The small capital of a small region
Campobasso, like many other towns in the Molise region and neighboring Abruzzo, is a very small town. Its permanent population barely reaches the mark of 50 thousand. This is not surprising among the countless mountains and hills where people have lived for a long time, but in seclusion.
Founded, presumably, by the Lombards, the town huddled behind fortress walls at first. And not in vain: none of the major wars that raged in the area did not bypass the village. Only in the mid-18th century, farmers allowed themselves to leave the fortified town and settle in the valley at the foot of the hill. And half a century later, the town expanded so much that it became known as Campobasso – that is, “lowlands”. This was the time of its greatest growth and prosperity; for its green streets and numerous parks, Campobasso was called the garden city.
During the millennium, the main enemy of the local architecture were earthquakes, especially devastating of which were the elements in 1456 and 1805. But during World War II, many of the historic sites were severely damaged by bombing. Reconstruction took about 50 years and was completed in 1995.
The castle, the foundation of the medieval city, was built in 1450 by the local governor Nicholas II Monforte on the ruins of an older structure. It was placed, as usual, on top of the highest of the surrounding hills (701 meters above sea level). The walls of the castle and the building itself are part of a more complex two-circuit defense system of walls and towers; the upper part of the castle wall is topped by rectangular battlements. At first glance it may seem that the castle is completely devoid of windows, but this is not the case. The windows are so small that they are visible only at a closer look.
The inner rooms of the castle are hardly ever used today. In one of the square towers is Campobasso weather station, it takes readings at 808 meters above sea level, higher than most other Italian weather gauges.
You can climb the terrace of the castle by a narrow staircase. It offers a panoramic view of the surroundings: you can see the division into the Old Town and the New Town, you can see the remains of the ancient walls of Samnite, you can see the neighboring villages of Campobasso. The view covers the valleys of the rivers Biferno, Trigno and Fortore, the rocky peaks of Abruzzo, the green mountains of Molise and the yellow hills of Puglia, you can even see the Adriatic coast, located 60 kilometers away.
Inside the castle are interesting basement rooms, as large as its halls. Historians agree that there was a secret prison, access to which was possible through one of the towers. According to legend, somewhere under the castle was hidden a secret torture chamber, the entrance to which was walled up many years ago.
Church of Santa Maria (Chiesa della Madonna del Monte)
The main church of Campobasso is next to the medieval castle. The first building was erected here back in the XI century, but it underwent a great reconstruction at the beginning of the XVI century, acquiring many new features. Of particular interest are the hewn stone façade, the polychrome marble altar and the magnificent frescoes by Amedeo Trivisono and Leo Paglione. This church has long served as a burial place for members of feudal families.
In the Church of Santa Maria there is an important relic, a wooden statue of the Crowned Virgin Mary, which appeared here in 1334. Once a year, on 31 May, the statue is the centerpiece of a religious festival during which it is decorated and solemnly carried through the streets of the town.
Church of Sant’Antonio Abbot (Chiesa di Sant’Antonio Abate)
The great Baroque church was built in 1572 on the site of a much more modest building. Architecturally, the interior is very simple and the ceiling, unlike many similar buildings, is not carved but flat. The majestic marble central altar from 1748 and four paintings by Guarino from Solofra stand out in the interior. The side altars are made of gilded wood, the walls are decorated with paintings by artists of the Neapolitan school of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and the furniture dates from the seventeenth century.
In the church there is a wooden statue of St. Francis made by the local sculptor Paolo-Saverio Di Gisino and, of course, the statue of St. Anthony himself, surrounded by nine paintings of scenes from his life.
Church of St. George (Chiesa di S. Giorgio)
The church is the oldest in Campobasso, and perhaps in the entire province. It was built in the X century on the ruins of an ancient pagan temple and is dedicated to the patron saint of the city. It is believed that it was founded by the first Christians who arrived in the region. Near the walls of the temple is an ancient cemetery, where for centuries were buried its servants.
Church of the Holy Trinity (Chiesa della Santissima Trinità)
The Church of the Holy Trinity was built in 1504 outside the fortress walls. It became home to the brotherhood of the Trinitarians, known for fighting against the Crusaders. After standing for exactly three centuries, the building was destroyed by an earthquake in 1805, and in 1829 a new church in neoclassical style was built in its place. In the second half of the 19th century it was used as a barracks, but later it was not only possible to resume services, but also to give the church the status of a cathedral.
The church includes two large chapels, and to the left of the main entrance is a large granite font, created back in 1745. There is a large functioning organ in the cathedral, and stained-glass paintings depict the holy defenders of the dogma of the Trinity: Augustine, Hilary, Anastasius and Nicholas.
Church of St. Bartholomew (Chiesa di San Bartolomeo)
It is one of the oldest examples of Romanesque architecture of the XI century. The building was built entirely of local limestone. The entrance to the church is decorated with a pseudo portico and two blind arches; the division of the internal space is also based mainly on columns and arches. The interior and exterior of the church show traces of “pollution” with elements of later styles as a result of restoration work carried out over the years.
