Saepinum - Into the Wild
Updated: Dec 30, 2018
After disembarking at Italy's most dangerous bus stop, we head out into the wilderness in search of the ancient city of Saepinum, and adventure!
There are certain days which manage to rise so spectacularly from the mundane, that one realises that it will live long in one’s memory, even when it is not yet half over. The day we sought the ruins of the ancient city of Saepinum was one such day.
Having passed a hour in the beautiful glades of Villa De Capoa in Campobasso, we felt quite ready for an adventure in the pastures of Molise, and merrily left behind the trappings of the humble capital. It being humble, it did not take so terribly long to be surrounded by the embrace of Mother Nature. Greens of every which shade and vivacity raced by the bus windows, occasional glimpses of stone in the distance heralding small towns or farmsteads on the plain. When venturing into the unknown by public transport, one must always do battle with a certain anxiety, that one will miss one’s stop and then appear quite the fool when this becomes apparent, not to mention feel the pit of one’s stomach drop at the thought of the imminent inconvenience.
It was this great doubt which began to slither its tendrils around us somewhere east of Bojano. It had never been entirely clear where we were to disembark. Allow us to indulge the reader with the complication. The centuries corrupted the Latin name of Saepinum, that once proud city from the days of the Caesars, into the Italian Sepino. The farming communities that dwelled around and among the ruins over time formed a hamlet which they called Altilia. Yet the medieval Molisani also constructed a new town somewhere nearby, and they christened it Sepino. May the reader take pity on our attempts to wade through a tsunami of inclarity to understand precisely where the stop to which the bus would be taking us was. Was it to the stones of old, known to the Italian as Sepino, or to the town with the identical name a good walk through nature away? Or perhaps Altilia, whose name was often quoted alongside Sepino, whether because of relative proximity, or synonymity, we knew not. We hoped to be heading for Saepinum, but suspected Sepino. In the end, it was neither, and certainly not Altilia.
There then arrived a moment, when the folly of our inquiries was laid bare, as we saw remains of a stone wall through trees off to the right, before they then disappeared as the bus thundered on, straight ahead. Alas, not to Saepinum then. The more minutes passed, the whiter Katrina's face turned, as the magnitude of the walk we would have to do became clear.
An excruciating wait followed, as we prayed for the stop to come, before the driver called out to us, and gestured. Now, given the sight outside the windows, we could have forgiven the driver for having a sense of humor, were it not for the deadly serious expression on his face. The bus had, quite simply, stopped in the middle of a dual carriageway. Not a sign nor trace of any bus stop was in sight, and nor was there any manner of pavement alongside the crash barrier where one might walk, beyond the menace of being pulverized by the occasional heavy goods vehicle which roared most inexorably along the road. Vaulting the barrier and walking in the grass was not an option, since the road lay atop a steep earthen bank raised some twenty metres above the plain. Never in the field of public transportation was such danger posed to so unwitting a pair of travelers by a bus stop whose conception was so extraordinarily inept. Thus it was that, opting to avoid being dashed against the face of Molise by the fall beyond the barrier, we chose the relative safety of the motorway, reasoning that fatal road accidents are, after all, always a question of probability, not certainty. After a hair raising dash for the lone gap in the crash barrier which we could see, and a deeply unsafe descent, we reached a much more modest road. Suddenly, the world seemed so much more quiet.
Birdsong returned, and the delicate rustle of leaves in a faint breeze was the soothing percussion to our footsteps on the tarmac. Judging it foolish to attempt to take the motorway back in search of Saepinum by foot, there was but one option, bar smashing our way through the undergrowth on both sides. Perhaps a mile or so ahead and above was a small town perched around halfway up the valley wall. We trusted our hope that this must be the medieval town of Sepino, and set off up the gentle rise. Walking on foot as we did, it took no leap of fantasy to imagine the wearied traveller of centuries past, relieved as the forest cleared to the reassuring glimpse of settlement, and salvation for the night.
