Campobasso - Of Storming Heights & Sun Drenched Plains
Updated: Nov 8, 2018
Leaving the Adriatic behind, our journey takes us through rain and shine to Campobasso, the heart of Molise, and Italy's youngest Regional Capital!
The road from Termoli inland is the highway of a Sunday drive. Snaking alongside the river known once to Rome as the Tifernus and now to Molise as the Biferno, the route is a good thirty five miles of sparsely populated country, as the gentle flatlands of the Adriatic coast cede to the low hills of Basso Molise with an all but undetectable delicacy.
One is taken all but unaware when the road dramatically soars above the emerald waters of the Lago di Guardialfiera, a breathtaking body of water which scarcely seized the attention of our somewhat sleepy fellow travellers, yet arrested our gaze from the moment we saw it. Crafted by the hand of man, the Lago is in fact a reservoir, and a rare feat of visionary engineering in the Italian spirit in the 1970's. A procession of monumental arches bear the road across the Lago at its eastern and southern flanks, granting he who observes a spectrum of greens and blues, through water, forest, meadow and sky. Minutes race by, and the Lago vanishes, yielding once more to open fields and desolate slopes. These lands harbour a most unusual secret, of which we hope to find trace in the future. For clinging on, somewhere between extinction and life, are the Slavs of Molise.
The valiant death of Władysław III in 1444, and the Crusade of Varna along with him, sealed the fate of the greatest city in Christendom. It was in the years following the fall of Constantinople in the East, when the Turk turned his thirst for conquest to the West, that the once great Christian kingdoms of Eastern Europe began to fall. With the snuffing out of the heirs of Rome at last, the legions of Asia marched with destiny and discipline, invulnerability defining their unceasing advance. Italy and the West may yet have fallen, were it not for the courageous deeds of three men.
With tremendous valour and near boundless ingenuity, Skanderbeg fought alone with his countrymen to keep the endless hosts of the Sultan at bay, and the flickering light of the Albanian nation knew hope. His passing would see Albania fall in 1468, not to emerge again until 1912. Then, from the dark forests of the Carpathians, Vlad III Dracula would lead the Sultan to fear his name, as the Impaler's grisly craft ensured the meadows of Wallachia choked with the transfixed corpses of Mehmet's finest. Were it not for the treacherous schemings of Corvinus of Hungary, the Principality may have lived. Wallachia was overrun in 1476. Hope then fell to the last of the valiant sovereigns of the East, Stephen III the Great of Moldavia. On the plains of Vaslui, in the January of 1475, through deception and sheer valour, the wise Prince inflicted the most terrible of defeats upon the Sultan, as forty five thousand Turks were slain. It was said that Stephen, a humble man, was ill inclined to celebrate such slaughter. For forty days and forty nights, the Prince sought only bread and water for sustenance, and asserted that any praise directed to him as victor was owed to the Lord God. Far to the West, while doing so little to halt the extinguishment of so many brave nations, Pope Sixtus IV hailed Stephen as the true Defender of the Faith. Yet the numbers of Asia, the treasury of the Ottomans and the vengeance of the Sultan were without end. 1498 would bend the Moldavian knee to the Turk. It would not be until 1881 that Wallachia and Moldavia would throw off their chains together as the new nation of Romania.
The heroic resistance of these men, and the lives of their followers, paid a blood tribute which would purchase for the West that most valuable of commodities - Time. As the remaining nations of Christendom at last awakened to the now grave threat to the East, the peoples of the Balkans faced an unholy choice. Submit to the Sultan, or die. There were those who refused the former, and were able to evade the latter. An exodus of the able followed, as those fortunate to reach the coasts fled West. King Ferdinand of Naples would be their saviours, as the Balkan exiles were welcomed into his kingdom. Albanians settled in Calabria and Sicily, while Croats, who feared their Venetian overlords would be ill able to defend them in the face of the gathering storm, would arrive in Molise. Having fought so hard and lost so much to the Ottoman Jihad, the Slavic exiles were embraced as heroes. These parts having been ravaged by the seisms of the earth, many a town or village stood ghostly on the hills, and these were granted to them, to repopulate and live, in safety and sanctuary such that the East could not longer furnish. How many would come we may never know. Yet over the centuries, they endured. That barely a road existed in Molise in 1880 shielded them from the incursions of others, and the Slavomolisano language lived. There are those today who still may speak the ancient language of the Croats amongst their families, a tongue archaic to the modern dweller of modern Croatia, for they have preserved the language familiar to a Croat of the fifteenth century, and are living relics of an older age. Perhaps a thousand, maybe more, still cling on today, populating these very foothills around the Biferno River. We hope to become acquainted with them before our adventure is up.
