Much of Molise still seems to be struggling out of its past, its towns and villages victims of either economic neglect or hurried modern development. With few sights as such, the inland areas are little explored, but the unspoiled countryside and glimpses of an authentic, untouristed Italy to be found here are attractions in themselves. Inland from Termoli, while Campobasso and Isernia win no prizes for their looks, they do possess a certain gritty charm; from the former, you can reach the remarkable ruins at Saepinum.
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CAMPOBASSO, Molise’s regional capital, is a modern town whose most notable attraction is the Museo Sannitico, with statues and a scattering of archeological finds from the area, most notably the haunting contents of a Longobard tomb, a warrior buried alongside his horse. Steep alleys of the old upper town lead up to a couple of Romanesque churches – San Bartolomeo, which has eerily contorted figures carved around its main door, and San Giorgio, whose entrance displays a dragon surrounded by stylized flowers. At the top of the hill are a monastery and sixteenth-century castle, from which there is a panorama over the environs and the historic centre’s borgo antico below.
If you happen to be around sixty days after Easter, don’t miss the town’s spectacular Corpus Domini Sagra dei Misteri procession, in which citizens are dressed as saints, angels and devils, inserted into fantastic contraptions and transported, seemingly suspended in mid-air, through the streets.
SaepinumSAEPINUM, a ruined Roman town to the south, is arguably the most interesting sight in Molise. Surrounded by a lush plain fringed with the foothills of the Matese mountains, it’s the best example in Italy of a provincial Roman town.
The main reason Saepinum is so intact is that it was never very important: nothing much happened here, and after the fall of the Roman Empire it carried on as the sleepy backwater it had always been – until the ninth century when it was sacked by Saracens. Over the centuries its inhabitants added only a handful of farms and cottages, incorporating the odd Roman column, and eventually moved south to the more secure hilltop site of present-day Sepino. Some have now moved back and rebuilt the farms and cottages on Saepinum’s peripheries, contributing if anything to the site’s appeal. Their sheep graze below an ancient mausoleum, chickens scratch around the walls, and the only sound is the tinkling of cowbells.
Depending on whether you arrive by bus or by car, the entrance to Saepinum is through the Porta Terravecchia or the Porta Tammaro, two of the town’s four gates. The site is bisected by the cardo maximus (running north–south), still paved with the original stones and crossed by the decumanus maximus, once home to the public buildings and trading quarters.
On the left, grass spills through the cracks in the pavement of the forum, now used by the few local kids as a football pitch, bordered by the foundations of various municipal buildings: the comitium (assembly place), the curia (senate house), a temple, baths, and in the centre a fountain with a relief of a griffin. Beyond the forum, on the left of the decumanus, the Casa Impluvio Sannitico contains a vat to collect rainwater.
Back down the decumanus on the other side of the crossroads is the well-preserved basilica that served as the main courthouse. Beyond is the most interesting part of the town – the octagonal macellum (marketplace), with its small stone stalls and central rain-collecting dish, and a series of houses fronted by workshops, with small living quarters behind.
The macellum leads down to the best-preserved gate, the Porta Boiano, flanked by cylindrical towers with a relief showing two barbarians and chained prisoners. There is also a small museum with artefacts and artwork recovered during excavation.
Though unbeguiling in itself, inland ISERNIA is a good starting point for exploring the rest of Molise, with good train connections from Rome and Naples. The first settlement dates back to the Samnites, yet very little of old Isernia survives. Earthquakes and wars have wreaked havoc on its historical monuments; much of the centre was destroyed in a bombing raid on September 10, 1943, and a monument to the four thousand who were killed – an anguished nude, ankle-deep in fractured tiles, bricks and gutters – is the centrepiece of the square called, understandably, Piazza X Settembre. In spite of it all, the city has rebuilt its commercial centre so that it’s now comparatively busy and bustling.