Forget lazing by the pool reading novels. Forget nosing round museums, strolling the seafront or relaxing at sunny cafés. Surely there’s no greater enjoyment to be had on holiday than being trussed up and thrown off a mountain.
Well, not thrown exactly. More like shot. Off a mountaintop. Hurtled between one jagged peak and another at up to ninety miles per hour. Across a drop of 3,000 feet. Alone. Strapped face-down in a harness with your hands behind your back. What could be more pleasant?
Basilicata, the instep of the Italian boot, is a region with a bit of a Wild West vibe. It’s the least-known and least-visited part of the country. Elemental and untamed, with a tingling aura of adventure, it seems a fitting place to find the world’s highest and fastest zip wire, the so-called Volo dell’Angelo or Flight of the Angel.
‘Hang on a minute. What’s a zip wire?’ you ask. It’s a steel cable strung between two mountain peaks, with one end a little higher than the other. An oiled metal cradle slides along it, propelled only by gravity, with you in a harness dangling beneath it.
It’s the closest you’re ever going to get to bird-like flight. No engines, no artificial wings to steer, no sense of downward falling like in a parachute. Straight ahead all the way. Face-first and horizontal. But you’ll be flying at speeds no bird could ever achieve. More like a bullet than a bird, in fact. If this is how angels fly, then they must have jet-packs. It can’t take them long to nip across eternity!
The Volo dell’Angelo zip wire connects two picturesque villages high in the Lucanian Dolomites, a clutch of needle-like stone peaks whose striking shapes vividly recall their namesake Dolomites up north. Each jagged upthrust of rock here has its own colourful monicker – ‘The Owl’s Beak’, ‘The Lizard’s Toe’, ‘The Hawk’, ‘The Anvil’, ‘The Great Mother’. It’s like finding yourself in a landscape from fantasy fiction.
The fruit-coloured homes of Castelmezzano cling to the lower flanks of some of these forbidding crags. While across the canyon, tiny Pietrapertosa perches serene on its neighbouring mountaintop. You can travel between the two villages in a quarter of an hour on the wriggling mountain roads. Or you can whiz between them by zip wire in just two minutes.
But first you must reach the launch point, which is really half the fun. Your anxiety steadily builds as you toil up pretty paths fringed by greenery, admiring the increasingly awesome views across the landscape. You can’t tell if your heart is pounding from the stiff uphill march or the stark fear of what you’re about to do.
When you finally reach the top, there’s just a little wooden hut full of harnesses, helmets and ropes, next to a steel launching deck. (The absence of other facilities seems an oversight, as the mind inevitably turns to the lavatory when you get up here and see that drop.) There’s likely to be a handful of others ahead of you, and as you all have something in common – namely, blind terror – you quickly become firm friends.
The atmosphere is raucous. There’s a lot of “oh my God what possessed me to do this?!?” A lot of loud, nervous laughter. You all instinctively understand that you must bolster each other’s courage. Every trembling flier who climbs into his or her harness is whooped, applauded, cheered on with screams of encouragement by the others awaiting their turn. Everyone seems oddly comforted by it.
Strapped in and poised to go, each flier talks of being numb with disbelief, of suddenly feeling nothing, feeling unreal. Then, with a polite “buon viaggio” from the attractive Italian youth overseeing the operation, they’re launched into the void, rapidly dwindling to a tiny dot in the distance. A tiny screaming dot. Its little voice still just about audible above the hum of the wire and the wind blowing across the valley.
Aghast, your eyes follow them every inch of the way. The person you were laughing with seconds ago is now a barely visible speck. A distant pinpoint in which you know the adrenalin is blazing at top-volume. The flier quickly vanishes from sight, but your empathy travels with them – right until you finally hear the faint rebounded clatter of the cable above you announce their safe arrival on the other side.
And then it’s your turn...
Strapped into the harness, you hang helpless as a trussed chicken while the operator leisurely quizzes you on your weight, in order to choose the right sized sail to attach to your back. This tiny triangle of cloth steadies you, or keeps your speed to a bearable level, or something. Your mind really can’t follow the mechanics anymore. You’re staring death in the face.
Then, to a chorus of whoops and screams, no longer sure which noises are coming from you or from other people, you’re launched. The air rushes faster and faster on your face. The tangle of trees and bushes below you suddenly drops away to reveal the vast, terrifyingly distant valley floor. The view is phenomenal. As is the fear, quickly morphing into exhilaration.
The mad adrenalin rush soon cedes to a strange tranquillity. Only the racing air pushing water from your eyes and the slight rocking of your harness reveals your immense speed. Your mind is consumed with the view, the freedom, the sense of space. In league with the horizon, time seems to expand. The two minutes feel like an eternity, utterly jam-packed with sensations and impressions.
Then... WHACK! You hit the braking mechanism at the landing-point in Pietrapertosa. And your speed drops from about 70mph to zero in a matter of seconds. You come to an ungainly stop, rocked around by the change in forces and bouncing in a goofy elastic fashion, laughing helplessly. The operator has to fumble around to catch you and disentangle you from the harness. You stumble messily out of it. You might have flown like an angel, but you must ultimately flail awkwardly to the ground like a baby bird falling from a nest.
You’re elated. Triumphant. And all you want to do is do it all again. Which is a good thing, because now you have to. Tickets for the Volo dell’Angelo are for the round trip. So when you’re ready, it’s time to climb aboard a different wire and fly back across to Castelmezzano. This time you land nearer the village itself, and can stroll down afterwards for a good stiff drink or a relaxing meal somewhere.
The restaurant ‘Il Becco della Civetta’ is particularly recommended. Not only for its excellent food, but for its giant picture windows. Giving an expansive view across the valley, they also give good views of the fliers traversing it. Every few minutes a distant angel zips past. There aren’t many restaurants in the world where you can casually look up from your pasta to watch someone hurtling past the window at 90mph, or, if you listen carefully, faintly hear their exhilarated screaming.
Volo dell’Angelo flights operate summer only.
Closed on Mondays.
Return flights €30 Tues-Sat, €35 Sun.
Tickets can be bought via the website or at ticket offices in the two villages.