May the reader forgive our digressions. May the inexorable beauty and inexhaustible well of inspiration that this country can be never cease to give cause for digression.
Around an hour later, we caught our first glimpse, not of Campobasso, but of another town the first time traveller may mistake for the capital. Atop a wooded hill, Ferrazzano commands the southern approach to Campobasso, and its summit stares north to its larger neighbour, its gaze holding the growing city at bay. Swinging abruptly around, the road bore us to the bus terminal, somewhat larger than one might expect. Though of all the bus terminals of Italian capitals, oft rising in unsavoury suburbs, few might compare with the rather sweeping panorama which greets one disembarking in the Molisan capital. The land gives way to a slope, and the rather impressive hill upon which the castle stands lies just yonder. In its very own way, it is appealing, beyond what the tricks of glaring sunlight might do.
Our quarters for the night were in the heart of Campobasso, so we made ready once more to heave our luggage on foot in what had become by now a well rehearsed routine. About half a mile of narrow pavement with a gently downward slope ensured that we were not bathed in sweat by the time we reached the telltale palazzi which heralded the boundary of old Campobasso. Despite the frequent quizzical looks and occasional grimaces our intention to visit Campobasso had elicited from various Romans, the old town is no less charming than any other historic medieval town. That it has been a capital city a mere fifty five years undoubtedly ensures it lacks the more spectacular monuments of the likes of Rome, yet it has also been spared much of the extravagant postwar overbuilding and poorly planned suburbs which plague its more famous counterparts. Mother Nature is never far away, no matter where one stands in Campobasso, most fittingly so as the city's name would clearly indicate to an Italian (Campobasso literally means 'low field'). Indeed the 'city' would appear to have poured down the south eastern slope of the hill from the gates of the Castello Monforte, and gathered in a puddle of stonework and tiles at its base. Indeed a mere hundred yards separate the northern slope from open fields and wilderness, and that is no ill thing for a town.
To our great surprise, our lodgings could scarcely have been better located. Set in a palazzo overlooking Piazza Guglielmo Pepe, where the low field ends and the higher town begins, it seemed our building was the very navel of Campobasso.
It is a general truth that the presence of a lift in an Italian edifice represents a reluctant concession to modernity, and the presence of one likely means that either the entire building is the property of one owner, or has endured the most frightful battle of wits, wills and legal cases in order to be installed. Our palazzo in Campobasso bore no hint of electronic elevation. Woe betide the weary traveller who endures ailments of a chiropractic nature. Thus it was that with much heaving and puffing up a poorly lit monumental staircase with heavy bags that sweat at last came. The exterior was historic yet the interior of our accommodation might have been more from 2020 than 1820, its designer having clearly rebelled against the ubiquitous history of the town. The fatigue of travel and heavy lifting lay heavy on us, and so, in a room of the future with a view of the past, we permitted ourselves the luxury of a nap.
Awakening with a start, it was not clear whether half an hour or more had passed. Having lain down with the rays of the sun piercing the blinds and slicing across the room, it was somewhat disorientating to see darkness had descended, yet not that of night. Flinging open the blinds, a sight to induce a double take unfurled before us, unimpeded as it was at this height. Gone was the golden light, as shadow fell over the face of Molise. Storm clouds were gathering, with a distant rumble. How long we had before the full fury of the rains struck, we could not know, and we decided to take our chance. We had a hill to climb.
Hurrying down the great stairs, we came once more into Piazza Guglielmo Pepe, from where the traveller may make a choice. Turn back and stay on the flatland, and in the nineteenth century, or head for the heights and the medieval era. There was no telling whether there would be another chance before we had to leave, and thus into the Middle Ages we went.
Being around a half mile above sea level, only Potenza in Basilicata and L'Aquila in Abruzzo are regional capitals at a greater altitude than the 'Low field'. Yet though the climb to the castle may appear somewhat daunting, it is certainly easier on the heart than the initial impression might suggest. It was certainly refreshingly unusual to see alleys and gates and passageways all darting off at all manner of angles and slopes, as we ascended higher and higher. The small piazza at the feet of the Church of San Leonardo forms something of a base camp, a deep breath before the salita (ascending street) snakes its way to the summit. The peace of the place was punctuated only by the periodic slam of a garishly orange football ricocheting off the palazzi, as a pair of boys merrily enjoyed a moment of after school fun, before their madri would doubtlessly be summoning them to drier refuge. A youngish fellow, heavily clothed and sporting a goatee reclined on a bench, wrestling with an unruly slice of pizza. From where he had sourced the snack was unclear, as near everything in the piazza appeared to be closed. Chuckling at having been distracted by the food, and how in the case of James six years of living in Italy had done nothing to diminish the thrill of catching a whiff of pizza, we set foot upon the salita.
