If you do a search for “Pietramezzana” on Google or try to locate it on a road map, you will find that it doesn’t actually exist. The imaginary village in Italy’s southern Basilicata region is, in fact, the rather splendid abbreviation and unification of the names of two villages in the Lucanian Dolomites, Pietrapertosa and Castelmezzano, both in the province of Potenza and among the most beautiful in Italy.
Pietramezzana, however, is the setting of the successful film “An Almost Perfect Town”, by director Massimo Gaudioso who explores and summarises how an area can change for the better, thanks to a brilliant intuition: the “Flight of the Angel” [Il Volo dell’Angelo], is the great attraction which brings thousands of people to the area in all seasons of the year.
The plot of the film focuses on a hard story of layoffs, fraud and unfulfilled promises which eventually lead to the transformation of the local mine into a tourist attraction, but the reality is, if anything, even better.
Since 2007 – the year of its creation – until now, the mine has helped end the area’s isolation, created jobs, and given birth to valuable new economic activity. Two little towns with fewer than 2,000 inhabitants between them, decimated by a drain of young people and a frightening decline in the birth-rate (the annual death / birth ratio is 10 to 1), have found a new way of growing and prospering.
An idea inspired by an architect from beyond the Alps
But let’s take a step back, to the year 2000, when the idea began to take shape, thanks to the efforts of some French. An architect from over the Alps visited the two villages and was fascinated by them, so much so that he spoke to one of the two mayors (a man with an open mind and no shortage of vision) about an initiative which had been launched in a mountain village in France, to encourage tourism in the summer season when there was no snow.
Basically, the idea was to fly from one edge of the mountain to the other, in a harness hooked up to a steel cable. It was an idea which came from seeing children in the Andes who, to get to school, clung to a pulley and slid down the slopes of the South American mountains.
Why not duplicate this experience here, among these natural peaks of southern Italy that time has modelled into the strangest and most imaginative shapes, so much so that the people have given them the names, Beak of the Owl, Anvil, and Great Mother?
The village of Castelmezzano
Based on the French experience, within a couple of years (after overcoming countless problems including compliance with regulatory constraints and the need for no less than twenty-six authorizations!) an investment of about one million euros (the whole annual budget of the local councils for 2004-2005 was concentrated on this infrastructure) made it possible to build the first inertial motion system in Southern Italy and the longest in Europe.
Users experience the thrill of slicing through the air at a maximum speed of 120 km/ h up to 130 meters above the valley below, along a steel cable 1452 meters long. It’s an amazing way to experience a kind of bird flight, re-living the flight of the peregrine falcon and the red kite that are at home here. It is a great way of admiring these delightful villages from above, houses built on the very stone from which they are constructed, clinging flirtatiously to the steep and winding streets with their tiny vegetable gardens formed by earth reclaimed from the rocks.
The Flight of the Angel: an exponential boost to the local economy
Today Il Volo dell’Angelo is a private consortium, legally established with public funds from the two municipalities of Pietrapertosa and Castelmezzano, which brings money into the local coffers rather than draining cash from them. Indeed, the initial investment of one million euros has produced, over the years, not only a sound financial return but has led to multiple economic and social benefits for the area. This is a source of pride and for the mayors (Nicola Valluzzi of Castelmezzano and Maria Cavuoti of Pietrapertosa) and for Donatello Caivano, the project’s administrator.
“The tourist attraction”, Caivano tells us, “has had a multiplier effect and has stimulated an exponential growth in the tourist industry in the area. In 2007, the year we launched, from a hospitality and catering point of view there were only 2 restaurants and 2 hotels in the area and we were seeing only day visitors who would come and go in a day without stopping off.
“In 2021, after 14 years of activity, the situation has completely changed. Now we have around 50 Bed and Breakfasts, 5 agriturismo centres, 8 restaurants, 400 beds, with over 130,000 visitors annually, local expenditure that exceeds two million euros and the creation of dozens of new jobs. The annual turnover of just under 700 thousand euros is pumped back into the local economies of the two municipalities and this cash injection powers other projects”.
The greatest benefit of all, according to the Project Administrator, is that it has created work in a land that has one of the highest unemployment rates in southern Italy. He said: “Some 22 local young people have been hired on a fixed-term basis as employees and the hope is that we can take on a few more as we look to the future of the project.
“The next step is the idea of ‘night flights’ – extending the working day and continuing to offer flights at least until midnight. This would allow a greater number of people to come along and experience the attraction, but above all it would boost the number of overnight stays, thus increasing the presence of tourists in the area.
“We have so much to offer in this area: the so called Vie Ferrate, the Suspended Bridges, the numerous trekking routes, the literary walks along old sheep tracks, cultural links to nearby Matera with its world famous caves (now a Unesco heritage site), the innovative idea of obtaining ‘temporary citizenship’ … the options for development are many, and show that the area of the Lucanian Dolomites is open for business and ready to adapt to new economic models by focusing on its strengths: beauty, sharing, quality and innovation”, said the Administrator with evident satisfaction.
An attraction that gets tourist numbers soaring
The number of ‘angels’ who buy a ticket (single or couple options are available) to experience the thrill of touching the clouds is also growing. In the first season, ‘only’ 3700 were sold – not a bad number for a new attraction opening in two little towns, but in 2021 there were 16,100 ‘flights’. Numbers seem certain to grow. A promotion last Christmas saw ‘angels’ given a free ticket to spend during a return visit during one of the Open Days (starting on May 1st).
The most successful year so far was 2017, thanks, in no small part, to the weather conditions (not a single rainy day during the visitor season!) with over 19,000 users. Even 2020, despite the restrictions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, recorded excellent results: 16,700 flights, largely made possible by a quick test-swab service, available for a fee, near the ticket office.
Many the Italian visitors came from the southern regions of Puglia (30%) and Campania (16%). Locals from the Basilicata region account for 13%. But the presence of ‘flying angels’ from non-neighbouring regions, namely from Lombardy (19%), Tuscany (16%) and Lazio (15%), is also increasingly common. Around 12 per cent of visitors come from abroad with bookings from England, Germany, Switzerland, France, Spain, and even from Australia, Korea and Taiwan.
Communication is important to support seasonality
The Flight of the Angel, uses a communication strategy that ranges from social media to the classic press office system, and this has allowed tens of thousands of tourists to discover an area full of charm, with unrivalled gastronomic traditions, an emotion-packed welcome and unique brand of hospitality.
Another important aspect that underlies the Flight of the Angel is environmental sustainability. The site lies within the Park of Gallipoli Cognato and the Piccole Dolomiti Lucane, an area which is a little treasure chest of biodiversity. Above, soar numerous species of birds … red kite and peregrine falcons, kestrels and buzzards and even black storks, one of the rarest species in Italy. Precisely for this reason, flights on the Angel ride are carried out only between May and November in order not to impact the breeding seasons of the birds.
But as with all positive things, there is always another side to the coin. “The limits of an attraction like this are not so much functional, but rather related to the seasonality of what is, after all, an outdoor attraction … the opening season which only runs from May to October; transport issues (the region of Basilicata and in particular the capital are not equipped with a high speed railway – they have something of a slow-speed system; then there is the issue of the lack of regional public transport on holidays and the lack of a regional policy programme on tourist attractions,” concludes Caivano.
Translated by Ronnie Convery
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