Molise, which after Valle D'Aosta, is the second smallest region in Italy, only became a separate region in 1963. It is a hilly area, that sits on the Adriatic coast between Abruzzo (with which it was previously joined) on the north, and Puglia on the south. On the west it is bordered by Lazio Roma and Campania.
Not many English-speaking travelers make it to Molise, which is a pity. The modern day visitor to Molise, an easy journey from Rome or Naples, will find a verdant and well-forested territory in which numerous small, medieval hamlets, and numerous castles, many still in exceedingly good condition, are nestled. The few large towns and cities are as yet unspoiled by mass tourism; the people are open and friendly; the cuisine still strongly regional. There are no heavy industries to speak of, so Molise's economy is still principally agricultural in the hinterlands and fishing on the coast.
The Region was original settled by the very tough and redoubtable Samnites, one of the earliest italic tribes. Initial clashes between Samnium, as the area was called, and Latium under the Romans, resulted in a treaty (354 BC), which held the peace only until 322 BC, when war broke out again. The Samnite Wars, during which the Samnites triumphed over the Romans on several occasions, lasted until 290 BC, when the Romans finally routed the Samnites. The revenge of the Romans was ferocious; tens of thousands killed and whole villages and towns leveled, never to rise again.
As with the other areas of east cental Italy, the Goths and the Lombards asserted control over the area as the Roman Empire collapsed. They were displaced in the early 11th century by the Normans. In 1053 the Normans appointed Ugo di Mulhouse their governor, and it is from his name from which the name Molise is derived. The territory was incorporated into the Kingdom of Sicily, then in due course became part of the Kingdom of Naples, where it more or less remained, except for a short period under Napoleonic rule, until the area (as part of Abruzzo-Molise) was brought into the modern country of Italy in 1861.
During World War II, many Molisan communities suffered at the hands of both Axis and Allied forces. Canadian forces were stationed at a large camp, nicknamed Maple Leaf City, at Campobasso. Finally, after a prolonged period of peace, and with the building of new transportation and communication infrastructure, Molise is finding its place on the Italian map.
At other times during your journey you will want to take in the inland cities of Isernia, and Campobasso, both delightful in their own ways, and the sea coast city of Termoli, where most of Molise's industrial activity takes place.
Some of the must see sights include the two Roman theater, a Roman amphitheater and a Samnian meeting house near Venafro, snug in the folds of the Mainard and Matese mountain ranges (along the SS85). Above the town look for a Church in the Romanesque style, with Gothic renovations and 15th century frescoes. If you have time, walk to the adjacent 10th century castle, then through the woods to the Chiesa Santa Marie delle Grazie, inside a hillside grotto, or cave.
The Pignatelli castle is located near the town of Monteroduni also on the SS85. Heading toward Isernia you will traverse the mountains on a combination of bridged highways and long tunnels. Before the turnoff for Isernia at Volturno your eyes will be rivetted by the breathtaking site of the Volturno valley. Before reaching Isernia, we recommend a side trip to the ancient Samnite town of Aquilonia, now gone. What remains is a staggeringly large, mortarless wall built of polygonal shaped blocks in the 4th century BC, some 15 m (10 feet) thick, 3.5 meters (12 feet) high and several kilometers long.
Those of you familiar with Umberto Eco's book (and a movie of the same name), The Name of the Rose, will want to travel to Castel San Vicenzo, sitting on a gorgeous high plain in the snow-capped mountains. This 9th century (and now restored) Benedictine Abbey and the town that grew up around it are not to be missed.
Outside the cities, other points of interest include the oldest paleolithic settlement ever found in Europe located near Vasto, which was only unearthed in 1978. Dating from between the 10th and 9th centuries BC, the settlement covers over 300,000 square feet, a large portion of which can be viewed from suspended sidewalks. Many artifacts remain on the site, but many have made their way to a special museum at the convent of Santa Maria Assunte.
The highest settlement of ancient Italy is Pietrabbondante. Unsullied in every way, the town and its surrounding area, with views of mountains and valleys, will take your breath away. A restored Roman theatre and other monuments and ruins are open to public access.
For travelers who are seeking an authentic Italian experience, the word is "Go" and go soon, while the region remains untrammeled by hordes of tourists, and you can claim bragging rights that belong to those who discover a fabulous place that hardly anyone knows the name of. Yet.