As is typical of many Italian cities, the ground floor of residential dwellings we passed had been thoughtfully decorated with graffiti. It being a commonly used term in English, it may interest the reader unfamiliar with the Italian tongue to know that the word graffiti is a loan word from Italian, hailing from the verb graffiare, meaning 'to scratch'. Though the modern oik may favour the spray can, the socially subversive of Classical Rome preferred to deface his buildings with a chisel or knife, quite literally scratching the paint. Thus is the origin of this criminal nomenclature. Judging by the quality of the language on display, what the Campobassano vandal lacked in discipline he made up for in flair. Alongside choice blasphemies there were rather touchingly phrased declarations of love and affection, and even a quotation of verse and a rhyming couplet. We wondered if the dedicatees had been won over by these public admissions of affection. Such unpicking of the tangled webs of Campobassano teenage woes certainly made our ascent more amusing, and linguistically enriching.
The salita swings past the Samnite Museum of Campobasso, and while it had received most excellent reviews, our ability to add our own was foiled by the simple fact that it was closed for the entirety of our stay in the Molisan capital. Such unannounced occurrences are part of the rhythm of life in Italy. Perhaps it was destiny however, since we may not have reached the summit otherwise. One ample curve in the street brings one to Church of San Bartolomeo, the poster child place of worship in Campobasso, since its belltower watches out over the city and surrounding meadows. Campobasso is one of the coldest cities in Italy, passing most of the year below 20 degrees celsius, and only rarely exceeding 30 in Summer. Indeed the sole photograph we had seen of the church before had shown it in the grip of ice and a dusting of snow. With the darkness of the sky growing ever denser, we were compelled to close our coats and close ranks. A wind was picking up, rushing through the leaves. The distant wall of water threatened us from the distance, creeping ever closer. The spot was certainly a beautiful one, an authenticity shining through the somewhat dishevelled and overgrown stone in the walls and benches. In a single panorama one has a snapshot of a real Italian settlement, from masonry churches to Renaissance palazzi and 1960's condomini. The ostentation of Rome and Venice felt very far away, with more a rustic humility battling through the ages characterising this place.
Suddenly, the medieval masonry and and herringbone brick path ceases, and so does the town. The stone citadel towers overhead, but somewhat obscured by the undergrowth. From the meandering route below, a path straight as an arrow darts up and ahead, flanked by a phalanx of pines. Shadow fell upon it, and the sky beyond was choked of colour, as the coming tempest undoubtedly amplified the poignancy of this place. Every pine that stands here does so for a Campobassano who fell in the Great War. It is the Viale della Rimembranza, or Avenue of Remembrance. The delicate rustle of wind in the leaves above, the long shadows cast by the trunks, and the end seemingly being the Heavens themselves ally to create one of the most remarkable acts of commemoration to be found in the Italian Peninsula, a century on from the most dreadful slaughter which would have such consequences for this nation. It is tasteful, sensitive and powerful.
Upon reaching the summit of the sombre road, one's vision suddenly broadens out, with views in all directions from the car park of the citadel to the eastern foothills of the Apennines. The modest Church of Santa Maria del Monte stood with its back to us, yet we were drawn to the modestly sized, yet imposing keep which commands attention. Perhaps the most unusual thing that strikes the viewer first is the array of radio masts which bristle from the battlements. Despite its deeply ruined state, the keep has for some years hosted the Campobasso Meterological station of the Aeronautica Militare (Italian Air Force), and we wondered what they would be making of the grey clouds having now turned all but black. Spots began to dapple the grey asphalt. It was almost here.
Though exceedingly austere, the Castello Monforte remains an icon of Campobasso, not least due to it being the one thing which one can see from almost every alley in the city. The ruins are all the more dramatic for the various scorci (glimpses) one gets of the the distant Majella, the Abruzzan massif which hosts the second greatest of the Apennine peaks - Monte Amaro. Weeds, lichens and bushes burst from the cracks in the masonry, and antennae from what remains of the roof. A respectful chapel occupies one wing of the still standing eastern façade, dedicated to the fallen of Campobasso. The darkness inside was near absolute, mirroring the skies above. What remains of the gatehouse, and drawbridge beyond, is certainly intriguing, as is the unexpectedly detailed information displayed in the courtyard.
