Abruzzo and Molise, united as one region until 1963, together form a kind of transition zone between northern and southern Italy. Both are sparsely populated mountainous regions, which have been outside the mainstream of Italian affairs since the Middle Ages. Bordered by the Apennines, Abruzzo is home to 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 plenty for visitors 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 well-stocked historic towns. Since the earthquake, Sulmona, to the southeast, makes the most logical base, though L’Aquila, at the foot of Gran Sasso – the Apennines’ highest peak – is still worth a visit, even if it’s a slightly unsettling experience.
The rising stars of Abruzzo are the hill-villages around L’Aquila, deeply rural places, where time seems to have come to a halt somewhere in the fifteenth century, and whose traditions, cuisine and architecture are only now coming to be appreciated. South of Sulmona, in Scanno elderly women wear costumes that may have their origins 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 holiday resort on the Abruzzo coast is Pescara, with an impressive stretch of sandy beach that shelves slowly into the Adriatic. 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 equally inviting strand and lively old centre.
Gentler, less rugged and somewhat poorer than Abruzzo, Molise arguably 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 occupied by mountains, and although they are less dramatic than Abruzzo’s, they provide almost endless 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.
Abruzzo and Molise are mountainous regions where agriculture is difficult and sheep farming dominates. Consequently, lamb tends to feature strongly in the local cuisine. You’ll come across abbacchio, unweaned baby lamb that is usually cut into chunks and roasted or grilled; arrosticini, tiny pieces of lamb skewered and flame grilled; and intingolo di castrato, lamb cooked as a casserole with tomatoes, wine, herbs, onion and celery.
In Abruzzo, a crucial ingredient is olive oil, a product that has gained international acclaim in recent years. Around Sulmona, aglio rosso (red garlic) is believed by many locals to be a cure for ailments ranging from neuralgia to arthritis; around L’Aquila in particular, saffron (zafferano) is also found widely in sweet and savoury dishes, grown in fields southeast of the city.
Probably Abruzzo’s most famous dish is maccheronialla chitarra, made by pressing a sheet of pasta over a wooden frame, and usually served with a tomato or lamb sauce. Cheese tends to be pecorino – either mature and grainy like Parmesan, or still mild, soft and milky.
The wines of Molise are rarely found outside the region. The most interesting is the Biferno DOC, which can be red, white or rosato. The best-known wine of Abruzzo is Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, a heavy red made from the Montepulciano grape with up to 15 percent Sangiovese. Pecorino, a local varietal and DOC, produces a fresh and mineral white. One of Italy’s most important wine events, Cantine Aperte (Open Cellars) was born in Abruzzo and takes place the last Sunday in May. Hundreds of producers open their doors to enthusiasts for free tastings and gastronomic events.
Whether you approach Abruzzo from Le Marche in the north or Rome in the west, your arrival will be signalled by the spectacular bulk of the Gran Sasso massif, containing by far the highest of the Apennine peaks as well as a national park with hiking trails. If you come by autostrada from Le Marche, you’ll actually travel underneath the mountains, through a 10km tunnel, passing the entrance to a particle-physics research laboratory bored into the very heart of the mountain range. The massif itself consists of two parallel chains, flanking the Campo Imperatore plain that stretches for 27km at over 2000m above sea level.
Snow can continue to fall on the park’s highest mountain, Corno Grande (2912m), until late May, and remain thick on the ground well into June, so outside July and August, the ascent should only be attempted by experienced and fully equipped climbers. At all times you should be prepared for some fairly strenuous scree-climbing and steep descents. If you are fit, but not experienced, it is probably wiser to take a guide: contact Mountain Evolution. Perhaps the most challenging route is the tough trek from the top of the cable car right across the mountain range, taking in the Corno Grande, and sleeping over at the Rifugio Franchetti. The refuge website has several suggested itineraries (in Italian only), and the staff are also very knowledgeable. If you’re going to do any of the Gran Sasso trails, you’ll need the CAI Gran Sasso d’Italia map (on sale in newsagents around the region), and should check out weather conditions with your hotel or online at meteomont.org first.
Flanked by bleak mountains and bristling with legends about its most famous son, Ovid, Sulmona is a comfortably affluent provincial settlement that owes its wealth to gold jewellery and sugared almonds. Although it sustained some damage during the 2009 earthquake, most of it was internal, and it remains an atmospheric little place, with a dark tangle of a historical centre lined with imposing palaces and overshadowed by the mountainous bulk of the Majella. Sulmona’s sights can be seen in a morning, but the surprisingly undervisited town makes a useful base for exploring the surroundings – from ancient hermitages to towns with snake-infested festivals.
Corso Ovidio, Sulmona’s main street, cuts through the centre from the park-side bus terminus, leading up to Piazza XX Settembre. From here, Sulmona’s sights are within easy strolling distance.
