Molise is a region of Italy, just like Tuscany, Sicily, and Lombardy. However, unlike those regions, it is absolutely devoid of tourists despite a rich history of human habitation going back 700,000 years, not to mention breathtaking hilltop towns that have been under the control of Romans, Normans, and every other empire in between. Up until the last 40 years Molise was actually part of Abruzzo (where I stayed before coming to Molise), and despite having its fair share of quality local gastronomy and picturesque places to visit, it’s pretty much always been an afterthought. Molise is also something of a joke amongst Italians — there is a Facebook page with nearly 70,000 followers who “don’t believe in the existence of Molise.”
Naturally, I thought it would be worth my time to give Molise a look (to prove its existence) and I spent 5 days getting to know this overlooked and unsung region just a little bit. Owing jointly to mountainous terrain and sparse population, Molise is difficult to navigate without a car, but for outsiders it would be a pain in the ass anyways. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such poor signage or such poorly thought-out infrastructure as of yet in Italy, and considering how dysfunctional this country is, that’s saying something.
Couchsurfing in Molise proved to be impossible, no surprise given its relative isolation to the rest of the world, but luckily I found a ridiculously cheap apartment ($14 per night) through Airbnb in Pesche, a suburb of Isernia, the capital of the province of the same name. Pesche was my home base for exploring Molise, and it was also the first town I decided to explore. The historic center of the town goes back at least 800 years, and its situation on the side of a mountain makes for an excellent photo-op, not to mention a killer workout.
You can practically count the number of streets in Pesche with both hands; a series of lanes barely wide enough to fit a single car zigg-zaggs up the side of the mountain. Houses built from the same stone as the mountain are literally stacked on top of one other, creating a sensation of walking straight up into the sky. The names of the streets seem to fit one of two categories: either they are names of famous philosophers or Biblical figures (Via Ippocrate, Via Avram) or they are names of the countries that liberated the region in 1944 (Via Nuova Zealanda, Via Australia).
I was expecting Pesche to be composed of mostly abandoned homes, but I was pleasantly surprised to see that many of them are still in use. Only at the very top of the town is there any sign of decay. Apart from offering a stunning vista of the entire valley, the top of Pesche is also the natural setting for the ruined Norman castle and a few vacated houses now overflowing with weeds and detritus. Definitely an A+ spot for a picnic.
Despite being an administrative and trading center since Roman times, Isernia doesn’t have much going on these days. Very little is left of its ancient core, mostly due to what folks in the insurance business would label as “Acts of God or War.” Earthquakes in the 9th, 14th, 15th, and 19th centuries caused massive amounts of destruction, and much of it was flattened during a fierce Allied bombing raid in September 1943. Perhaps because it’s too much of a pain in the ass to rebuild from scratch, the city plan follows the same layout dating back to the Roman period, and most of the current buildings are built directly over Roman foundations.
I was there on a Sunday so most businesses were closed, but as I walked through the modern section of the city I noticed that many people were clustered around their cars parked along the avenue. Mostly they were eating sandwiches, smoking cigarettes, and talking—sort of like a picnic but out of the trunk of the car. There doesn’t seem to be much green space in the city center (not that they’re lacking any greenery, given their mountainous surroundings) so I guess that leaves people with the car as their best option.
Between the new and old section of Isernia is a large piazza, where a medieval fountain constructed piecemeal out of discarded Roman marbles sits in shady corner. The Fontana fraterna was built starting in the 13th century, and contains several inscriptions from recycled marble from the ruins of the old city. Apart from a few sculpted heads and a spiral—a favorite motif of mine—crowned by a flower, the fountain is otherwise unremarkable, just like the entire modern part of the city.
It would be disingenuous of me to suggest Isernia is a complete wasteland, given that they have a Paleolithic museum, and the main cathedral in town—built by the legendary St. Francis of Assisi—is built directly on the podium of the old Roman temple, part of which is still visible. That, and a Gothic tower on Corso Marcelli, the main thoroughfare in the old town, will give you at least enough to do for a few hours until lunch, when you can dine on pasta with truffles and then leave for greener pastures.
I spent an hour walking around Bojano and another three waiting around the main square and then the train station for the return back to Isernia. Bjoano is set at the bottom of a wide valley and I imagine the citizens of this town must be bored beyond reckoning. A brief section of exposed Roman paving stones next to a canal represents the high point of my visit to Bojano—I don’t think I have to say anything else about it. Alright, that’s probably a bit harsh–the stray cats here were super friendly.
Apparently there’s a rivalry of sorts between the people of Isernia and Venafro; while walking around Isernia I noticed a few graffiti stencils saying “Venafro ti odio,” (I hate Venafro) and in Venafro I spied a few signs saying the same things about Isernia. I suppose this has something to do with calico, which is what the Italians call football, but I can’t imagine what sort of person follows a semi-professional 4th or 5th division club that seriously.
Pointless football hooliganism aside, credit must be given to Venafro for being worth the painfully slow train trip from Isernia. A word on the train service in Italy, especially the south: what passes for a train in Molise is basically one or two cars that are at least 30 years old latched onto each other. The tracks are overgrown with weeds and oftentimes there is only one set of rails—almost every trip I made involved waiting on a siding for another train to pass by. I quickly became accustomed to tardy arrivals; traveling in this part of Italy has proved to be more difficult than in any country I’ve visited so far, including Morocco.
Anyways—back to Venafro. Several Roman writers including Cicero and Pliny mention Venafro in various histories, mostly because of the exceptional quality of olive oil produced in the region. One of the highlights of visiting Venafro is the only olive tree preserve in Europe—a national park created specially to celebrate the history of olive oil making in the city.
In addition to the preserve, there is also a ruined Norman watch tower sitting halfway up the mountainside, plus a castle on top of the old city and a Romanesque church with frescoes from the 14th century—sadly both of these were closed when I was there.
Venafro has changed hands a lot over the past 2,000 years: from the local Samnite tribe to the Romans, then later to marauding troops led by Charlemagne, later on the Lombards, the Saracens, and still later to the Neopolitans, and the French. Considering the damage done by multiple conquests as well as the occasional major earthquake, there are still some impressive ruins to see. A Roman amphitheater built into a hillside has been mostly dug up, and there is a multi-story site near the present-day cathedral that was either a Roman municipal house or the villa of a private wealthy citizen.
Venafro was the last place I visited before leaving the region to Naples the following day, and even though I had to wait a bit longer than necessary for the train to arrive, it was still a pleasant visit to cap off my tour around Molise. I won’t be coming back here, but I’m still glad I showed up—it is in fact possible that the tour guides aren’t always wrong for omitting certain places. One last word: If I had a car (and an extra day or two) I would have made time to see the Roman ruins at Pietrabbondante and also the town of Agnone, which has a museum dedicated to the making of bells, something which a family business has been doing in Agnone for about a thousand years.