Church of San Leonardo (Chiesa di San Leonardo)
The facade of this religious monument is in a mixed Gothic-Romanesque style. The main window is decorated with floral ornaments typical of Puglia in the XIV century.
Palazzo della Banca d’Italia
A three-story building with a slightly curved façade, it was erected in 1925 on the site of demolished old houses. The palazzo is famous for its collection of works by local artists including Nicola Biondi, Arnaldo De Lizio and Francesco-Paolo Diodati. The paintings are united by a common theme – the history of Molise. For example, they depict the accession of Ferrante I Gonzaga to Campobasso, the visits of Pope Alexander III to Termoli and Pope Celestine V to Isernia, the death of Amedeo VI of Savoy in Conte Verde, the conclusion of peace between the Crusaders and Trinitarians, the arrival of King Vittoria Emanuele II in Venafro.
The Great Palace (Palazzo Magno).
The building, which houses the provincial administration, was built in the second half of the nineteenth century as a summer residence of the family De Tilla of Naples. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the palace was bought by the local governor Mercurio the Great, whose title passed to his residence. After the transfer from private to municipal ownership, the palace underwent major changes in both its external and internal organization. During the Second World War, the building not only survived but was also at the heart of the events unfolding in the city: it housed a hospital for the wounded and a morgue.
In the 60s, a new 3-storey wing was added to the palace, and in mid-80s, as a result of the large-scale reconstruction, combined with the expansion, the attic was completely reconstructed and turned into the third floor. At the same time, the walls of the building were painted blue, as immediately after the construction of a century and a half ago.
Palazzo San Giorgio
This palazzo is home to the city administration. The building was built in the XIX century on the site of the monastery founded in the XIII century by Pope Celestine V. After the earthquake of 1805 the monastery stood for another six years but collapsed despite all the efforts made to rebuild it. To commemorate this, a small church is organized in the town hall building, in which there is a miraculously surviving Byzantine statue of Liberty. The palace is topped by a large clock that plays short melodies with a system of bells.
Savoy Theatre (Teatro Savoia)
The theater, now called the Savoy Theater, used to be called the Public Theater, and even before that it was the Theater of Margaret. It was opened in 1926 with Giacomo Puccini’s opera Tosca. The theater has a traditional horseshoe shape and consists of four tiers of boxes, accessible by two staircases leading from the foyer. The orchestra pit is designed for 40 musicians.
Inside, the rooms are decorated with frescoes by Arnaldo De Lisio depicting scenes of daily life in Campobasso and Molise. The most famous of these is The Triumph of the Samnites, covering the entire ceiling of the auditorium. The wrought iron pieces by the artist Giuseppe Tucci are also interesting. In 2002 the theater underwent an extensive reconstruction, after which it once again became the most important cultural center of the city.
Villa de Capoa
The recently restored villa is a sight to behold in all its glory. Its garden is particularly interesting, full of mythological sculptures and impressive trees from all over the world: American sequoias, Norwegian firs, Lebanese cedars, elegant cypresses, fragrant lindens and several varieties of mahogany.
The villa was built in the 18th century, on a site where, for almost two centuries before, the monks of a nearby monastery were growing medicinal plants. The plantations were transformed into a park that came out of private ownership in the nineteenth century. The total area of the park area is 16 thousand square meters, its main avenue runs from the square with a fountain and a special platform used for performances. In addition to tall slender trees, you can see here a labyrinth of hedges, many ancient stone arches and benches. The main entrance, which is covered by filigree forged gates, faces Savoy Square.
Of modern innovations are several outdoor and indoor tennis courts, where the annual Molise International Women’s Tennis Tournament, with a prize pool of $25,000, is held.
Biblioteca Dionisio Piccirilli
This library, which is considered one of the oldest in the region, has five main sections: the literary heritage of the Franciscan order expressed in theological, philosophical and historical texts; a room devoted to the Molise and a room devoted to Christian classical periodicals. Of the 25,000 volumes, most are nineteenth- and twentieth-century editions, but older editions from as far back as the sixteenth century are also found. As can be seen, their general subject matter is based on religion. This is because the foundation of the library was obtained from a Franciscan monastery that was destroyed by an earthquake in 1805. It took more than 150 years for the collection to find a permanent roof over its head, but even today it is officially assigned to the Franciscan order.
Sacred Heart Library (Biblioteca del Sacro Cuore)
The Biblioteca del Sacro Cuore contains more than 50,000 texts in various disciplines but also united by religious themes. The oldest of these publications was printed in the fifteenth century. One can find treatises on medicine, geology, botany, music, and economics.
The library appeared during the reconstruction of the Capuchin monastery, which was destroyed by fire. It was intended for the education of young monks who took theological courses there. At present the library is still in the possession of the monastery, but is being greatly expanded at the expense of the municipal budget.
The Molise region was in ancient times inhabited by the Samnite tribes, one of the few peoples of the time daring to oppose the Romans. The remains of the Samnite villages found by archaeologists today attract many tourists. While in Campobasso, you should learn about the villages-museums nearest to the city and be sure to make an excursion to them.
