Italy’s forgotten region – unmolested by time and tourists

Italy’s second smallest region, Molise offers the traveler a variety of landscapes – getty

We’ve all read about the unspoilt Greek island or the hidden corner of France, legendary places undisturbed by time and tourists. Of course, few are ever as flawless as presented.

However, Molise, a tiny region of south-central Italy just above Puglia and the foothills of the famous boot, has a bigger claim to the unknown than most. True, in summer you might share its glorious beaches with Italians, but inland and outside the hottest months, you’re unlikely to meet another visitor, Italian or not.

Some places are unknown for good reason: there is little to see or do. Molise is not one of them. Although it is the second smallest region in Italy – only the Aosta Valley is smaller – it offers a varied and rich range of sights. Better still, this is the Italy of another era, a place where rural life is still lived and traditions of food, family and religion are still celebrated.

So why is it unknown? Poverty, a peripheral location and a history largely bypassed except for the presence of the Samnites, a pre-Roman culture, the Romans themselves and the strange incursions of Swabians, Normans and Bourbons, all of whom have left a legacy of superlative ancient ruins, sublime castles and beautiful Romanesque churches.

Termoli and its beach are one of the main attractions of the region for tourists - getty

Termoli and its beach are one of the main attractions of the region for tourists – getty

Better yet, the region’s varied landscapes, from coastal plains to pastoral rolling hills to soaring Apennine peaks, set the backdrop for countless medieval hilltop villages that – like the region’s landscape – are comparable to anything in Tuscany or Umbria.

Equal to Tuscany and Umbria? It’s a claim. Likewise the assertion that there was hardly anyone there. But see for yourself and you will find that everything is true.

towns and villages

On the whole avoid larger towns like Isernia and Campobasso, making exceptions for charming Venafro and its beautiful archaeological museum and Termoli on the coast, close to Pescara airport (see below) and probably your first base.

As an introduction, it’s superb: walled in parts, flanked by glorious beaches, and with a narrow maze of ancient streets housing an 11th-century Norman-Swabian castle, a beautiful Romanesque cathedral, and Italy’s narrowest lane, A Rejecelle By a tight fit (about 13 inches) you have to cross it sideways.

Stay in the old center at the Locanda Alfieri (B&B doubles from £79) for modern rooms in a medieval setting. Eat in the old town at La Svevia, more expensive than some places but with regional cuisine served under pretty brick vaults.

Inland you are spoiled for choice, with dozens of unspoilt villages, many clustered around castles or near archaeological sites, notably the remarkable Sepino, with Roman ruins that wouldn’t be out of place in Rome itself. Equally convincing are the Samnite remains from the 6th century BC. BC near the village of Pietrabbondante.

An aerial view of the Sepino ruins in Molise - getty

An aerial view of the Sepino ruins in Molise – getty

The most photographed village in the region is Bagnoli del Trigno, hidden between two huge rocks topped by a church and a castle respectively. Other stations worth seeing are Oratino, Fornelli and Frosolone, which are officially counted among the most beautiful villages in Italy along with Sepino. Also see Scapoli, Agnone Ferrazzano and perhaps the impressive, partly abandoned Rocchetta a Volturno high in the mountains.

Accommodation in Molise is usually still basic and cheap, but if you’re after something special to use as a base, check out the four-star Borgotufi Albergo Difuso (doubles from £132) near the Abruzzo border, or the more centrally located Masseria Grande (doubles from £95) offers rather basic rooms but in a lovely rural setting with a pool.

The Landscapes

The landscapes of Molise are varied and change in a few kilometers from the beaches, pine forests and wheat-covered plains of the Adriatic coast, through ever-higher pastoral hills, to the majestic, rugged peaks of the high Apennines.

For particularly scenic roads, take the N87 (Larino to Campobasso), the N17 from Vinchiaturo to Lelsi and the N618 into the Frosolone mountains. Or ditch the car in favor of the so-called Italian Transiberian, a reopened rural railway route between Sulmona (in Abruzzo) and Isernia, passing through some of central Italy’s most scenic highland countryside.