Molise is a most unusual name for an Italian Region, and one that is hardly native, being as imported as its rulers. Like much in Italy, it is a family affair. In the wake of the collapse of Roman rule in the West, as the Dark Ages descended upon large swathes of the old Empire, the Longobards descended upon Italy. It is said that they were a people who once dwelled in the southern tracts of Scandinavia, who began their migration south sometime before the reign of Nero. Why they were known as Longobards is something of a mystery, whether it being due to the length of their beards, or their worship of Odin, none may clearly say, but whatever the nomenclature, they fell upon Italy in the 6th century, and swept aside the sapped strength of Byzantium and the Goths. Of their hegemony over central Italy, there was no doubt for some four centuries, until that new wave of conquerors from the North - the Normans. The area of Campobasso fell under the rule of the Longobard Gastald of Bojano, who, centuries before the Aragonese, would welcome Bulgar exiles to settle central Molise. Yet the ambitions of Robert Guiscard de Hauteville, the greatest of the Norman adventurers before William, would change the South forever in the mid eleventh century. The Normans, having vanquished their Lombard and other Italian foes, at the Battle of Civitate in 1053, would settle the South as they would later do England. Guiscard rewarded his most trusted knight, Rudolf de Moulins, with the feudal rule of Boiano, and the one-day Campobasso.
Rudolf himself was the second born son of Guidmondo of Moulins-le-Marche in Norman France. Falling afoul of the familial rancour and anarchy which poisoned the seemingly fair rule of Gavelkind (the feudal rule of inheritance whereby estates are passed not to the firstborn, but equally among all offspring), Rudolf fled to Italy to make his own name, as his ancestors had done before him, through service abroad. Rudolf's mind for the study of war was keen, and Guiscard trusted him greatly. Over time the De Moulins family was Italianised to the De Molisio, and their lands grew. Rudolf's descendant Hugh would spread the family rule far and wide, conquering Venafro and pushing to the Adriatic coast. The land became the family estate, and thus Molise began to appear on the maps of Italy, through the creation of the Comitatus Molisii, or County of Molise, in 1144. The de Moulins died out, and the County fell to others, such as the Monforte family who would build this castle in 1458 following an earthquake. The County may lie dormant now, but Molise is alive in 2018.
A great drop of water spattered the sign from the skies. Those who come to Castello Monforte primarily do so for the view, and we sought not to miss it. Racing the weather, we charged up the spiral staircase to the battlements above. In almost every direction, one can see ten to fifteen miles of verdant landscape, mostly flat to the east, and mountainous to the west. Campobasso itself is remarkably small, and the view remarkably vast. A flash threw us and the citadel into blinding brightness, as a bolt of lightning cleaved the sky from Heaven to Earth, the arms of Jupiter mobilised against Molise. The storm cloud rolled up over the meadows below, in a view that would not have been out of place in a painting of John Martin. Barely a second or two passed in a heartbeating silence, before the sky roared. Distant car alarms began to wail, and a lady who was just emerging from the staircase almost fell backwards for being startled. Rain fell as a ink black sheet in the distance, a wall of water bearing down upon the capital. It was in that moment that the folly of standing atop a wall surrounded by antennae became apparent.
Racing back down the Avenue of Remembrance, the storm caught us just at San Bartolomeo, forcing us to seek sanctuary in the church. The torrents fell, such that water rebounded from the ground and up to our knees. The Church was deserted, and dark, a wooden crucifix hanging above the altar, and shafts of weak light pouring in from one side. How many in centuries, or even days, past had come to ask mercy or guidance, one could never know, but one could certainly feel a kindred spirit with them.
When it became clear that no end to the lashings from on high was in sight, we charged down the snaking street back down to the low field, imagining what an excellent excuse seeking shelter from the storm would provide for an earlier dinner. Katrina, who likes to be prepared when it comes to mealtimes, and is loathe to indulge the Italian habit of slowly wandering the streets in search of inspiration for a place to eat, took command. There was a pizzeria that was open, apparently one of the few establishments to be so, as the Festa (public holiday period) had seen off many others. The prospect of a Southern pizza, no matter the place, time, weather or spirit, is unceasingly appealing, and motivating. The wrath of the Heavens is of scant concern alongside the hunger of a wife, and it was this which sped our passage into the warm and comforting glow of a welcoming pizzeria just outside the historic centre of Campobasso on its eastern side. The glowing embers which made the walls dance with orange light, and scent of various cheeses and scorched crusts, made our hearts sing.
One of the most well-rehearsed of Italian jokes will tell you that Molise 'non esiste' (doesn't exist). Our adventures so far, however, had been anything but dull, and were about to take a turn for the vastly more surreal...