Weekend in Campobasso
Campobasso, the capital of the Molise region, is 700 meters high and was founded by the Lombards. The name of the city comes from the toponym “Campus Vassorum”, which was the name given to the place where the vassals lived.
A short video about Campobasso
What to see
The castle of Montforte was built in the XII century by Hugo II of Molise. The geographical position of his feudal estate was the best in the surroundings, because it was the dominant altitude in relation to the surrounding valleys and the easiest place to control the transition between Abruzzo and Apulia, the lands of the Kings of Naples and the Adriatic coast.
It was Count Campobasso who dug the artificial moat and built the magnificent portal and drawbridge. The four cylindrical towers were built during his reign, giving the Aragonese dynasty style, and were necessary to reinforce the defences of each of the four corners of the castle.
To make the castle even more impregnable, an additional ring of walls was built around the top of the mountain for the guardsmen with round towers, one of which is still intact next to the church of Santa Maria Maggiore. The bell tower of the church of San Bartolomeo was also part of this perimeter and had a separate entrance.
The castle now houses a monument to the fallen of the First World War.
Church of San Bartolomeo / Wikimedia Commons
Church of Sant’Antonio Abate
This church was built in 1572 and is a major monument to the local Baroque. The interior is single aisle, with a magnificent marble main altar created in 1748. On the side walls there are four carved wooden altars covered with gilding.
There are also many paintings by artists of the Neapolitan school and a wooden statue of St. Francis by the local sculptor Paolo Saverio di Zinno.
The clean sea, the lush vegetation, the invaluable artistic and cultural heritage all set the Molise coastline apart, making it an ideal place for a summer vacation.
The most famous of the local beaches is in Termoli: it has been awarded the “blue flag” for the quality of its water and infrastructure.
The neighboring town of Petaccato also has a very pleasant coastal stretch with many equipped beaches, where you can enjoy the sun and the sea with maximum comfort. Nature lovers should take a walk in the forest near Petaccato, where the river Tecchio flows.
Petaccato Beach / Wikimedia Commons
Enchanting beaches and clear sea also await you in Campomarino, where a wide range of tourist services are at your disposal.
The Rio Vivo beach south of Campobasso is an ideal place for water and sailing enthusiasts.
The town of Termoli, known for its tourist attractions and beaches, is dynamic and growing, but at the same time it preserves valuable monuments of antiquity. The majestic cathedral of Termoli, built in the 12th century in the Apulian Romanesque style and the Swabian castle of Friedrich II are very well known.
Termoli Cathedral © Claudio Giovanni Colombo / Shutterstock.com
The observation towers on the coast, reminiscent of Saracen raids in the Middle Ages, have been reconstructed in their original form, and today they house traditional restaurants with a predominantly fish menu.
The old town of Termoli, Borgo Vecchio, sits on top of an almost steep promontory above the sea. It is a fortified citadel consisting of tiny squares and alleys, one of which, Vico II Castello, is listed as one of the narrowest city streets in Europe.
Swabian Castle in Termoli © gengish skan / Flickr.com
The castle is commonly referred to as the Swabian castle – apparently in reference to the rebuilding of 1247, carried out at the will of Frederick II. The straight lines and fortifications of the castle suggest that it was built in the Norman age (11th century) on the site of a tower, built by the Lombards before that. In 1885, Termoli Castle was given the status of a monument of national importance; since then, it has been home to the Regional Museum of History.
The cathedral was also built on the ruins of another building, namely an ancient Roman temple, probably founded in the 6th century. The cathedral is also famous for its magnificent mosaic floor.
There is also an observation deck in the old town with a beautiful view of the port and the observation tower.
Perhaps the main specialty agricultural product from Molise is olive oil. The region’s pristine nature and orographic characteristics (not too high mountains, green hills year-round, and fresh plains) allow for ancient methods of production here (for example, in Colletorto and Casacaland – they are even called “oil towns”). Other traditional Molise products are spelt, still cultivated here by the Samnites, with its tiny and very hard grains, cooked over a low heat with herbs and cold-pressed olive oil.
Another of Molise’s specialties is the Capracotta pizzata, which used to be the mainstay of the local shepherds’ diet. It is sheep meat sliced and cooked over low heat in tinned copper cauldrons with water, olive oil, salt and forest herbs. Closer to the sea, in Termoli, of course, fish, shellfish and other creatures of the sea come in hand. The brodetto soup and the lamb “alla thermolese” are definitely worth a try.
More worth mentioning are the “alla sante” soup from Agnone, the baked lasagna with minced chicken and veal from Campobasso, and the “pizza with soup” made of cornmeal, vegetables, olive oil and hot chili peppers, “pampanella” from San Martino-in-Pensilis, slices of pork baked with sauce and plenty of chili pepper, and “ventricina” from Montenero di Bisacci, a spicy sausage made from dried pork.
Molise’s gastronomic heritage is extremely rich and fits perfectly with the history and culture of this still young Italian region.