A scrappy hill-village west of Sulmona, Cocullo is neglected by outsiders for 364 days of the year. However, every May 1 it’s invaded by what seems like half the population of central Italy, coming to celebrate the weird festival of snakes, an annual event held in memory of St Dominic, the patron saint of the village, who allegedly rid the area of venomous snakes back in the eleventh century.
The festival is an odd mixture of the modern and archaic. After Mass in the main square, a number of snake-charmers in the crowd drape a wooden statue of St Dominic with a writhing bunch of live but harmless snakes, which is then paraded through the streets in a bizarre celebration of the saint’s unique powers (he was apparently good at curing snakebites too). It’s actually thought that Cocullo’s preoccupation with serpents dates back to before the time of the saint when, in the pre-Christian era, local tribes worshipped their goddess Angitia with offerings of snakes.
Cocullo is connected by train with Sulmona, though on festival day a special bus operates. For further information on the festival, ask at Sulmona's tourist office.
A popular tourist destination, Scanno is reached by passing through the narrow and rocky Gole del Sagittario, a WWF reserve that makes a spectacular drive along galleries of rock and around blind hairpin bends that widen out at the glassy green Lago di Scanno. Perched over the lake is a church, the Madonna del Lago, with the cliff as its back wall, and nearby there are boats and pedaloes for rent in the summer.
A couple of kilometres beyond, Scanno itself is a well-preserved medieval village encircled by mountains. In 1951, Henri Cartier-Bresson photographed the village, in a series of atmospheric shots focusing on the traditional dress worn by Scanno’s women. Some elderly women can still be seen wearing the long, dark, pleated skirts and bodices with a patterned apron that suggest a possible origin in Asia Minor; the annual Costume di Scanno festival in April sees the locals taking to the streets in their finery. Scannese jewellery also has something of the Orient about it – large, delicately filigreed earrings, and a charm in the form of a star, known as a presuntosa, given to fiancées to ward off other men. If you want to see the costume and jewellery at close quarters head for the shops on Strada Roma and Corso Centrale.
As well as gold, the Corso’s shops are full of Sulmona’s other great product – confetti – a confection of sugared almonds or chocolate (a bit like monster M&Ms) wired into elaborate flowers and other creations with the aid of coloured cellophane, crepe paper and ribbons. Through ingenious marketing the Sulmonese confetti barons have made gifts of their intricate sculptures de rigueur at christenings, confirmations and weddings throughout Catholic Europe – they are often given to wedding guests as little tokens of appreciation. You can learn about confetti manufacture at the town’s most famous conveyor of sugary confectionery, the Fabbrica Confetti Pelino at Via Stazione Introdacqua 55. Here, the Museo d’Arte Confettiera holds an assortment of antique sweet-making machines and a sixteenth-century laboratory, complete with all manner of mills, toasters and polishing machines.
At four hundred square kilometres, the Parco Nazionale d’Abruzzo is Italy’s third-largest national park and holds some of its wildest mountainscapes, providing great walking and a hunter-free haven for wolves, brown bears, chamois, deer, lynx, wild boar, and three or four pairs of royal eagles.
The Abruzzo National Park is an area of exceptional biodiversity with around a hundred indigenous species.
One of the most important animals in the park is the Marsican brown bear. Until recently an endangered species, there are now thought to be around thirty to fifty in the park, but they are extremely shy, solitary and lazy, and difficult to spot – you’re more likely to find traces of their presence than see an actual bear. The Centro Visita dell’Orso at Villavallelonga has 3D displays on the evolution of bears in the park, as well as the opportunity to admire some actual bears (from a distance), in the nearby reserve.
Another key park inhabitant is the Apennine wolf, of which there are around forty to fifty. As with the bears, the wolves offer no danger to humans, and they are also difficult to spot – the closest you’re likely to get to either in the wild are footprints in mud or snow. Look out, too, for chamois, deer and roe deer, wildcats, martens, otters, badgers, polecats and the edible dormouse. Wolves can also be seen at the dedicated wolf museum at Civitella Alfadena; others can be seen close up at the fascinating clinic and natural history museum in Pescasseroli.
Among birds, the park’s species include the golden eagle, the peregrine hawk, the goshawk and the rare white-backed woodpecker. Higher up are snow finch, alpine accentor and rock partridge.
The park’s flora includes many local orchids, of which the most important variety is Venus’s little shoe or Our Lady’s slipper, which thrives on the chalky soil in the park. There are also gentians, peonies, violets, irises and columbines, and black pine woods at Villetta Barrea and the Camosciara.
Rising from the Adriatic and rolling towards the eastern slopes of the Gran Sasso, the landscape of northeast Abruzzo is gentle, and its inland towns are usually ignored in favour of its long, sandy and highly popular coastline. Teramo, capital of the province of the same name, is a modern town with an elegant centre, and if you’re heading for the sea you may well pass through.
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.
Saepinum, a ruined Roman town to the south of Campobasso, 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. Isernia's most iconic monument is the Fontana Fraterna in Piazza Celestino V, a Romanesque fountain built in the thirteenth century by the Rampini family from marble stripped from Roman tombs.