Campobasso: Where History and Nature Converge
Campobasso – Where History and Nature Converge
Molise is the youngest Italian region, established in 1963, when Abruzzi e Molise was split into two regions. The province of Campobasso is bordered to the east by the Adriatic Sea and to the north by the region of Abruzzo. Puglia is to the southeast, while Campania is to the south. The other Molisan province, Isernia, lies to the west.
The Samnites dominated this part of Italy from approximately 600 BC to 290 BC, when following a lengthy struggle against the Romans, the current province of Campobasso was aborbed into the Roman Regio IV Samnium. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Molise was invaded by the Goths in 535 AD, but was taken by the Lombards less than 40 years later, who annexed the territory to the Dukedom of Benevento. The Lombards named one of its conquered cities Campus Vassorum (Vassals’ Territory), which later became Campobasso. A very troubled period began with the invasions of the Saracens in 860 AD, who destroyed many of the most populous cities and towns. The entire area became fragmented, such that by the 10th century, nine separate ‘countdoms’ vied for domination. In 1095, the most powerful came under the rule of the Norman Hugo I of Molhouse, who gave his name to the region. During the 16th century, Molise was part of the Puglian Province of Capitanatam, but in 1806, it became part of Abruzzo.
From the Adriatic coast, heading west takes one through a varied landscape of rivers and lakes that give way to hills, scattered with towns and villages along the cliffs, until the spine of the Apennine Mountains is reached. The capital city, Campobasso, lies at an altitude of almost 2,300 feet on the slopes of the southern Apennine hills and offers splendid views of the region’s landscape.
The city itself abounds with monuments, including Castello Manforte, built around 1450 atop the ruins of a Norman defensive fortification; it is located on a hill that dominates the city. The city’s duomo was first built in 1504, but was reconstructed in the neoclassical style in 1805, following its destruction in an earthquake. Among the many churches in the province is the Church of Sant’Antonio Abate, built in 1572. It displays a late-Renaissance façade and Baroque interior, embellished with paintings and frescoes by 17th century artists. Others of note include the Romanesque Church of San Bartolomeo; the Church of San Leonardo that dates from the 13th century and the 12th century Gothic Church of San Giorgio. The town also houses the delightful Museo del Presepe, a museum displaying a fine collection of antique recreations of the nativity scenes, some dating from the 18th century. The city’s unique Mysteries Museum has a collection of antique costumes used in the city’s feast that is annually celebrated on Corpus Domini.
One gets a sense of the true charm of Campobasso is when walking through its neighborhoods, with its stepped streets and alleys. One thing missing are the throngs of tourists that can congest city centers in other parts of the country during the peak season.
The province preserves a wealth of archaeological relics, such as the Villaggio di Campomarino, a prehistoric settlement. Many burial grounds dot the province, including the necropolis of Termoli, where the remains of 141 graves are preserved; the Tombs of Guglionesi; the Samnite burial grounds of Gildonea and the Lombard necropolis of Campochiaro, from the High Middle Ages.
A burial ground and Hellenic tombs are preserved at Larino, a charming village of just 6,700 residents that has been continuously inhabited since the 5th century BC and was the location of the Roman’s defeat of Hannibal in 217 BC. Not surprising, the town contains a wealth of important historic monuments from different eras. Structures include the Hellenistic domus, Roman amphitheater and baths, the town’s 14th century Gothic cathedral and adjacent tower, the more monastically austere Church of San Francesco and the Palazzo Comunale, which began as a Norman castle.
The valley of the Tammaro River contains many fortified centers, including the Samnite settlements of Monte Vairano and Cercemaggiore and the fortifications of Gildone, Vinchiaturo-Mirabello, Duronia and Terravecchia di Sepino. The area also boasts the ruins of the ancient Roman city of Saepinum. There, visitors will find the city’s forum, baths, theater, basilica, walls and its majestic gateway.
For those who are interested in castles, the province boasts a remarkable number. The Castle of Gambatesa dates from the 12th century and was built by a branch of the Molisio family. Castello d’Evoli Castropignano was built in the mid-14th century over the remains of an ancient Samnite fortress. Castello di Tufara began as a Norman stronghold, was destroyed in 1220, but rebuilt and expanded during the following centuries.
The Castle of Riccia was built in 1500 by Bartolomeo II De Capua. It was an elegant castle and the noble family was fair and generous to those under its feudal rule. Over the next two centuries, subsequent generations of the De Capua family dominated the peasants in such harsh ways that in 1799, the townsfolk revolted and burned the castle down. Today, only a few ruins of the castle with its medieval watchtower can still be seen in the historical quarter of Riccia.
Best of the castles and one of the finest in Italy is the 13th century Civitacampomarano. Declared a National Monument exactly 40 years ago on May 2, 1979, the quadrangular castle has three cylindrical towers, which are merged in the fortress walls. A moat surrounds the entire structure with a drawbridge that is still in place. Everywhere one looks, the sense of medieval authenticity abounds. The castle is in fact a training ground for restoration artisans who, once certified, engage in projects throughout Italy.
The province has 24 miles of coastline along the Adriatic, which contains a host of resorts that gleam like jewels set within the beautiful landscape. These include Petacciato, Termoli, Montenero di Bisaccia and Campomarino. Accommodations range from four star hotels to campgrounds. Ferries are available to the Tremiti Islands, a favored spot for diving enthusiasts.
The only major port of Molise, Termoli, is also the largest seaside resort of the region. It is only within the last few decades that the beauty and exceptional location has turned Termoli into a vacation destination for Italians, yet it remains almost unknown to those outside the country. Then again, 20 years ago, it was virtually unknown to anyone outside of Molise! In the old quarter, the Cathedral of San Basso holds the relics of at least two martyrs; one, a disciple of St. Paul who was brought over when Termoli aided as a port of departure during the Crusades. Termoli is also a busy fishing port, therefore it is an excellent spot to sample some fresh Adriatic seafood.
The province’s Guardiaregia-Campochiaro WWF Nature Reserve covers an area of over 3200 acreas. This amazing natural reserve includes spectacular phenomenon such as Quirino Stream Canyon, the 300 foot tall San Nicola Falls and the caves of Pozzo della Neve, which are 3,300 feet deep. The Cul di Bove, which is 3,000 feet deep, is among the deepest abyss in Europe. For those who are looking for an undiscovered art of Italy where history, traditions and nature converge, look no further than the Province of Campobasso.