This is it.
After a week with friends, solo travel finally begins.
I’m sitting on a plane bound for southern Italy, capturing a whirlwind of thoughts and emotions and putting them into words. Or at least attempting to. It’s difficult to label them all when I’m not even sure why I’m going to the places that wait ahead of me. Each destination seems to have chosen me as much as I have chosen it, the answer to a calling that rose from deep within, beckoning me to venture here… alone. No husband along. Or kids. Or friends. For the first time ever, it’s just me. And while I do miss them, I’m okay with it now. I know I’m supposed to do this… alone.
Already, I am starting to see myself for me, a separate entity instead of an appendage to anyone or anything else. The only thing I’m not sure of is what this is really about and where it’s leading me.
For a week now, I’ve been the opposite of alone… one of 22 in a collection of friends and friends-of-friends called together to celebrate a dear one’s birthday in Italy. (That’s the birthday girl thanking us for being her guests… here… in Tuscany. Oh, my gracious friend, thank YOU!)
The time with this group filled me with laughter, energy, and gratitude for coming together and for the wondrous experiences that travel consistently provides every time I set off and open myself to new places. It has also started to renew my sense of self. God knows I need that.
Now, 20,000 feet above Italy, I feel very different than I did when I missed my first flight eleven days ago and could barely get out of my own home town. (Here’s the link in case you missed that disaster). On that dreadful day, I felt like I never have before and hope I never do again: empty, afraid and crazy sad to leave my people, emotions completely out of control and as near to a panic attack as I ever want to be. Though I still feel a little wary, I am now ready to set off on my own, in large part because I am full.
I am full of experiences in fairy tale medieval towns where I explored with two gracious couples who kindly made this fifth-wheel-friend a part of their pack, allowing me to remember, in the security of their company, how to be an individual instead of part of another. (Thank you, dear friends!)
I am full of joy that comes from little things… like jam packing the car (and our laps) with luggage for five and enough groceries for 22, and laughing the entire, cramped ride back to the house (except at the end… when our legs lost feeling).
I am full of amazement at the beauty I saw around most every corner and while watching the setting sun melt against the mountains, bathing the Tuscan countryside in shades of orange and purple. Every single day, I felt like the luckiest woman alive.
And though I cannot say I am also full of certainty about this solo trip, I am ready. I’m a little nervous, a little cautious, but mostly I’m ready. And excited. That massive shift feels good. It feels closer to the way travel has always felt when the happy anticipation of a new place rises inside of me. As I sit on the plane, one stop away from beginning, I’m not sure how things are going to go, but somehow I am sure I’ll be okay. And I’m very curious about where this is taking me, literally and figuratively. I suspect my Holy Travel Buddies, whom I begged to come with me that first horrible day, already know our itinerary and I’m trusting that they have everything covered.
As the wheels bounce on the runway in Bari, at the top of Italy’s heel, I look out at the countryside where I will set off and discover who knows what. I’m pleased with my recent decision to forego the rental car I had planned to get, opting instead to pay a little more for taxis and shuttles, a decision that came easily after watching my friends tackle the challenges of navigating and driving in Tuscany… with two people instead of one. I feel good about taking charge of that decision and making it work for me. When it comes to spending money on myself, I tend to cheap out. I also tend to make a plan and stick with it, come hell or high water. But I’m seeing that isn’t always the best approach. Because I have changed my mind and made myself a priority, there is anticipation instead of trepidation. It’s a small decision, but a big thing.
An hour later, the driver is pulling away, leaving me standing outside of my hotel in the ancient city of Matera. With my suitcase plunked at my side, I pause and notice the absence of another. I’ve been a part of a pack for most of my life, but now I feel like a lone wolf. I am both excited by that and uncomfortable with it, but I don’t focus on it for long. I can’t. My eyes won’t let me while they travel the landscape of this place, widening as they attempt to absorb the beauty of it.
Matera is a collection of beige sandstone structures, one on top of another, stacked on the hillsides. The Sassi. That’s what they call these ancient buildings connected by a zig-zagging labyrinth of stairs. It means the “stones,” a place built from cave dwellings that date back 9,000 years ago. I understand now why Mel Gibson chose this location to film The Passion of the Christ. Matera is one of the three oldest, continuously inhabited cities in the world and it looks the part. Of the stops I’ve made across the nearly thirty countries I’ve visited, this is one of the most unique and immediately enchanting. I feel the history around me and a connection to Matera develops before I even know her story. As if to cement our relationship, bells toll from the churches perched on the hillsides, one clanging and then another and another. I feel like they are welcoming me. (Listen to the bells toll as you read on),
I instantly love this place and am incredibly grateful I didn’t chicken out and cancel the solo part of this trip. Being alone doesn’t matter as much now as I take in the initial sites and sounds of Matera. After a while, I force myself inside and check into to a hotel formed from cave dwellings. It is an extraordinary mix of ancient architecture and modern conveniences with a jaw-dropping view of the Sassi. (You can see the hotel here.) I drop my bags and head for the door, eager to explore this place that is like nowhere else I’ve ever been. And because I am alone, I get to choose where I go and how long to stay. It’s a little strange, but at the same time, I’m full-on excited because this place and these choices are all mine. Deciding where to go and what to do is easier than it was in Florence. I’m getting used to it and I find myself wanting to hold on to this sense of steering myself.
As I traverse this city of stairs and narrow lanes over the next couple of days, I’ll learn her incredible story, thanks in large part to a native son who shared his Matera with me. Luigi Mazzoccoli, an engaging and enthusiastic guide, grew up exploring these old cave dwellings and knows every nook and cranny of the Sassi. (If you need a fantastic guide who speaks English very well, you’ll find him here).
As I learned more, I understood why I feel a connection to Matera. It is the ultimate comeback city, a place that defied the overwhelming odds against it. By the mid 1900’s it was a grim place of abject poverty, with no sanitation and a 44% child mortality rate. (Think about that number for a minute). In 1952 it was labeled “the shame of Italy.” That’s when the Italian government deemed the Sassi an uninhabitable disgrace and ordered a mandatory evacuation of its residents, moving them to modern housing in the new city on the hilltop above. For nearly three decades the old stone Sassi stood empty, derelict until revitalization resurrected it. Matera’s comeback is now unarguable with its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and its selection to be the European Capital of Culture in 2019. As a lover of the underdog, I am an instant fan.
Over the next couple of days, I’ll meet warm, hospitable people with fascinating stories and I’ll fall in love with this place where stairs are used more than roads and where caves that were carved to become the homes and churches of long ago are now highly rated restaurants, small boutique hotels, and museums. And yet, even with all of this, if you mention Matera, few I know have heard of it, at least in North America. This place, dripping with extraordinary beauty, should be on everyones’ Italy hit list, but I’m glad it isn’t just yet. I’m grateful to have experienced it in this quiet, uncrowded way, before the secret will be out when the world spotlight hits next year.
With this view and the story of this extraordinary place, I can’t see the challenges ahead of me. Or the growth. That will come later. For now, all I can see is the beauty around me and the gratitude inside me. The training wheels have come off and at this moment I feel myself speeding away, and so far, I’m steady as can be on my own…
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