Little Molise is wedged between the Apennines and the Adriatic. Webbed by tratturi, the ancient, seasonal trails used to move livestock between the pastures of Abruzzo and Puglia, the least visited region of Italy has a timeless feel. Traditions and handicrafts that have elsewhere died are alive and well in Molise.
The people are as friendly as you'll find in Italy. Perhaps their isolation makes them eager for interaction--as the passing shepherds were always a source of news and tidings from the outside.
While much of ancient Italy presented through excavations and museum displays for tourists feature historic Roman and Etruscan habitation areas, workshops and artifacts, Isernia hosts the largest prehistoric areas in Europe. You can learn all about it in Isernia's National Museum of Paleontology and Archaeology, located in the former Cloister of Santa Maria delle Monache.
There are two provinces that make up the Molise: Campobasso, which is also the region's capital, and Isernia.
Let's take a look at the map and the top cities for tourists to visit
The two cities in large type are the provincial capitals of Isernia and Campobasso. The region's capital is Campobasso.
The region, with an area of 4,438 square kilometers, is second smallest in Italy after Aosta. It is certainly not flat; the land is composed of 55% mountains and 45% hills until it reaches the sea.
We'll start with the two provincial capitals.
Campobasso is known for engraved cutlery and the National School for Carabinieri, Italy's military police force--as well as the views from its perch in the Apennines at 2300 feet. The upper part of town is the older part and has a couple of notable Romanesque churches and a castle built in 1450 to top it off.
There is a major religious procession in June, the Festival of Mysteries or Sagra dei Misteri, which links Campobasso to its lengthy past.
Nature lovers will find that Campobasso boasts two nature reserves where you might trek at bit to come in contact with the flora and fauna of this hidden paradise: the LIPU Oasis in Casacalenda and the WWF Oasis of Guardiaregia-Campochiaro.
From Campobasso you'll find bus service to some of the smaller villages nearby.
Isernia was once the Samnite town of Aesernia and claims to be the first capital of Italy. Evidence of a Paleolithic village was also found at Isernia and finds are displayed in a modern museum. Today Isernia is famous for lace and onions, not to mention its prehistory.
The Cloister of Saints Cosma and Damiano is built upon the ruins of an ancient pagan temple. It's a destination for pilgrims, especially at the end of September.
Isernia has a small historic center, the highlight of which is the 14th century Fontana Fraterna, made from pieces of Roman ruins as well as Romanesque fragments. See the picture below.
The Tratturo Pescasseroli-Candela, the third longest seasonal livestock trail in southern Italy, passes through Isernia on its route between Pescasseroli in the Abruzzo and Candela in Puglia. For more, see the interesting article A Walk Down the Tratturi of Molise. One section in particular is recommended for a day's trek by Italian Notes:
The 20 km hike from Bojano to Sepino was one of the highlights of the tratturi network with all the (now abandoned) sanctuaries, shelters, baths, taverns and theaters shepherds needed for their travels and temporary settlements. Here you can experience the solitude of walking through a sparsely populated landscape, feel the merciless power of the sun and enjoy the burnt colors of ocher and gold.
Both Campobasso and Isernia are served by train, a line which links to the coastal line and Termoli. It is an hour and 22 minute train ride between Isernia and Campobasso.
The Provincial capitals are good places to use as a hub to discover this compact Italian region, so you might want to camp in one of them for several days. Not being a beach person, I would choose the Isernia province to explore if I had to pick. It's smaller, as you can see from the map below.
Termoli is a fishing port with a long, sandy beach. The town has pale stone buildings and an interesting 13th century cathedral. Termoli has a castle, good views, and great seafood restaurants--and the beaches aren't too crowded. It can be reached by train on the coastal rail line.
Campomarino is another seaside resort, is smaller and sometimes less crowded in summer than Termoli, although its popularity is increasing each year.
Agnone is a charming small town known for its bell factories. For the past thousand years, Agnone has made bells for the Vatican and many other countries. Today one foundry still operates and has a small museum. Agnone is also home to a number of coppersmiths with shops along the main street.
