When planning a trip to Italy, the major cities of Rome, Florence, Milan and Venice are usually on the must-see list. Yet many people also aspire to find the “hidden undiscovered gem” that is waiting to be explored. For this last group, Molise is waiting. This region is so underestimated that Italians have a common joke: “Il Molise non esiste” (“Le Molise does not exist”). But the joke is really on those who haven’t visited this idyllic region. Like many of Italy’s best-known regions, Molise has great culinary delights, beautiful towns and a rich history. Visitors will also find plenty of opportunities to try their Italian, as English is not as widespread in this region as it is in some of the more touristy areas.
Molise is divided into two provinces, each with its own capital. Isernia is the capital of the western province which flanks the Apennines, and Campobasso is the capital of the eastern province which borders the Adriatic Sea. Most major cities have roots that go back to Roman times, while other cities emerged in the Middle Ages. To the south, the Roman ruins of the ancient Saepinum are visible near the modern Altilia. This archaeological site contains all the essentials of a traditional Roman city and is much less crowded (and cheaper) than the more famous Pompeii.
In Roman times, Molise was home to the infamous Samnites, a people famous by the Romans as rustic and aggressive. The famous sanctuary of Pietrabbondante to the north is considered the most important worship site in the Samnite state. The view from the surviving theater overlooking the countryside is spectacular. Further east, the architecture of the seaside town of Termoli reflects its Lombard and Norman periods. The Romanesque cathedral and the Norman castle are particularly beautiful.
The history of Molise is also on display in various museums in the region. Some of the earliest evidence of habitation can be found in the Paleolithic Museum of Isernia. The museum is built on one of the most important prehistoric archaeological sites in the Mediterranean world. Visitors walk along a path suspended above researchers who continue to excavate and study the site. Multimedia exhibits and reproductions of Paleolithic and Neolithic huts and a life-size painting Ancient Elephas worth a visit. Further east, the town of Larino stands atop the ancient site of Larinum, made famous by the Roman orator Cicero for his defense of a citizen of the city. The amphitheater and the Civic museum give a taste of its rich past.
Part of Molise’s living history includes its many festivals. The day of the Corpus Domini the annual Procession of the Mysteries takes place in Campobasso. This parade, accompanied by a marching band, consists of wooden religious images with iron supports that are carried on the shoulders of the townspeople. Children from Campobasso suspended in iron supports represent religious figures in scenes from the Old and New Testaments. The structures, the majority of which were originally built around 1740, weigh up to 605 kilograms. A Museum dedicated to the festival is located there. Another unique festival takes place on May 25, 26 and 27 in Larino. This celebration is dedicated to Saint Pardo, one of the patron saints of the city. It is a parade of over 100 carts, each decorated with handmade paper flowers and pulled by a pair of oxen. The feast and the music add to the festive atmosphere.
Le Molise also offers excellent cuisine. Like many regions of Italy, Molise takes particular pride in its olive oil, which serves as the main ingredient in most recipes. Its best-known wine is Tintilia, a powerful yet balanced red that goes well with meat sauces and grilled meats. The Molise offers a wide selection of cheeses, such as the pear-shaped caciocavallo and scamorza (eaten cold or grilled), the pecorino (sheep’s milk cheese) from Capracotta, and the soft and creamy stracciata. Molise is also proud of its cold meats. These include the ventricina (pork seasoned with salt, wild fennel and pepper, and dried by a fireplace before being cured), and Rionero Sannitico’s liver sausage (made with liver, pork heart and lungs combined with salt, pepper, garlic, orange peel and bay leaf, all dried next to a fireplace for 4 to 5 days before hardening). Another hidden surprise that Molise offers are the truffles (both black and white) found in the center of the region. These delicacies are used to flavor all kinds of dishes, even desserts!
For the more adventurous tourists who wish to discover a side of Italy that cannot be found in the big cities, Molise offers a multitude of options. The people are extremely friendly and the experience is sure to be memorable!
Featured Image By Lorenzo Lamonica by Unsplash