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Adventure in Pietrapertosa Italy

Pietrapertosa Italy Man on a wire

Man on a wire - Pepe's Fiat was charging around the helter-skelter curves on the mountainside as we heard the first screams. Suspended above the car, yelping with unfettered excitement, was a man flying towards the cliff face to our left and disappearing into the hillside. "Don't worry," grinned Pepe, "the trees will break his fall."

Pietrapertosa Italy Man on a wire

We'd arrived at Pietrapertosa – a village of 500 flinty houses hugging a craggy hillside at the southern end of the Appenines. Three years ago this stony hamlet, whose population was declining rapidly, realised its precipitous position could be its salvation. A wire was stretched across the 1,000m-high, 1,500m-wide canyon that separates Pietrapertosa from its neighbouring village, and the world was invited to come and fly across the valley. It is Italy's only flying cordway, one of just three in Europe, and now attracts around 6,000 people a year.

Pietrapertosa Italy Man on a wire

Pietrapertosa Italy Man on a wire

Pepe, who worked for the company offering the experience, had the job of easing the fears of this shaky visitor before his flight. "This is a very beautiful place," said the stout sexagenarian. "If you are going to throw yourself off a cliff, there is no more charming place to do it than the Appenines." You couldn't deny his logic. The spectacular cracked granite outcrops reach into the sky like gnarled fingers, bearers of evocative nicknames such as Owl's Beak, and Lizard's Toe.

Pietrapertosa has tried to calm visitors by naming its cliff-top leap the Flight of the Angel (Il Volo dell'Angelo). Further heavenly help is on hand; the ticket office is next to a 200-year-old painted shrine, with not one, but three celestial beings to pray to: Sant'Antonio, San Rocco and the Madonna.

Pietrapertosa Italy Man on a wire

Pietrapertosa Italy Man on a wire

I passed my now rather clammy ticket to the smiling Elena who prepared me for the flight, trussing me up in a PVC harness. "Do many people decide not to fly at the last moment," I asked hopefully. "No," replied Elena. "Once they pay the €30, they don't want to waste their money."

With a tug I was lifted into the starting position. I hung in mid-air, staring into the void. "Buon Volo!" said Elena, and then I was away, soaring over the chestnut trees. The ground fell away and I was 1,000m up in the air. Adrenaline fired though me, then as the landscape rolled below with a gentle hypnotic rhythm, I felt an overwhelming sense of tranquillity. Fields, farms and rivers seemed held in time. Apart from the wind in my face there was no sense that I was travelling at 70mph. No sense, that is, until I crunched into the braking system on the other side of the valley. From 70mph to nought in five seconds: welcome to the village of Castelmezzano.

Pietrapertosa Italy Man on a wire

I'd travelled a kilometre across the valley from Pietrapertosa – and spent two minutes with the angels. The walk back to Pietrapertosa is a rugged two-hour hike, but fortunately Il Volo Dell'Angelo is a return trip, so I was taken up the valley by minibus and, for the final kilometre, by Lucia the donkey, to another departure point.

This time I threw myself off the 400m cliff with no fear. Flying now seemed the natural way to travel – no jams, no pollution, no noise. Then I felt a pulsing sensation against my chest: not my heart's final protests, but my mobile phone ringing. If only I hadn't been strapped in: "Hi. Where am I? I'm flying with the angels."

Pietrapertosa Italy Man on a wire

The Miracles of Orvieto

the Miracles of Orvieto Italy

Just 90 minutes from Rome, explore wonders aplenty at an uncommon Italian hill town. Imagine a town lowered onto the summit of Uluru, and you'll get some sense of the situation of Orvieto, perched on a giant volcanic plug 315 metres high. The town's fortress-like position protected it from invaders, which is why a trip to Orvieto offers a condensed history of Italy's greatest empires, from the Papal States back to the ancient Romans and beyond.

Lake Como's secret gardens

Lake Como Italy lakeside homes & Gardens

The revered lake's shore is dotted with majestic villas, many offering exotic, expansive grounds ripe for discovery. For the past two centuries, wealthy and titled Italians have built summer retreats on the shores of Lake Como. Alongside their villas and palaces they created extravagant gardens, sculpting the steep lake shores into botanical wonderlands planted with exotic species from the far corners of the planet. The affection for this sublimely lovely part of the world continues among the new aristocrats - and since we're talking gardens, it is noticeable that Richard Branson has a fine assembly of phallic-looking cypress trees surrounding Villa la Cassinella, his lakeside home.

Chic Ski Retreats

Chic Ski Retreats around the World

Gstaad, anyone? For a winter holiday with an in-built sense of style, consider one of these lovely escapes. The ski season is in full swing and snow conditions are promising. As Easter falls in March, there is also the chance for snow hounds to spend it on the slopes, and sleep in style. The design-conscious can stay at an ever-increasing number of stylish hotels and chalets in the Alps and beyond. High-profile architects and brands are also making their mark on the mountains: Zaha Hadid has designed a ski jump in Bergisel and four stations on the Nordpark Cable Railway in the Austrian Tyrol (bergisel.info), while Porsche has just opened a ski lift in Laax, Switzerland (laax.com), and BMW had designed a gondola for Hochzillertal in Austria (vipgondel.at).

24 Hours in Vientiane, Laos

Sleepy Vientiane in Laos

Sleepy Vientiane seems little more than a village. Snuggling a curve in the Mekong River, Laos's capital city is a charming clutch of decrepit French villas and art deco Russian buildings mingled with splays of hot pink bougainvillea and the golden spires of Buddhist temples reaching above elongated palms. I lived and worked in Vientiane in the late 1990s. Laos was just opening up after 25 years of rigid communist rule and the city felt trapped in time. There were no ATMs or paved roads. Communications were sketchy, and people got around on tuk-tuks and bicycles. Land-locked and mostly agrarian, it was reported that the country's paltry income came from foreign aid and air rights, the fee airlines pay to fly over a country. The Lao preferred sleep and beer with ice, over economics. I loved every bit of it.

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