There is a place, but not just any place, an entire region to be precise. It is a mere perfect balance between central, eastern, and southern, tightly snuggled between beloved neighbors like Lazio, Abruzzo, Puglia, and Campania. It seems to be ironically famous for one thing and one thing only: it doesn’t exist. It is a place that most Italians seem to forget. It appears almost untouchable, foreign for the vast majority, not visited by chance, only with purpose and intention.
Oh, Molise! A region full of mountains and mysteries!
I first heard of Molise because, ironically, my friend Allison’s family is split between two small picturesque villages located in the Campobasso Province. Wide-eyed me, I didn’t know that the only fact most people do know about this small but mighty region is that it doesn’t exist. Allison comes face to face with this reality daily, always introducing herself as “metà Americana e metà Molisana” then after a quick pause, continues, “Ma lo so! Molise non esiste!” and carries on. Evidently, curiosity runs its course, and mine never seems to quiet itself down. How could it possibly be that an ENTIRE REGION earned itself this conspiracy? I was bound to find out.
#IlMoliseNonEsiste has become a nationwide phenomenon, a viral hashtag, the national joke to share a laugh or two. I have read Molise compared to The Chronicles of Narnia: you hear about this place, but no one dares to step foot and tell the story themselves. And then there is the creativity of Italians that shines just like their newest word, “Molisn’t.”
To pinpoint exactly where or why this phenomenon was born is hard to tell, add this to the list of Molise’s mysteries! But there are a few ideas. First, it may be because of its size, being the country’s second smallest region. Undoubtedly its age could be the tried and true reasoning; Molise isn’t exactly what we call old. After the unification of Italy, Abruzzo and Molise were united, officially known as “Abruzzi and Molise” most calling it, “Abruzzi.” Molise was finally detached in 1963, making it to the bottom of Italy’s regional list, spot 20 out of 20. What caused the detachment? No one is entirely sure.
Despite the hypotheses and guesses, I hope we can all agree that anyone would be a fool to believe that Molise ACTUALLY isn’t a part of Italy. And if so, they’re missing out on the infinite reasons to hit the road, but especially this one: What’s more secret than to explore a region that doesn’t exist? It seems to be the ultimate secret of secret Italy.
Today, Molise is just shy of 310,000 residents, split into two provinces: Campobasso and Isernia. Between the two, it is a perfect trifecta between mountains, sea, and lakes: there is the 35 km intimate stretch of coastline along the Adriatic sea and then there is each village perched between mountain peaks. Arriving in Molise is no easy feat. There is neither airport nor highway, only a motorway section along the coast. Surprised? It isn’t a typical tourist destination whatsoever, no wonder it doesn’t seem to exist. What have I gotten myself into? But whether you enter by bus, train, or car, the time comes and your journey, not knowing what lies in front of you, begins. The regional border crossing from Lazio to Molise is nearly mystical; maybe it is like Narnia. Within 20 minutes, I lift my head and look around as Mother Nature is the first to welcome you in. There’s something different in the air, and you can feel it almost running through your blood. “Where am I?”
There are castles, medieval villages, ancient ruins, and Romanesque churches. Before you know it, your cell phone signal drops, an abrupt disconnection from what feels like the entire country, you can’t help but notice the landscape, something that separates Molise from the rest of the boot. It is wholly unspoiled and wildly free, closely resembling The Sound of Music set, everything so moving with color. If you’ve been to Rome, you declare Her to have the bluest of blue skies, but only if you’ve never been to Molise. Allison says, “Here in Molise, it’s all about the land. The people are the land!” Overhearing, her uncle chimes in, “The Molisans live in rhythm with nature…Molise is like a wild animal that rests in winter and is reborn in spring and summer.” And they’re right. It’s where life and land collide, both unchanged for centuries. If the Sicilians are the volcano people, then these Molisani are the land people.
As we make our way into Riccio, a village located in the Campobasso province, I notice there’s no supermarket in sight, only a tiny town, home to 5,000 inhabitants. Luckily there’s a bar. Expect to pay 0.30 cents for a coffee so fresh it awakens your soul. Faces look at you, noticing you are not one of them, an outsider! However, the people are welcoming, despite the little-to-no tourism reality. Even if you can’t understand Italian, you can feel the residents’ warmth and sincerity from gestures alone. What I notice most are their humility and simplicity for their way of life. The Molisani are traditionally old school as Allison tells me, “My Zia doesn’t have a pantry. There are no snacks. She lives off of what nature offers her. Take flour, for example. She knows where it was grown.” She adds in again, “if Zia wants to head to the supermarket, she carves out an entire afternoon as there’s no infrastructure in town. She walks, too….But the journey doesn’t bother her because she knows how lucky she is to live this way.” Afterall when in Molise, slow and steady wins the race.
Of course, a trip to Molise never concludes without an invitation to the dinner table, and trust me, you won’t have to look very hard for one as the kitchen is always open. Molise isn’t known for much, but if anything, soprattutto, it should be known for its food. There are the superb pasta dishes, like Fusilli, a pasta shape born in Molise, served with lamb ragu sauce or cavatelli, pronounced “cavetiell” in Molisan dialect, another Sunday staple, served with sausage or vegetables like broccoli and chilies. There is caciocavallo di agnone, an ancient cheese grilled and served with local bread after aging 20 days and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the abundance of truffles, the region that produces the most in all of Italy. Molise cuisine is strongly linked to not only tradition but history, religion, and cultural events of the territory. Food here is sacred.
Gathered around the table, there is the million dollar question that must be asked to the Molisani themselves: but how do you really feel when people say: il Molise non esiste? Michele and his wife, a couple both born and raised in Jelsi, are the first to answer: “We smile! I smile! I am amused by the idea of living in a place that someone jokingly thinks does not exist. It makes me feel like the inhabitant of an uncontaminated place, a kind of elite population that is lucky enough to live in a unique and fantastic place.”
- Termoli: main fishing town on the south Adriatic coast with crystal waters and a historic center Borgo Antico di Termoli
- Marina di Montenero: located in the heart of Costa Verde, a super relaxing seaside resort that lies north, on the border with Abruzzo
- Castel San Vincenzo & Lago: comune in the Province of Isernia with a lake so turquoise in color right below town
- Sepino & Altilia: archaeological site that preserves the remains of an ancient Roman city, similar to Pompeii but smaller in size in the countryside
- Castelpetroso: a medieval village on the Molise hills with a fairytale-like cathedral that emerges in the woods
- Civitacampomarano: looking for a taste of some street art? Molise has it too and this is the place to go
- Calzoni di San Giuseppe: a very crumbly sfogliatella stuffed with chickpea cream, honey and cinnamon, a flavor that came from the Middle Ages, in honor of the variety of oriental and Mediterranean cultures
- Baccalà Fritto & Baccala Arracanato: Cod is perhaps the most popular dish in popular festivals served either fried or cooked smothered with oregano
- Pampanella: Pork cooked in the oven and seasoned with hot pepper mixed with dried sweet pepper. Keep an eye out for panino con la pampanella, the only really Molisano street food
- Formaggi a Pasta Filata: a technique in which spun curd cheese products are born which differ in quality. Some include Caciocavallo, Stracciata di Agnone, and Mozzarella fresca di latte bovino di Bojano
- Fusilli alla Molisana: Pasta fusilli served with ragu sauce typically made of fresh lamb