Molise is Italy’s most unexplored region, often nicknamed “the region that doesn’t exist” because even Italians think it has nothing to offer. But Molise does exist and is a little jewel full of surprises for the curious traveler.
Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been on a mission to find out what Molise has to offer and guys, what an incredible journey! I will be writing a series of articles about this region and I thought I’d start from the basics: the main reasons why you should plan to visit this under-the-radar region of Italy!
One region, countless experiences
Molise is the second smallest region in Italy, but it truly has it all: mountains, sea, lakes, tratturi (the ancient, seasonal trails used to move livestock between pastures) and charming hamlets in just about 4,400 sqm of land!
Contrary to popular belief, the beauty of Molise lies in the wide variety of landscapes and activities it offers to visitors. For example, one day you could relax in one of the fantastic beaches of Termoli and the next you could explore the mountain villages in the north of the region.
The most welcoming people
Italy is a very welcoming country, but I must admit that in Molise I felt particularly pampered. Locals have been very generous with me, sharing their time, knowledge and tips to make me experience the best of Molise. I know what you’re thinking – give us examples! Well, I’ll share a couple…
While exploring the historic center of Isernia, I bumped into two ladies who were creating some beautiful lace products just outside their front door. I asked if I could take a couple of pictures and ended up taking a seat and having the most enjoyable conversation with them, spanning from traditional recipes to the difficulties of handing down the art of lace-making to the new generations. They suggested the best trattoria in town to taste the best home-made food and even took me right in front of the trattoria entrance door when I went back asking for help because I got lost in the alleys!
The second example is from the day I explored Venafro. I entered the knives shop of Mr. Rocco Petrunti and unashamedly asked for information about the local knife forging tradition. Minutes later I found myself in his amazing workshop just outside the town center, surrounded by the most incredible machinery. Mr. Rocco shared the story of his family business and showed me unique knives of all shapes and sizes. He even invited me to have lunch with his family the following day and to spend some days at their place to further explore the area!
There are amazing historic sites to explore
I’ll be honest with you, this is a topic that equally amazes me and makes me angry. Molise is filled with incredible historic sites just as good as those of Rome and other Italian rockstars, but it’s not always easy to visit them. Lack of regional funds means that some sites are closed, especially in smaller towns, and you need to look for the keeper in order to visit them. In some cases, it also means poor maintenance.
One of the most amazing places I visited during my trip is the archeological site of Altilia, which is often referred to as Molise’s little Pompeii. It’s a fantastic example of a provincial Roman town, where you can wander among the remains of the ancient forum, a basilica, artisan shops, thermal baths, and a fantastic theatre. All of this for free, and you’ll likely have the site all to yourself!
Another top site in Molise is that of Pietrabbondante, perched on a hill at about 1,000 meters above sea level. Here you’ll see ruins that date back to the V century BC and include a monumental theatre, a necropolis, a sanctuary, and several temples.
One of the places that surprised me most was the Pandone Castle in Venafro, for the richness of its exhibit. On top of a series of beautiful paintings and artifacts, there’s a fantastic cycle of frescoes depicting a selection of magnificent horses from the renowned stud of Count Enrico Pandone – surely not a standard design!
A gastronomic heaven
In Molise, recipes are simple and deeply rooted in the local culture. They make use of the fantastic products of the land and taste absolutely divine. One of the best meals I had during this trip was at Osteria Paradiso in Isernia, where I feasted on sagne e fagioli, the most delicious home-made pasta served with a rich bean sauce.
I’m sure you wouldn’t expect this, but Molise is one of the biggest producers of truffles in Italy! Although I’m not a huge fan of this delicacy, I will remember the pasta with mushrooms and truffles I had at Porta Tammaro forever (it’s right at the entrance of the Altilia archeological site).
Other products that I strongly recommend you to try when in Molise are cavatelli (a pasta shape typical of the region), caciocavallo cheese (try it grilled, it’s pure delight), ostie of Agnone (kind of wafers filled with walnuts and almonds) and i ciell (the traditional biscuits of Civitacampomarano stuffed with grape must). Also, don’t forget to ask for Tintilia, the red wine variety native to Molise.
A land of fascinating little towns and villages
Molise is all about slow rhythms. Here you can forget big cities, crowds, and traffic and embrace the quiet pace of life of this incredible region. The three biggest cities are Campobasso, Isernia, and Termoli, but they are pretty small compared to the “standard cities” in other regions. For example, Campobasso, the region’s capital, is home to just about 49,000 inhabitants!
Molise is punctuated by incredibly charming villages, like Bagnoli del Trigno, built on a rocky spur, Casalciprano with its interesting open-air museum of rural life, and the little hamlet of Sepino. I personally fell in love with the romantic corners of Oratino and the fantastic murals of Civitacampomarano.
Ancient artisanal traditions
Molise is home to centuries-old traditions that continue to be passed on from generation to generation. The village of Agnone, for example, is specialized in bell making. The biggest production center is Pontificia Fonderia Marinelli, which has been creating bells for over 1,000 years and is the oldest business in Europe!
Knife forging is the specialty of Frosolone, while Scapoli is the town of zampogne (bagpipes), with lots of workshops of local artisans that still realize them completely by hand. And don’t forget to explore the backstreets of Isernia in search of the lace-making ladies – watching them at work is truly fascinating!
- There are no airports in Molise, but you can easily reach the region with a train from Rome or Naples (it takes about 2 hours to get to Isernia). However, I strongly recommend exploring Molise by car, because public transports are pretty limited and it could take you hours to move from one town to the other. You won’t find any major international car rental companies in Molise, though, so you may want to get a car in Rome, Naples or Pescara.
- Molise hosts some pretty cool events throughout the year and you might want to plan your trip around them. The biggest ones include the Festival of Mysteries in Campobasso, a major religious procession that takes place on the day of Corpus Domini in June and the ‘Ndocciata of Agnone, a spectacular parade of torches running on 8th and 24th December. I would also keep an eye on the Bagpipe Festival in Scapoli (in July) and the CVTA’ Street Art Festival in Civitacampomarano (in June).
Until next time,