Molise - A Journey off the Beaten Path into Italy’s Back-Country!

April 06, 2015

Amid the Apennine ridge and the Adriatic Sea lies a land of immense natural beauty, history, art and age-old traditions that will take you on a journey off the beaten path to experience another kind of Italy – one untainted by the hands of time.

Tucked between Abruzzo and Puglia along the Adriatic seashore in south-central Italy is Molise, the place where Italy transitions from north to south. This majestic mountain region with its wealth of colours and scents, unspoiled countryside, impressive ruins, green forests and deep blue sea, provides a glimpse of an authentic Italy.
Dotted with picturesque villages, olive groves, vineyards, beautiful abbeys, countless churches and castles, it is a wonder how this natural oasis remains largely undiscovered.     

Molise’s history mirrors that of Abruzzo having recently gained independence in 1963. Initially occupied by the Samnite tribes, Molise was then taken over by the Romans and later dominated by the Lombards, the Goths and the Normans, who gave the region its name. Their collective influence is evidenced throughout.
This mountainous region is comprised of the provinces of Isernia to the west and Campobasso (the capital of Molise and the province of Campobasso) to the east. Though the cities lack the luster of Italy’s more renowned areas, they possess a humble authenticity and charm that provide a window into Italian life and culture.  

Rising between the Carpino and the Sordo rivers is the ancient town of Isernia with its quaint lanes and narrow alleyways. Its close proximity to Rome and Naples makes it a wonderful starting point for exploring the region. Isernia was once the capital of the Samnite people. A recent excavation in the nearby site of Pineta unearthed a 700,000-year-old settlement whose ancient relics are now displayed in the National Museum of Paleontology and Archaeology. Though most of Isernia’s historic centre was destroyed by earthquakes and wars, its beauty remains. The city’s most famous sites are the 14th century Fontana della Fraterna and the Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul with its famed dome and arch.
When it comes to art, the ninth-century frescoes in the crypt of San Lorenzo in San Vincenzo al Volturno are a must see.  In nearby Pastena, travellers can admire the spectacular Sanctuary of the Addolorata, on the steep mountains of Castelpetroso.

Campobasso sits along the Biferno River surrounded by the Sannio and Matese mountains. The city’s historic streets are teeming with monuments and churches, the imposing fifteenth-century Manforte castle stealing the spotlight. Sites worth visiting are the Romanesque churches of San Bartolomeo and San Giorgio, the Church of Sant’Antonio Abate with its collection of carvings and wooden sculptures of sixteenth-century masters of Molise, and the Church of San Leonardo. History lovers will appreciate the Provincial Samnite Museum with its treasured exhibits from past civilizations and the Fair of the Mysteries. About fifteen kilometers from the city, rising from the mountain is the Romanesque Santa Maria della Strada with the fifteenth-century Gothic sepulchre.
At the foothills of the Matese mountains, near Sepino, you will find one of Molise’s hidden treasures  - the ancient Roman city of Saepinum - where the fascinating remains of a basilica and theatre are surrounded by medieval houses and intensely green fields and forests. Sepino is also renowned for its thermal baths, perfect for unwinding and relaxing.   

In Molise, old-world customs and traditions thrive and perhaps it is this “old-fashioned world” that visitors seek. Ancient traditions, such as the “transumanza,” the seasonal migration of herds along ancient sheep-droving routes (tratturi) has remained intact for over 3000 years. Today, these scenic trails are also used as mountain-bike and horseback-riding trails.
Molise, with its hidden emerald lakes and succession of hills gently sloping or steeply inclined creates a dreamy landscape. It is the perfect haven for outdoor enthusiasts. Walk, hike, raft, camp or zip line through the unspoiled beauty of WWF Nature Reserve in Guardaregia-Campochiaro. Adventure seekers can revel in the thrilling ski slopes of Campitello Maltese and the renowned cross-country ski trails of Capracotta. It is fun for the whole family!

On the east coast is Costa dei Trabocchi, Molise’s Riviera, beach lovers can partake in a variety of watersports or sunbath on a succession of dazzling white sand beaches that stretch along the region’s 35kms of striking coastline. Termoli, the main beach resort and the region’s only major port, is a modern city filled with pastel-coloured homes. Its enchanting borgo antico (old town) is situated on a coastal promontory and preserves traces of its glorious past. From the port, visitors can set sail to explore the Tremiti Islands; a beautiful archipelago renowned for its crystalline shallow waters, jagged coastline, abundant grottoes and coves, as well as archaeological ruins.
South of Termoli are several centuries-old Albanian towns that pay homage to the language and traditions of their Albanian ancestors. In the village of Ururi, locals still celebrate the annual Corsa dei Carri, a chariot race held each summer.

The region is host to many yearly festivals and events that keep local traditions alive such as the ‘Fuochi di San Antonio,’ an ancient folklore festival in Jelsi; the International Bagpipe Festival in Scapoli; the Feast of Corpus Christi in Campobasso; the White Truffle Fair in San Pietro Avellana; ‘La ‘Ndocciata,’ a Christmas torch-lit procession in Agnone; Pezzata, the Lamb Festival in Capracotta, and many more. 
One of the oldest wine regions in Italy, Molise’s combination of sun and hilly terrain create the ideal conditions for producing excellent wines such as the Biferno and Pentro.

From rolling hills to seascape, Molise’s culinary delights are a bountiful fusion of local, northern and southern cooking traditions. Locally-grown ingredients such as sheep, sheep’s milk and lamb are abundant in regional dishes. The Pecorino, Scamorza, Caciocavallo and Provolone cheeses are extremely delicious, in particular when accompanied by local wines and cured-meats. The second-largest producer of truffles in Italy, Molise is known for its white truffles and scorzone truffles. The traditional cavatelli pasta is renowned, as is the extra-virgin olive oil. Seafood recipes include anchovies, swordfish, mussels and clams. This combination of ‘mare e monte’ is absolutely delizioso!
The next time you are visiting the Bel Paese, take a journey off the beaten path to Molise, an enchanted land of natural beauty to experience a genuine Italian holiday.

Look for this article in the new issue of Panoram Italia Magazine.

* Note: Images for this post are not mine.

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