In the Lucanian Dolomite mountains of Italy’s Basilicata province, two hill towns show the magical potential of place, connectivity and human innovation in unparalleled fashion.
There, where, in the Middle Ages, rocky outcrops were lookout posts, some see an extreme sport in the Volo dell’Angelo zip wire which spans a narrow, deep ravine. I see a place reinvented like none other, worthy of the translation: Angel Flight.
I have written about hill towns before, and most recently in the context of Matera, Italy: the “sustainable city of stone”.
My premise has been that in the face of remarkable challenges of setting, residents still mastered local terrain and natural systems to create local lifestyles that worked well for hundreds—if not thousands—of years.
Castelmezzano, and neighboring Pietrapertosa, are no exception, full of demonstrable cooperation with their defensive mountain settings, presumed megalithic origins and unique local traditions.
As translated from the lofty Angel Flight website description:
Visiting Pietrapertosa you have the feeling that everything is adjusted depending on the rock, such as the many stairs. These are examples of the symbiosis between the village, its inhabitants and the rock, the live demonstration of its territory, which cannot deny the massive presence of almost unbridled nature, but must make it part of the urban structure.
Pietrapertosa takes its name from “Petraperciata”, meaning “drilled” (in this case honoring the local perforated rock), and is the highest town in the Basilicata region, with its 1088 m above sea level, spread on the rocks of the Lucanian Dolomites, well protected from possible incursions from the valley. This character of a natural fortress and the possibility of dominating the valley of the Basento have favored the presence of man since time immemorial.
Today, as the world moves from tradition to reinvention, Angel Flight is an inspiration.
In 1990, Paul Duncan wrote of Castelmezzano that while most residents still lived off of the land, shepherds came to their flocks in Fiats, with radios to pass the day. Thirty years later, cell phone signals creep around the mountain features and isolation no longer exists.
How can the Castelmezzano and Pietrapertosa repurpose to new economies and simultaneously inspire adaptive reuse which is respectful of history and aesthetics?
The Angel Flight website provides a partial answer, marrying new human activity with the ongoing setting:
[A] new concept… allows use of creative environmental heritage answering a new need and a new understanding of leisure and recreation, tended increasingly to new experiences and to seek new emotions. An adventure in contact with nature and with a unique landscape, to discover the true soul of the territory.
I am not asserting that a zip wire will revitalize empty neighborhoods (hilly or otherwise), rescue overbuilt fringe suburbs or rural towns without purpose. But to achieve other progressive retrofits in the way we live, use our land and travel, we should take seriously the innovative quality of “zip wire thinking”.
An outlier? Perhaps. But it is placemaking at its finest, and an example that I, for one, will never forget.
In addition to my photographs, above, many people have captured images and videos of the zip wire, and further review of the Angel Flight website or a Google search nets many compelling results. Among my favorites is this video from David Kilpatrick of Kelso, Scotland, United Kingdom.
David admirably captures and documents context and experience in a “you are there” recording, embedded below.
All images composed by the author. Click on each image for more detail. Video by David Kilpatrick, as cited above.
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