You can fly, you can fly, you can fly!

There was no post yesterday because, 1. it was a holiday, and 2. we drove out to Castelmezzano to do something crazy. We had a 12:30 p.m. appointment to fly.

Il Volo dell’Angelo, or The Angel Flight as it’s known in English, opened in 2007 and is basically a couple of steel cables that run between Castelmezzano and neighboring hilltop town Pietrapertosa. It is said to be one of the longest and certainly the fastest zip lines in the world. The brain child of a couple frenchman the idea was championed by the former mayor of Castelmezzano as a way to bring tourists to the small town. According to our guide for the day Serafina, owner of a bed and breakfast in town, during July and August they have 200-250 people A DAY flying across the abyss from town to town. It was a sight just to see one or two people shooting out across the nothingness, I can’t even imagine what it would look like with a constant stream.

Greg and I got there around 11 a.m., ate our lunch, then walked up to the ticket office. The rest of our group (we had 11 total) were still en route. One member of our party writes a monthly column for the Panorama and because of this Serafina worked really hard to ensure that we were taken care of. (I’m pretty sure that people who just show up to fly don’t receive the same kind of treatment.) With our flights scheduled for 12:30 p.m. Serafina warned us that we would arrive on the other side and then be required to wait until 2:30 p.m. for the return flight because the staff would be on lunch. We were offered a flight time of 2:30 p.m. instead so that the return flights could be made immediately. Once the remainder of the group arrived it was decided we would take the later flights. Since we had time to kill we ate a second lunch at a trattoria in town. The food was delicious, absolutely delicious. We sat and talked for a while; I was able to get to know some people which is good, not having friends to hang out with every day is one of the most challenging things about being over here. I miss that so much.

Around 2:20 p.m. Serafina joined us at the trattoria and said it was time to go catch the bus that would drive us to the trail. Transportation between the launch and arrival sites in Castelmezzano is provided but you still need to hike 20 minutes up a pretty vertical peak to reach the first site. I just need to say up front that I did not fly and have zero regrets about that decision. The whole ride there I was on the fence – part of me really wanted to do it and the other part wasn’t having it. I love speed, I drive stupidly fast for this very reason, but my fear of falling tends to override everything else. If I possessed the craving for adrenaline I probably could have talked myself into it but I don’t. Usually when I “chicken out” I feel acute anger towards myself and feel like I’ve let others and myself down. Accordingly I will then spend the rest of the day beating myself up about it but oddly enough this is probably the first time I’ve been 100% okay with my decision. It’s a strange feeling. Maybe I just don’t care what other people think anymore.

So we took the bus to the trail and started our hike. It was a lot of vertical and it was a lot of heat. At some points there was a breeze but the blazing sun tended to overwhelm it. Twenty minutes later we arrived at the top and saw the platform, the cable, and a little orange roof on the other side where the flight ended. In between was a whole lot of nothing. At this point it was just a matter of deciding who was going when. Laura, the journalist, decided she would go first even though she was terrified. She strapped on the harness, put on her helmet, put her Canon 7D around her neck, and got clipped in. On her helmet was a video camera so she could record the flight. Because gravity is doing all of the work there are weight limits. If you are under 35kg or over 120kg you cannot got because you’d either get stuck in the middle or potentially not stop at the end (that last one crosses your mind when you’re watching people fly off). Since I was one of the only ones who knows any Italian I was responsible for translating everyone’s weight in kilos from English. Every time someone would strap in the guy would look at me and ask their weight. The importance of getting it right is paramount as they attach a little sail to your back that helps create enough drag so that you don’t launch off into the oblivion on the other side. This is no place for vanity weight.

Once you are hanging from the cable with your arms behind you (you’re going head first) the man checks with the other side to make sure they’re ready to receive. He lets them know whether it’s a man or woman and how much they weigh. Once the okay is given from the other side he says “buon volo!” and unclips the track. Gravity kicks in immediately and you go flying down the cable reaching speeds of 120kph (74mph). The distance between Castelmezzano and Pietrapertosa is 1,452 meters so the ride only takes about 80-90 seconds. When you reach the other side you crash into a bungee system that slows you to a stop. These stops can be pretty violent, as we witnessed later at the return station.

One by one the members of our group disappeared into the vastness and then it was just me, Paula (another in the group who decided last year she wasn’t going to do it), and Serafina. Serafina tried one last time to convince me to go, even offering to go herself, but I wasn’t going to budge. We made our way back down to the place to pick up the bus and headed over to the return station. While walking back with Serafina (Paula got to ride an ATV back) I got to practice my Italian and she got to practice her English. I also learned a little bit more about her; it’s too bad she lives so far away, I think she would be fun to hang out with.

Once we arrived at the return we had about 10 minutes to wait before the first person would fly. We stood and watched the staff joke around with each other while staining the building that houses the equipment. In a town this small everyone knows everyone else so it was fun to see how much they enjoy being around each other.  Suddenly the radio came alive with a female voice passing on information about the flier and we knew the flights were starting. We could then hear the scraping of the wheels on the steel cable which meant the person was on their way. When you first launch you are required to keep your arms behind you, this is so you don’t slow down too much and get stuck somewhere. In the case of the return the first flier to arrive blasted through the stop point and kept going. I seriously thought I was going to watch him hit the giant steel beams at the end, that’s how fast he came in. Luckily the bungee system caught him in time but it was evident that this was not supposed to happen. From this point on every flier was required to put their arms out to increase their drag, it was the only way to make sure someone didn’t crash on the other side. In spite of this extra precaution one person did arrive more violently than the others and ended up slamming her head against the cable. This is the reason they give you a helmet but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt. They told her to watch for signs of a concussion even though she said she was okay.

As they returned we asked how it was and got a variety of answers. Some loved it and were ready to go again, others enjoyed it but felt once in a lifetime was more than enough, while a couple said it was terrifying and that we were right not to go. I’m pretty sure another group will be heading back to Castelmezzano in the not too distant future.

Laura was the last to arrive on the return because they had a special offer for her: would she like to get stuck and be rescued? I’m not sure how many people, adrenaline junkies included, would agree to participate in such a thing but Laura did. They pushed her backwards and gravity pulled her out into the middle of the cable. As she’s hanging out there we’re wondering “does the guy that needs to do the rescue know he has to do it? Why isn’t anyone out here gearing up?” Almost on cue a gentleman walks out in a harness sporting some of the angel wings a few of our group members had been sporting all day and clipped onto the cable. He slid out to Laura, clipped her to him, and pulled them both back hand over hand. It was pretty impressive. Of course seeing him in the angel wings meant all of the staff wanted to get in on it and suddenly cameras were coming out and photos were being taken.

Once the excitement was over we headed back to the car, ate some sandwiches, drank some mimosas, said our goodbyes and went home. In spite of not actually doing the flight I had a lot of fun. I enjoy watching others do fun and crazy things even though some people question how I could. I don’t know how to explain it, seeing people happy makes me happy. Sometimes it makes the experience even better than if I did it myself because then it’s not about me it’s about someone else. Maybe I’m just weird, who knows. Anyway, if you’re ever in Basilicata, or in the Campania region and have access to a car I can’t recommend heading to Castelmezzano and checking out Il Volo dell’Angelo enough. Even if you don’t fly the town itself is pretty amazing and the people couldn’t be nicer.

What did you do on your 4th of July holiday? 🙂