Hiking in Molise is guaranteed to bring you up close and personal with the region's diverse wildlife - getty

Hiking in Molise is guaranteed to bring you up close and personal with the region’s diverse wildlife – getty

The railroad touches 4,160 feet (1,268 m), but hiking takes you higher, with Mount Miletto, the region’s highest point, at 6,725 feet (2,050 m). This is a popular peak (avoid the Campitello route) but the region is full of hiking trails where you won’t meet a living soul, many based on ancient transhumance trails or traturithat have Unesco status here – visit Komoot for hiking recommendations or contact Molise Trekking for guided day and multi-day hikes.

Molise’s varied terrain makes it ideal cycling land, whatever your fitness level. Hire a bike from DPA in Termoli and cycle some of the beach roads north or the easy coastal road Ciclovia Adriatica, the long-distance route from Trieste in Italy’s far north-west.

Inland, Cicolago recommends a variety of routes, from the family-friendly to the tougher 90-mile (145 km) Ciclovia di Volturno. Several rural farms, notably Essentia, provide road and e-bikes, guides (if required) and recommended routes.

The coast

Molise has only 22 miles (35 km) of coastline, most of which is delightful and characterized by beautiful sandy beaches fringed by pine trees, hence the nickname Costa Verde or Green Coast.

Termoli’s huge urban beach Sant’Antonio is a good place for families, with safe Green Flag bathing for all ages, as well as many amenities and a range of discounts (stabilization) which, after about a mile, give way to free, unspoilt sand on Lido Alcione and the surrounding area. The city’s other beach, Rio Vivo, is better suited for water sports.

Termoli is one of the best places to enjoy a taste of beach life in Molise - Getty

Termoli is one of the best places to enjoy a taste of beach life in Molise – Getty

The two mile long beach at Campomarino also has stabilization and stretches of free, pristine sand. Petacciato is often recommended, but the adjacent town could be nicer. Ventotto and Montenero di Bisaccia are better, with calm, crystal clear seas and silky sandy beaches: the dunes around the mouth of the Saccione river are a particularly beautiful destination.

While on the coast, make a point of seeing the uncanny beauty Trabocchi Around Termoli there are dry wooden walkways and fishermen’s huts built on stilts in the sea, which are only found in Molise, in Abruzzo and on the Gargano peninsula in Puglia.

food and wine

Molise may be small, but like any Italian region, it has a variety of specialties, not the least of which is white truffles that can only be found in large quantities elsewhere in Italy in Piedmont. Olive oils are also excellent, especially those using local varieties of olives such as aurina by Venafro et al non-jewish by Larino.

Molise is also famous for onions (from Isernia), beans (from Riccia) and potatoes (from San Biase), the latter often added to a local pasta, cavatellimade with flour and water (no egg) and usually served with a lamb-based sauce or a local broccoli, spigatelli.

Another type of pasta, the well-known fusilli, comes from Molise. Other, frascarelli, often used in soups, is virtually unknown outside the region. Dito zengariellea type of spaghetti that contains spelt (farro).

White truffles can be found all over Molise - Getty

White truffles can be found all over Molise – Getty

The cheeses are also excellent: caciocavallo from Agone, goat from Montefalcone nel Sannio and mountain cheeses from Fortore and Pietracatella. Among meats, lamb predominates, but look for it vruccularre (pork cheek) and capocalloa coarse salami that is almost a meal in itself.

Don’t forget the coast for seafood galore – Bread rollsa kind of stew, is the classic dish – but if you’re not eating anything out of the ordinary in Molise, it’s a must-try pampanellaa spiced roast pork often served as a street food in a bun.

You’ll also find regional wines – and regional varietals – that are almost unknown elsewhere, notably Tintilia (a red wine); biferno (red and white); and Moscato Giallo di Molise, a dessert wine. Outstanding producers are Di Majo Narante, Cianfagna, Cantina Catabbo and Claudio Cipressi.

get there

Ryanair flies daily to Pescara, the closest airport to Molise. Bus number 38 runs from the airport to Pescara train station for connections to Termoli (approx. 1 hour) and other places on the Molise coast. You’ll need a rental car to properly explore the interior, but the area’s bus network is helpful.

Combine Molise with a trip to Puglia in the south and fly home from Bari with BA and Ryanair.

Further information

The region’s official website is excellent. Also helpful, but only in Italian, is

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