Of Italy’s 20 regions, Molise probably ranks 20th in terms of name recognition. In fact, until 1970, it was part of Abruzzo, the adjacent region it closely resembles. Mountains and hills rather than people crowd the interior, while flatter plains guard a short 35km stretch of Adriatic coast.
An underdog city of good honest restaurants and half-discovered mountain magic, Sulmona sits strategically on a plateau in the middle of three national parks making it, unequivocally, the best base for outdoor excursions in Abruzzo. It's easy to reach from Pescara or Rome, and simple to navigate once you arrive (trails fan out from the city limits).
Abruzzo's largest city is a heavily developed seaside resort with one of the biggest marinas on the Adriatic. The city was heavily bombed during WWII and much of the city centre was reduced to rubble. It's a lively place with an animated seafront, especially in summer, but unless you're coming for the 16km of sandy beaches, there's no great reason to hang around.
Vasto & Around
On Abruzzo's southern coast, the hilltop town of Vasto has an atmospheric medieval quarter and superb sea views. Much of the centro storico dates from the 15th century, a golden period in which the city was known as 'the Athens of the Abruzzi'; it is also distinguished as the birthplace of the poet Gabriele Rossetti.
Parco Nazionale d'Abruzzo, Lazio e Molise
Italy’s second-oldest national park is also one of its most ecologically rich. Established by royal decree in 1923, it began as a modest 5-sq-km reserve that, little by little, morphed into the 440-sq-km protected area it is today. The evolution wasn’t easy. The park was temporarily abolished in 1933 by the Mussolini government.
Despite its touristy trattorias and brassy bars, Molise's top beach resort retains a winning, low-key charm. At the eastern end of the seafront, the pretty borgo antico (old town) juts out to sea like a massive pier, dividing the sandy beach from Termoli's small harbour. From the seawall you'll see several typical Molisiano trabucchi.
Surrounded by remote, sparsely populated hills, Isernia doesn't make a huge impression. Earthquakes and a massive WWII bombing raid spared little of its original centro storico, although the humble old town retains an authentic tourist-free Italian feel and hides some decent trattorias.
Molise's regional capital and main transport hub is a sprawling, uninspiring city with little to recommend it. However, if you do find yourself passing through, the pocket-sized centro storico is worth a quick look. Although rarely open, the Romanesque churches of San Bartolomeo and San Giorgio are fine examples of their genre.
Parco Nazionale della Majella
History, geology and ecology collide in 750 sq km Parco Nazionale della Majella, Abruzzo's most diverse park where wolves roam in giant beech woods, ancient hermitages speckle ominous mountains, and 500km of criss-crossing paths and a handful of ski areas play to the hyperactive.
Parco Nazionale del Gran Sasso e Monti della Laga
About 20km northeast of L'Aquila, the Gran Sasso massif is the centrepiece of the Parco Nazionale del Gran Sasso e Monti della Laga, one of Italy's largest national parks. The park's predominant feature is its jagged rocky landscape through which one of Europe's southernmost glaciers, the Calderone, cuts its course.
Set amid verdant highland plains, Pescocostanzo is practically Alpine, a surprisingly grand hilltop town whose historical core has changed little in more than 500 years. Much of the cobbled centre dates from the 16th and 17th centuries when it was an important town on the 'Via degli Abruzzi', the main road linking Naples and Florence.
Overlooking the Aterno valley, Chieti is a sprawling hilltop town with roots dating back to pre-Roman times when, as capital of the Marrucini tribe, it was known as Teate Marrucinorum. Later, in the 4th century BC, it was conquered by the Romans and incorporated into the Roman Republic.