Abruzzo and Molise, one region until 1963, together make Italy’s transition from north to south. Both are sparsely populated mountainous regions, and both have been outside the mainstream of Italian affairs since the Middle Ages. Bordered by the Apennines, Abruzzo holds some of Italy’s wildest terrain: silent valleys, abandoned hill-villages and vast untamed mountain plains, once roamed by wolves, bears and chamois; sleepy Molise offers similar draws, but is even less visited. In recent years Abruzzo has come under international scrutiny, after a massive earthquake struck L’Aquila, the regional capital, in April 2009, virtually destroying the city, killing over 300 people and leaving 65,000 homeless. In spite of the widespread destruction, L’Aquila is slowly being pieced back together again, and these two little-visited regions continue to be among the few areas of Italy where there is still plenty to discover.
The Abruzzesi have done much to pull their region out of the poverty trap, developing resorts on the long, sandy Adriatic coastline and exploiting the tourist potential of a large, mountainous national park and some great historic towns. Following the earthquake, Sulmona, to the southeast, makes the most logical base. L’Aquila, at the foot of Gran Sasso – the Apennines’ highest peak – is still worth a visit, though it’s an unsettling experience wandering scaffolding-lined streets patrolled by the guards of the Protezione Civile.
The rising stars of Abruzzo are the hill-villages around L’Aquila, deeply rural places, where time seems to have stopped somewhere in the fifteenth century, whose traditions, cuisine and architecture are only now coming to be appreciated. South of Sulmona, in Scanno elderly women wear costumes that originated in Asia Minor, and make intricate lace on cylindrical cushions known as tomboli. Just down the road, the scruffy hill-village of Cocullo hosts one of Europe’s most bizarre religious festivals. The main resort on the Abruzzo coast is Pescara, with a good stretch of sandy beach. It makes a convenient base for excursions inland to Chieti, home to an excellent archeological museum. However the best spot for a sun-and-sand break is further south at Vasto, with its gently shelving, sandy beach and lively old centre.
Gentler, less rugged and somewhat poorer than Abruzzo, Molise has more in common with southern than central Italy. The cities, Isernia and Campobasso, are large and bland, with small historical centres, but Molise has its compensations: a scattering of low-key Roman ruins – most interestingly at Saepinum. Wandering among the ruins, and looking out over the green fields to the mountains beyond, you get some inkling of how Italy’s first Grand Tourists must have felt. A less-refined but equally interesting attraction takes place in the village of Ururi, settled by Albanian refugees in the fifteenth century, where the annual chariot race is as barbaric as anything the Romans dreamed up.
Finally, there’s the sheer physical aspect of the place. Forty percent of Molise is covered by mountains, and although they are less dramatic than Abruzzo’s, there are masses of possibilities for hiking. Visitors are also starting to explore the area’s ancient sheep-droving routes, known as tratturi, which are gaining new life as mountain-bike or horseback-riding trails, served by occasional farmhouse guesthouses and riding stables along the way.