My love affair with Italy started in Tuscany a long time ago but has expanded to other regions since then. The more I traveled and reported throughout the peninsula, the more I discovered new ingredients and cooking styles, dialects that didn’t sound like Dante’s Tuscan Italian, myriad cultural heritages, new-to-me wines, and more Saints Feast Days than I can recount. Maybe, I thought, there’s no such thing as “Italian culture” but rather “Italian cultures.”
The boulevards in Turin, Piedmont, looked more to me like Paris than Rome.
The white city of Ostuni, Puglia, resembled a sun-bleached Greek island instead of a hilltown floating in a silver-green sea of olive trees.
Ponte de Legno in Alpine Lombardy seemed Swiss while the architecture of Modica in southern Sicily appeared Spanish. Yet, all these places and more are the vibrant threads in the glorious tapestry of Italy.
Intrigued by all of these Italys, I’ve promised myself to spend quality time in each of the nation’s 20 regions, roughly the equivalent of a US state.
On a trip from March-June this year, Walter and I checked out Liguria, Sardinia, Sicilia, and Molise.
Molise has been on my radar screen for the last year or so. Travel media have begun promoting it as “undiscovered,” “unspoiled,” and “not touristy.” Can calling it “the next Tuscany” be far off?
What You Won’t Find in Molise: Tourists
Winding down our trip last spring, we impulsively decided to spend a few days exploring Molise on the trek north from Naples to our departure city Milan. I logged onto Airbnb (we like staying with locals) and searched for accommodations. I envisioned a relaxing get-away in a picturesque hilltown. I’ve had great luck with airbnbs in Italy so when I didn’t find many listings in Molise, I realized those travel articles were spot on. This area is not developed for tourism. I came across an apartment in a rustic stone farmhouse near a hilltop village called Busso. The stone facade was bathed in golden afternoon in the listing photo. I booked it.
We pulled into Busso during a deluge. GPS couldn’t find the Airbnb address. We couldn’t get a cell phone signal. It was lunchtime so not a soul was on the street. Shops and government offices were closed. Thankfully, a local woman appeared on foot and loaned us a cell phone to call our host. He directed us down a different road from the one we had climbed. The woman’s brother drove up at the same time and after she explained our situation, he offered to drive down the hill to guide us.
The arrival was not auspicious. Locked gate, muddy lane, big barking dogs. Our host opened the lower-level apartment. Musty and a bit dingy. The gloomy weather, the rowdy dogs, the remote location. How would we find our way back here in the pitch dark after dinner? All of a sudden, this didn’t seem like the lovely hilltop retreat we had envisioned. Walter and I looked at each other, asked our host if we could cancel (he graciously did), and got in the car to head for nearby Campobasso.
Home Base Campobasso
We pulled into Campobasso, a town of about 50,000 that is the capital of the region. Walter secured a parking spot near the address where Google said there is a tourism office. No such office was at said location. Queries in nearby local businesses produced shrugs.
Taking refuge in a cafe where the friendly barista let us log on to WiFi, we were able to find a vacancy at Bed & Breakfast Luciano & Son. Within a few minutes, we arrived on Via Roma and were greeted on the street by the affable owner Luciano Viola. He operates the family toy store just a few doors down from the B&B and had spotted us as obvious outsiders. Luciano and his pre-teen son escorted us up three floors to a clean, well-lighted apartment. Whew! Home for a few days.
Luciano gave us breakfast tickets for redemption at Pan and Cake. “Where is that?” we asked. The son, in perfect English, poked his head out the window and pointed left. “Just there, you can see the sign.”
Throughout our visit, Luciano shared his knowledge of Campobasso food, culture, and history. Better than the tourism office we never did find. We knew for sure where the toy store was located.
Up and Around Campobasso
Heading north from the B&B, we walked a few short blocks into the medieval quarter. This borgo antico di Campobasso (old town of Campobasso) sits on higher ground than the modern town. We zigged west, climbing Viale delle Rimembranze up to Castello Monforte and the adjacent Chiesa Santa Maria Maggiore.
Fortifications have stood on the site since the late 14th Century. The current iteration was re-built in the mid-15th Century after a disastrous earthquake reduced the castle to rubble.
Vistas of the surrounding countryside and Apennines are breath-taking and, fortunately, include only an approaching storm front, not hordes of invaders.
Here’s Walter’s video from the top of the Castello.
More on Molise
Until 1963, Molise was administratively connected to Abruzzo, referred to as Abruzzo-Molise. It is now a separate region, the newest in Italy. I’ve tried to uncover the rationale behind the split but my research hasn’t yielded an explanation.
Molise is also the second smallest region by land mass after tiny Aosta Valley. Population density, as well, is among the lowest in the country. A recent announcement by the government is offering 700€ a month to anyone willing to settle and start a business in one of several Molise hilltowns.
In upcoming posts, I’ll show you some of the hilltowns we explored, our outing with Luciano Viola to a cheesemaker, and ruins of the Roman town Saepinum.
Molise’s attractions belie its diminutive land mass. From the National Park of Abruzzo-Lazio-Molise and the ski resorts on Monte Meta, 7,352 feet altitude, to charming Adriatic shore towns, Molise is a naturalist’s paradise.
James Martin shares this map of Molise on Wandering Italy.
15 Reasons to Visit Molise from Slow Italy
Martha Bakerjian of Martha’s Italy profiles the Marinelli bell foundry in Agnone.
Where We Ate in Campobasso
Pan and Cake This bright, sleek female-owned-and-operated cafe/bakery offers on-premise baked goods with prompt and friendly service. In back, there is a lovely garden room.
For la tipica cucina molisana, we dined several times at Ristorante da Mario
Octogenarian Mario recites the daily menu tableside. Choices include homemade pasta, lamb, rabbit, seafood, seasonal greens and other vegetables, cheeses, and cured meats.
Have you visited Molise? Share your comments.