear and following instructions to put ourselves in the proper prone flying position distracted us. From a standing position, we were told to fall forward, trusting that the harness would prevent us from doing a face-plant on the platform. Then we had to lift our legs and push out while the flight assistants secured our feet in a stirrup. Our hands had to go behind our backs; it was not permitted to put them out like wings or in front of us like Superman. As I looked down on the platform, I read a sign written only in Italian advising me to look up at the end, as someone would be taking a photo as we came in for a landing.

As I took off and gained speed, I was further distracted by the fact that my helmet was down so low on my forehead that I couldn’t really look ahead. I wasn’t sure if putting my hands out to adjust it might somehow throw me off balance, so I satisfied myself with just looking down and enjoying the view. Traveling at a speed of 120 kph (74 mph) with my eyes watering on a flight that lasted a little more than a minute, I can’t say I fully appreciated the scenic splendors beneath me. Toward the end, I did reach up one hand and push my helmet back, with no loss of balance; I should have just done that at the beginning.

Braking is automatic but a bit abrupt and does not take place until one is right over the small exit platform, which could be unsettling for a person who lacks trust in the process. When my pulley mechanism hit the brake apparatus, it made a “chunk” sound, and for a split second I thought I had struck my chest on the platform, though in reality I passed several feet above it. I continued on past the platform, but the elastic band of the brake then pulled me backwards for an easy dismount.

My three traveling companions had all gone before me and described similar experiences. Lucy’s helmet had been too small and also prevented her from looking forward. She felt a little afraid in the first seconds, but then, she said, “I thought back to a hot air balloon ride I had once taken, where you’re way up there but can’t do anything about it, so you just go along with it.

“I decided to use the time to talk to God,” Lucy said. “I prayed for different people in need. I thanked God for the world he made and for my husband. Then I just looked down and saw the trees below that looked like shoots of broccoli.”

Wendy smiles after landing.
“When I first heard about this, I really didn’t think I would do it, and afterwards I couldn’t believe I had done it,” Wendy said. “My heart was racing from the excitement and the jerking stop. But it went by too fast.”

“I was anticipating how they were going to strap you in and wondering how I would keep my eyes open when I went over the edge,” Dave said.
“This kept me from thinking too much about how high off the ground I would be. It wasn’t like a sudden fall on a bungee jump; you just glide smoothly off because the tension on the line was constant.”

"I can't believe I did it!!"
After a nice stroll through Pietrapertosa, we had a good view of a 1,000-year-old Norman castle while waiting for our names to be called for the return flight. We all enjoyed the trip back more than the first crossing. Lucy’s helmet fit properly this time, and I pushed mine back before takeoff. Dave had his GoPro camera fastened to his helmet instead of his waist, so this time he could record what he saw. We knew what to expect and could be more aware of the scenery and the feeling of flying.

At 45 euros per person (it costs less on weekdays in the summer), this was an expensive excursion, but we have no regrets and would gladly do it again. Though the actual time on the line is short, the experience also includes hikes through Castelmezzano and Pietrapertosa, not to mention the scenic but challenging hike to the

first launching point. Luckily we did it in late September instead of July or August, because the temperature was mild and the crowds small. I would not want to do this in 90-degree-plus temperatures and then have to wait two hours in line. I also wish the zipline had not gone so fast so I could have enjoyed the scenery more, and it would have helped if I could have been in a slightly more upright position. Did Superman get a sore neck from looking straight ahead all the time?

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