Italy's Most Carefully Hidden Treasure

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South of Abruzzo, east of Latium and Campania, north of Apulia, Molise is a narrow strip of hilly terrain covering less than 550 square miles. Compare that to Rhode Island (1212 sq. mi.) and you may start to realize just how tiny this region is. For millennia it has been a natural bastion, first of the Samnites, legendary challengers who were eventually defeated by the Romans. Today its heavily forested slopes are dotted with castles, many in excellent stages of preservation. They overlook friendly medieval hamlets, glorious ancient ruins and some of the most uncontaminated nature in all Europe - so pristine, in fact, that UNESCO has chosen Molise for two of its four Italian biosphere locations.

From Rome or Naples, you enter Molise by turning off the A1 onto SS85 towards Isernia. If you are driving along the Adriatic, turn off the A14 onto SS647 towards the regional capital, Campobasso, or onto SS650 to Isernia. If you choose SS85, your first stop could be Venafro, surrounded by ancient olive groves and nestled among the Mainarde and Matese mountain ranges. Here you'll find the first of the many Roman theatres Molise has to offer, along with an amphitheatre and a semi-circular Samnite meeting house. On the hill above, the Romanesque-Gothic cathedral contains several excellent 15th-century frescoes. It is flanked by the 10th-century castle, where you'll see a series of rare relief frescoes depicting the horses of Count Enrico Pandone. A delightful stroll through the woods leads to the tiny cave church of Santa Maria delle Grazie.

Monteroduni A little farther down the road you'll come to Monteroduni, where the sumptuous Pignatelli castle is a major attraction. After visiting it you can head straight for Isernia or you can take a scenic detour north, passing through countless tunnels and thrilling to the panoramas of the broad Volturno Valley on your way. Near Colli al Volturno you'll see a turnoff for Isernia. Lovers of the ancient world should take this second detour: it leads to the imposing walls built by the Samnites in the 4th century BC, to protect the fabled, long-gone town of Aquilonia. Several miles long, twelve feet high and ten feet thick, it is made of polygonal blocks, contains no mortar, and is the largest extant fortification from the Italic period.

Retracing our steps we soon come to Castel San Vicenzo. Here, in an unforgettable high plain setting, surrounded by rockbound hills, snowcapped mountains and luxuriant evergreen forests, you will find a jewel-like lake, a beautifully restored Benedictine abbey and 9th-century hill town which scholars have likened to the monastery described by Umberto Eco in The Name of the Rose. Take the guided tour through the Carolingian abbey, to see the only complete early 8th-century fresco cycle ever painted in Europe by Byzantine artists.

MonteroduniA few miles east, yet another fortress stands guard over Cerro al Volturno, a pleasant little town on the banks of the placid old river. From here you can take the panoramic road to Acquaviva, then turn onto the larger road to Isernia. What a combination of contradictions this town is! Although it is a provincial capital, you can walk from one end to the other in half an hour; although it sits in a hopelessly remote location, it can rightly claim to have been "the first capital of Italy," because it was during its tenure as capital (91-88BC) that the Social League changed its name to the Italic League.

Isernia has been destroyed and rebuilt twelve times, the most recent being after the decimating bombardments of 1943. Parts of the city suffer from that aggravating Italian malady that combines all the annoying chaos of modernity and none of its advantages. But it also has some beautiful corners. One outstanding monument is the Fraterna Fountain, erected in the 13th century by an affluent local family named Ponzia. As the name hints, they were descended from Pontius Pilate. There's also a gracious cathedral which almost looks more like an ancient Roman government building than a Roman Catholic church.

Perhaps the most astounding thing Isernia has to offer a foreign visitor is something that was discovered by chance, in the most authentically Italian way possible, during the building of the road from Isernia to Vasto. Imagine the experience of breaking ground for a highway and coming up instead with the oldest and most extensive paleolithic settlement in Europe! First unearthed in 1978, it dates from 800-900 thousand years ago and extends for over 320,000 square feet. You can visit one-tenth of it, walking on suspended sidewalks over 20,000 artifacts including tools, bone fragments and animal carcasses. There are quite a few plaster reproductions of the originals in the Paleolithic Museum located in town in the 8th-century convent of S. Maria Assunta.

Traveling east along this prehistoric highway, we soon come to Pescolanciano, another tiny town with a great big castle: this one has managed to preserve its drawbridge! Nearby you'll see a tratturo. It may look like no more than a dirt road to you, but it is actually one of the ancient pathways used by local shepherds for centuries to move their herds south to Apulia for the winter. Its origins may go back as far as the 2nd century BC, when the Samnites built the next place on our route.

Pietrabbondante At 3000 feet above sea level, Pietrabbondante can claim to be the highest ancient settlement in Italy. It is also the most sacred gathering spot of the Samnites, and it is one of the very rare ancient monuments that has not been strangled by modern encroachments. It is a truly magical spot, sprawled across a rural plateau between deep green hills and broad cultivated fields. In ancient times this was Bovianum Vetus; the modern name of "plentiful stone" could not be more appropriate for the silent grassy cluster of grey stone ruins, including a temple, a theatre and two other buildings which held shops and offices. Nearby is a slightly older sanctuary, and on the mountain above are the remains of an even older stone defense wall. Try out the anatomical theatre seats, each carved from its own block of stone; try reciting a few lines to test the perfect acoustics; stand in the middle of the temple floor and admire the stunning vantage point across the valley. Unless you are here on a summer weekend, you should have the place to yourselves.

Our visit to Isernia province ends in Agnone, another charming hilltown. This friendly place is known for its delicious food, for its artisan workshops, and for its factory which specializes in bronze bells. If you have ever slept anywhere in Italy, chances are you have been woken by a child of the Marinelli factory in Agnone. For centuries, illustrious exemplars have been forged here; the most recent was probably the one to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the United Nations. We suggest you stroll through the town (don't miss the beautiful Renaissance portal on the church of S. Marco), stay for dinner to try some of the local delicacies, then spend the night in Agnone. The next morning you could waken to the smells of baking bread and sweets, get into the car and take a leisurely drive north to the Abruzzo or Maiella National Parks.

Click here for places to stay along your journey through Molise.
Click here for more details on the fascinating paleolithic settlement of Isernia.

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