Between Abruzzo and Puglia on the Adriatic coast is Molise, bordering Lazio to the west and Campania to the south-west. Molise is the second smallest and least populated of the Italian regions, after the Valle d'Aosta. It is also Italy's newest region, having become separate from Abruzzo in 1963.
Less developed and more remote than Abruzzo, Molise is not a place much frequented by tourists, either Italian or foreign. This is a poor, rural region lacking in modern conveniences... but this can make it all the more appealing to adventurous spirits, particularly those who love nature.
The mountains, forests and lakes are well cared for and are home to all sorts of wonderful wildlife, including wolves, bears, eagles, hawks and polecats. Few human inhabitants and fewer tourists means an unpolluted, healthy environment. With much of the region being taken up by nature reserves, Molise makes a more than reasonable claim to be 'the clean heart of Italy'.
If you want to travel around Molise, it's useful to have a car, because the public transport system can be sporadic and erratic. In the villages and small towns, strangers are conspicuous. This is Southern Italy as it has been for centuries and, if you come from a modern city and/or are accustomed to having your holidays in a modern city or resort, you may need to adjust your expectations. In this underdeveloped region, the people are friendly and hospitable, the food and wine are delicious and the nature reserves and parks offer a deep sense of calm and wellbeing.
Sadly, it's inevitable that sooner or later Molise will be 'discovered' and cease to be so wild and remote. If you like the idea of intrepidly exploring a land that, to a great extent, Man has yet to subjugate, I suggest you get yourself to Molise in the next year or so - before, as it says in the region's brochures, it becomes fashionable.
What to see and do in Molise
Enjoy the mountains
Both mountain chains in Molise, the Matese and the Mainarde, offer great opportunities for hiking, biking, horse-riding and communing with nature. In the Matese area, there are a couple of popular ski resorts and these mountains are also good for paragliding, rock-climbing and caving.
Enjoy the lakes
The region's three main lakes, Guardialfiera (also known as Liscione), Castel San Vincenzo and Occhito, are artificial, made by damming rivers. They provide important habitats for birds, butterflies and rare plants, as well as being home to otters.
Enjoy the sea
As with the land, the sea along Molise's coast is clean and beautiful. The sandy beaches are peaceful (except perhaps in August) and unspoilt.
Explore the cities and towns
Campobasso, the region's capital, and Isernia, the other main city, are both fairly bland and functional, having been rebuilt in the aftermath of several earthquakes, over the centuries, and of World War Two bombing. They still have ancient parts as well, but a combination of devastating damage and the sudden influx of modern factories means Molise's cities are not among the most aesthetically pleasing in the country. But then, the standard in Italy is very high.
Termoli is a busy port, full of fishing boats, yachts and ferries to the Tremiti Islands (see Puglia). It has a walled old town, a castle, a medieval cathedral and several beaches. This is the main seaside town of Molise and such tourists as come to the region tend to go to Termoli.
Larino is a nice town, between Campobasso and Termoli. It has a fine Gothic cathedral, a Roman amphitheatre and, 25th-27th May every year, the Festival of San Pardo, which is one of the most moving and atmospheric events of its kind that you'll experience in Italy.
Saepinum (Sepino), near Campobasso, was once a small Roman country town. Today the ruins are extremely well preserved and you can look at them for free.
Eating and drinking in Molise
The food in Molise is rustic and robust. In the hills and mountains, lamb, mutton, kid and goat meat are abundant, while on the coast it's fish, crab and other seafood. Pork is also widely eaten, both as a dish in itself and in the form of prosciutto and salame. Tomatoes, both fresh and preserved, feature in practically every meal.
Local cheeses include pecorino, caciocavallo and scamorza, pecorino often being grated on to pasta instead of the parmesan that's used further north. Pasta is a staple of the Molisean diet but polenta is also very popular.
As in Abruzzo and the regions to the south, peperoncino (dried red chili peppers) is quite heavily employed to spice things up.
The wines from Molise are excellent but, because production is still on a small scale, most of what's made tends to be consumed locally. This is set to change in the next few years but, for the moment, make the most of Molise wine while you're there.
For more information about Molise...
Buy a local map for travelling around Molise. The region is really too small to warrant its own guidebook but something you might like to do is download the chapter about Abruzzo, Molise & Campania from the Lonely Planet's Italy guide.
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