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Molise

http://www.touritalynow.com/italy_information/italy_information_regions/images/italia_regions_molise.jpg Major Cities:

Campobasso
Isernia

The region of Molise remains one of Italy’s hidden gems. Far from the tourist-heavy trail between Venice and Rome, Molise seems to exist in a time and place all its own, where the traveler can experience life as it used to be, in landscapes untouched and pristine. Molise wasn’t even a region until 1963 when it was divided from northern Abruzzo. And like Abruzzo, Molise shares a mountainous and unstable landscape that accounts for much of its isolation.

Earthquakes have rocked many towns into rubble that have since been built up again in tasteless modern style. But don’t worry, there are many quaint and beautiful places to escape to. The terrain isn’t as mountainous as in neighboring Abruzzo, but it still offers some amazing vistas and worthwhile hiking trails known as the tratturi. The tratturi are the ancient sheep-driving routes that were used since before the ancient Romans and until sheep-driving was no longer a lucrative occupation. But sheep herding hasn’t left the area completely. Wander around through the countryside long enough and you’ll surely come across a shepherd managing his flock.

Accordingly, much of Molise’s cuisine is based on sheep. There’s abbacchio (lamb) that’s been roasted, grilled, made into a pasta sauce, cut into tiny pieces and skewered, or baked in a casserole. Sheep cheese, or pecorino, also figures strongly in Molise. The cheese can be mild, soft, and milky or aged, strong, and grainy like parmesan. Molise’s wines are not found outside of the area, so it’s best to try some while you’re there. The Biferno DOC is the most interesting.

Molise is considered to be part of southern Italy. It’s cities are not like the showy center pieces that Italy is renowned for, but yet it offers lots if the traveler is discerning and knows where to look.

Where To Go in Molise

Campobasso’s lovely old town

Campobasso is a good place to start as its Molise’s capital. Despite that most of the city is modern, it has retained a charming steep upper town, called the borgo antico. The old town is the jewel of Campobasso and more than worth exploring. It’s replete with narrow alleys and has a couple Romanesque churches of note: San Bartolomeo and San Giorgio. If you dare to climb up the forested hill that rises from the town like an egg yolk, you’ll be rewarded by a stunning panorama from the turret of the sixteenth-century castle that once protected the city.

One of Molise’s treasures is the ancient Roman provincial town of Saepinum, a bus ride away from Campobasso. Nestled near the foothills of Matese mountains, Saepinum is Italy’s best example of what an out-of-the-way town looked like during the Roman Empire. But it was exactly the distance from the main centers and its unimportance that kept Saepinum intact and safe from destruction. Eventually the residents moved out and founded Sepino, a nearby hilltown with a strategic location. But some of the farmers have returned to the houses around the ruins, adding to the ambiance of the place. There’s a forum, curia (senate house), temples, baths, and the marketplace. Also of note is a small museum with artifacts and artworks discovered on the site.

Many people coming to visit Molise from Rome or Naples will enter into Isernia. The city is a good starting point for exploring this part of the region. Near Isernia is La Pineta, a Paleolithic settlement that’s at least 700,000 years old. The settlement boasts the most ancient signs of life found in Europe and was found when the highway to Naples was being built. Finds from the site, weapons, traps, pigment, animal bones, are displayed at the Museo Nazionale Santa Maria delle Monache in Isernia.

On the east of Molise and nearer the coast are the so-called Albanian Villages of Portocannone and Ururi. Six hundred years after their ancestors immigrated here from Albania, residents still speak an Italian-Albanian dialect that’s tough to understand. If you’re in the area at the beginning of May, you should head to Ururi for the Carresse festival: a daring and often violent race through the streets in gladiator style carts that are pulled by bulls and pushed by men on horseback with spiked poles. The horses are given beer beforehand and bulls are prodded during the race and given shocks before, so that not only the spectators are worked up into a frenzy.

Térmoli is a lovely coastal town that’s less developed than mostly anything you’ll find to the north in Abruzzo. It’s a fishing port that can seem like a quiet and undisturbed escape, even in the height of summer. The picturesque old town is surrounded by walls and a castle.

Next time you’re in Italy, make a trip to Molise to try your hand at discovering what hasn’t been seen.