Acquaviva Collercroce is an interesting town established by Slavs that still maintains some Slavic traditions and has remnants of its Slavic origins, including its dialect.
Larino is a small town in a pretty setting among hills and olive groves. It has an impressive cathedral dating from 1319 and some good 18th century frescoes in the nearby church of San Francesco. There's some art you'll want to see displayed in the Palazzo Comunale.
There are also remains of the ancient Samnite town near the station including an amphitheater and ruins of villas.
Ururi is an old Albanian town that still maintains some Albanian traditions, as does Portocannone nearby. An April festival features racing of the carts, Corsa dei Carri. You can see it in this video.
Pietrabbondante has extensive Samnite ruins including foundations of temples and a well-preserved Greek theater just outside the town, which is wedged between rock as its name suggests.
Pescolanciano is topped by a picturesque 13th century castle, Castello D'Allessandro, with a pretty arcade. There's another castle in the old village of Carpinone, 8 km from Isernia.
Cero ai Volturno features arguably the best castle in the Molise region. Originating in the 10th century, it was rebuilt in the 15th century. The castle is perched on a huge rock towering over the town and is accessible by a narrow path.
Scapoli is known for its summer bagpipe (zampogna) market where you'll find a great display of bagpipes traditionally used by shepherds of the Molise and neighboring Abruzzo region.
Shepherds still play the bagpipes at Christmas time, both in their hometowns and in Naples and Rome.
Venafro is one of the oldest towns in the Molise and produces fantastic olive oil. Its oval-shaped piazza was originally the Roman Amphitheater and the arcades are incorporated into the front doors of the houses. The National Archaeological Museum, in the former convent of Santa Chiara, houses other Roman remains. There are several interesting churches and castle ruins with some nice frescoes. Leading up to the town are Cyclopean walls.
Ferrazzano is a hill-top medieval village with a good historic center and a megalithic wall 3 km long.
Saepinum, located 15 km south of Campobasso, was a Roman town in a remote and beautiful setting, making it one of the most impressive examples of a provincial Roman town you can visit in Italy. The site is surrounded by defensive walls, built in diamond patterns, with four gates leading into the town. You can see some of the original road paving, the forum with civic buildings and shops, a temple, baths, fountains, a theater, and houses. You'll also find a museum with findings from the excavations.
Pesche is a fortified village that seems stuck to the side of monte San Bernardo along with bits of a castle and surrounding walls and tower. Around 1100 it became associated with St. Benedict of Montecassino. It was property of the Abbey until the 15th century. The castle was built to protect the Pescasseroli-Candela tratturo, or sheep-track.
The Molise has an intersting aspect to its food production according to DeLallo, a food distributor in the Molise:
Sheep, goats, pigs and cattle stock have been cultivated for centuries in Molise, but have historically been raised as a form of currency rather than food, giving rise to the transumanza tradition of traveling with one’s livestock to Abruzzo for sale at the markets. Because animals have been generally raised for sale, Molisani recipes are often vegetarian or use very small amounts of meat just for flavoring. Most dishes are prepared simply and with few ingredients, and work well within the region's lingering transumanza mindset.
So, in fact, much of what the locals chow down upon is vegetarian. Beans, potatoes, grapes and olives are the main products of the region, and they are combined with olive oil, chilies and garlic to become the basic element of the cuisine. Polenta dishes are also common, p’lenta d’iragn being the most popular. It's polenta made with potatoes and semolina and served with tomato sauce.
Polenta also shows up on Isernia as Polenta maritata. Slices of polenta are fried in oil infused with garlic and layered with a filling of red beans and peperoncini and baked.
If you're in search of fine offal food, try torcinelli, lamb intestines filled with chopped liver, sweetbreads, hardboiled egg and grilled or baked.
While the larger towns are served by trains and buses, it's best for a short vacation to rent or lease a car to see the smaller towns and villages. The closest international airport is Capodichino Airport near Naples.
Enjoy your exploration of the fascinating Molise.