Flight of the humble me


In Castelmezzano in south Italy you can zipline from one mountain top to another, as GEOFF POWERdiscovered, with his heart in his mouth

WHEN MY Italian friend Luca gave me the use of his apartment in Nardò for our first week in southern Italy, he had a bunch of recommendations to go with it. August is the month for sagre in Puglia, the local food festivals. Then there were day trips to Lecce and Otranto, and the best local cheeses, wines, and swimming areas to sort out. But perhaps his best advice was that we fly to Rome and hire a car. It meant we could break up the return journey and drive through Basilicata.

Basilicata is a sparsely populated region largely ignored by tourists. Luca’s suggestion, however, which we took, was to stay in the distinctive and dramatic Matera, a large town with an ancient core built out of the rock, known as Sassi (literally “stones”). It is a Unesco World Heritage site, and was a location for Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ.

“And the Flight of the Angel – Volo dell’Angelo– you could do that,” Luca added with a mixture of awe and dread. I wasn’t sure if this was another biblical reference. “No, you’re suspended on wires; you zip between two cliff-top villages.”

He had me confused. He explained. A few years ago he had travelled to a remote area of Basilicata with his girlfriend and mother with one thing in mind. But, he grinned sheepishly: “They wouldn’t let me do it. They pulled me back – they didn’t want me to die.”

Il Volo dell’Angelo is one of Italy’s little secrets, in an area of incredible beauty. “You have to do it,” Luca urged. “You have to tell me what it’s like.”

Driving in Italy is an experience at the best of the times but reaching the Dolomites of Lucania, where the volo takes place, is an adventure that soars. You negotiate tight hairpins, urged forward all the time by exuberant tail-gating as local drivers attack the climb.

Castelmezzano is one of two neighbouring villages (the other being Petrapertosa) perched at 1,000m amid peaks like giant incisors. Linking them across a wide ravine are two steel wires, the principal reason today why most outsiders come to town.

We stayed at the Seraton BB, so named by owner Serafina Passarella because “it uses part of my name and looks nothing like the Sheraton”.

The colour of the houses in Castelmezzano reflect the shades of the sandstone rock at different times of the day: cream, yellow, orange and grey. Serafina points out the house we’ll be staying at from across the valley. “It’s the yellow one,” she says. It is her grandmother’s former home.

I am distracted by the raking, clawing sound of metal overhead. “There’s one now,” Serafina mutters. The angelic figure travelling at speed looks like a torpedo honing in on its target.

The next morning, my girlfriend refuses any involvement. In fact, she probably didn’t even notice I was gone till I shot over her head at 120kph. When armed with a good novel, she tends to ignore me.

A shuttle bus carries potential “angels” to a trail behind Castelmezzano. From there, nine Italians and I had a steep-ish 20-minute hike to the platform. The views are spectacular; the nerves add a tremulous feeling. Two Italian men began to sing, and last-song-before-you-die jokes fly.

It’s hot. We walk past olive trees and shrivelled oaks, and there is the smell of burnt grass. Two fighter planes burst out of the skies and streak above us. All around there is the playful presence of butterflies. In the distance I see a wavering falcon.

Our rag-tag group appears at the platform. I watch as four strap up and drop out. I put on a harness and a glum 20-year-old attaches me to the pulley. He asks my weight. There is a minimum and maximum weight allowed; the volo works on gravity alone. As I manage a convincing reply in stuttering Italian, I hear the word ciao.

I’m off. The sheer rock slips away and the vastness of the valley opens out beneath me. I’m the human torch . . . a bird, a plane.

Tears well up. Not from pain, nor emotion – I should have worn shades, is all. The first 100m are exhilarating. The stop at the far side, beside the village of Petrapertosa, hurtles into view and I come to a shuddering halt. I suppose weight isn’t so hard to guess.

The Volo dell’Angelois said by some to be the fastest zip line in the world. It’s also one of the longest. Manager Donatello Caivano says my journey of almost 1,500m had taken about 90 seconds. The brainwave of former mayor Nicola Valluzzi, numbers have been increasing since it opened in 2007. This year, in August, it sold out.

But despite Castelmezzano and Petrapertosa benefiting greatly from its arrival, there is still a remote and authentic charm – after our two-night stay in the village, we feel immersed in its atmosphere.

Our rented car does too, it seems. So immersed it has disappeared behind two stalls. Serafina had overlooked the fact that a clothes market sets up on Saturday mornings on the side of the road she had advised us to park on. With her help, and that of Rocco, a town administrator, the owners are persuaded to push their stall back. Rocco reverses our car out. To help matters, I buy a pair of shorts for €15, remarkably good value I think in the circumstances.

* For great coffee and ice cream in Castelmezzano go to Bar Tabacchi da Luciano. For food, try the Trattoria Al Vecchio Scarpone.

* Flight of the Angel operates from May 1st until mid-September, 9.30am to 6.30pm. It is closed on Mondays in August. In July and August, advanced booking is recommended. See volodellangelo.com for details. The price of a ticket is €35. For accommodation in Castelmezzano, contact Serafina at seraton.it. For accommodation in Matera, contact locandadisanmartino.it