‘Molise – the new Tuscany’? Not even ‘the new Puglia’ at the wildest stretch of the imagination. It’s more like ‘the old Abruzzo’ but even less developed. The charms of Molise remain a mystery to most Italians but pay a visit before the region becomes fashionable. Molise is a place for lapping up the rural, southern lifestyle, which is more important than the sites.
Foodies will appreciate the robust red wines and ricotta-filled ravioli. Families on a tight budget will head to the gloriously wild coastline and the sandy beaches on the Adriatic. The main cities may be lacking in charm, but the castles, Roman sites and Romanesque churches will appeal to culture-vultures. The sense of hospitality will appeal to anyone in search of rural Italy. The countryside remains unchartered by most Italians and is the preserve of wolves, polecats and golden eagles. With its densely-forested mountains and nature reserves, Molise has much to offer lovers of lesser-known Italy. For now, Molise is frontier country: catch it while it lasts.
This mountainous, forested region is fringed by the Adriatic, with the A14 running to Puglia and the A1 motorway heading north to Rome. Molise is rural, unspoilt and empty – even by the standards of neighbouring Abruzzo. Under-populated Molise was tagged on to better-known Abruzzo until 1963 and remains overshadowed by its neighbour. This agricultural, off-the-beaten-track region has been slow to exploit its full tourism potential. In part, this is because emigration has taken its toll, with centuries of emigration to the United States. Instead, the region has welcomed waves of Albanians, Slavs and gypsies, who have established settlements in Molise.
Beach lovers will be pleasantly surprised by the 35km of unspoilt Adriatic coastline, which is fringed by sandy beaches and, outside August, is peaceful and utterly affordable. The easiest access to the coast is via Termoli, and the A14 motorway. Termoli, a Mediterranean-style fishing port, boasts a lovely Blue Flag beach at Rio Vivo and a bay which is popular with yachties.
Termoli is both an appealing walled town with a noted castle and cathedral and the port linked to the Tremiti islands. In Termoli, savour the Italian lifestyle by calling into any local bar. At dusk, watch the town’s evening parade, known as the passeggiata, when posing and flirting are paramount.
Adventure-lovers will have a field day in Molise. The ancient sheep-droving paths are now being pressed into service as hiking and mountain-biking trails. Castles abound, especially in the Matese mountain range, which runs along the southern edge of Molise, bordering Campania. Here is where hikers will be entranced by eagles and hawks – and live to tell the tale of wolves heard howling in the forests.
Skiing in Abruzzo is small-scale but popular with Italian fans of both cross-country and downhill skiing. Campitello Matese is the best-equipped ski resort in the South. Come spring, this is hiking country, with sightings of eagles, falcons and hawks, and conceivably even wolves. The forests give way to fields of wheat and potatoes and even vineyards and olive groves closer to the coast.
Molise is rural rather than backward, with tasty produce ranging from olive oil to truffles, mushrooms and Caciocavallo cheese. Sample Brodetto fish soup from Termoli and Calcioni ravioli filled with ricotta, pork and provolone cheese. The full-bodied red wines include Montepulciano di Molise and Aglianico.
Campobasso, the capital, is rather faceless but has several Romanesque churches and charming hotels. It also makes a good base for exploring the Roman ruins at Saepinum, Italy’s finest example of a provincial Roman town. Sheep graze below the mausoleum and the sound of tinkling cowbells is all you’ll hear. Molise abounds in such sleepy backwaters.
Looking for a dream property?
If you're thinking of tracking down a tumbledown farmhouse, villa, or even a medieval castle, consider Molise. If you're on a tight budget, bear in mind that you'll get more square metres for your euro than almost anywhere else in Italy. While not attractive destinations in themselves, Isernia and Campobasso make good bases for house-hunting forays.
Explore by car
Budget flights (courtesy of Ryanair) fly into Pescara in Abruzzo, around 60km drive north of the Molise border. To explore, a car is essential as public transport is ineffectual and erratic. Molise only covers around 500 square miles, but much of it is mountainous or steeply forested so take your time: rather than efficiency and major sites, expect off-the-beaten-track villages and warm hospitality.