After a little while, passing cultivated fields and farm buildings, some of which intriguingly seemed to have been freshly built but without a soul around, we reached the outskirts of Sepino. The kerbs seemed to hold back scarcely restrained nature, as the grass grew high beyond, and two intriguing signs shot up from the sea of green. One declared Sepino's proud twinning with the lakeside Latian town of Bolsena, for reasons as yet unclear. The other, however, was most entertaining. "Evitate rumori molesti" ("Do not make disturbing noises"), and "Salvate i nostri bimbi" ("Save our children"), they both urged, with the polite addition of a grazie. We wondered, with an element of bewilderment, if there was a connection between these two requests, and reasoned that if we were to come across any of Sepino's youth in need of aid, we would be sure to come to their rescue making only the most conventional of noises.
Sepino gave us the distinct impression of a town unaccustomed to the visits of strangers, not least those of foreign lands, despite its proud accolade of being one of the Borghi più belli d'Italia (Most beautiful towns in Italy). It was sometime in the ninth century after Christ that the inhabitants of Saepinum fled their ancient home, seeking refuge from the rapacity of the Longobards in the comparative safety of altitude. It seemed that the Sepinesi proved successful in their endeavour, and an atmosphere of isolation prevails still, eleven centuries later. Such a feeling was entirely aided, to a rather inquietante (unsettling) degree, by the near total absence of people. A deathly silence pervaded every street we came across, and not of the sort of dreamy otherworldliness which had pervaded Venafro. Rather of a type which made one wonder if the Sepinesi hadn't abandoned this one too, and headed for the Apennines. Not a nonna nor even a child in need of salvation was in sight. Just a single street, leading ever higher up the hill, a campanile topped with an unusual metallic spire being the only feature protruding from the medieval stonework ahead.
The heart of Sepino is certainly charming from an aesthetic point of view, the ravages of time and cleanliness of modernity confronting one another in a well matched duel. Remnants of its past lie in sight in every vista, from broken sculptures and roughly cut cobbles to stone pedestals and wells. It is not the easiest place, however, in which one might find good fare on a whim. It being past the stroke of midday, we naturally sought food or some manner of snack which would fuel our hunt for Saepinum. One establishment with a shirtless gentleman seated on a rickety folding stool outside, otherwise empty and appearing to be somebody's front door, failed to win us over. Deeper up and deeper into Sepino we went, a hint of desperation speeding our way. Another bar, higher up, bizarrely enormous, was entirely empty except for a portly lady who spoke in an accent so thick that it took a few goes to successfully understand that she had only crisps. Our last roll of the dice came with a café not too far from the charming Piazza Prisco Nerazio.
Quiet music could faintly be heard emanating from the door, and through the glass we spotted what appeared to be savoury snacks on the counter. A man at the back sitting down was built like a biker, robustly bearded and stern in gaze. He appeared to be drinking some manner of beer, and alas had a non too friendly aura. The barman stared out from behind his cassa (till), and had the peculiar ability to speak in a friendly manner without smiling. He too sported a beard which gave you the impression of a man who may often be found clad in leathers and atop a roaring motorbike, though the impact was softened by his floral shirt."Fate dei panini?" ("Do you have sandwiches?"), we dared. A second of faintly awkward silence passed. "Si si, abbiamo qualcosa", ("Yes, we've got some"), he suddenly answered. James cast a glance over to the offerings within behind the glass. Many a café in Italy may offer a spremuta (freshly squeezed fruit juice), or centrifuga (a form of fruit juice blend, whose difference to a spremuta still eludes us). This locale (establishment) nobly followed suit, though health benefits of such a beverage here seemed in doubt. A plate lay on the metal, with a rather feeble array of citrus fruits, topped by a lemon coated in a furry green mould. A nearby sandwich, too, was clad in the trappings of decay. The proprietor appeared blissfully unaware of the decomposition of his wares, but we dared not say a word. Word has it that lemon may still be found there, crowning a mound of unsightly fruit. We chose two of the most innocuous looking sandwiches we could see, and a packet of biscotti for the road, along with a pair of coffees for some fuel, and took a seat.
The man at the back of the bar was standing, staring at the television screen, an ordinary enough occurrence were it not for the fact that he was also scratching his groin with such breadth and intensity that it might more aptly be termed gouging. Not knowing whether to laugh or to run, we cast our eyes elsewhere. It suddenly occurred to us that the bar was plastered from floor to ceiling with an extensive collection of photographs, not one of which appeared to have been taken since the introduction of colour photography. There were even a few toned in sepia. Some were rather quaint views of the town from the early novecento (twentieth century), and others showed portraits of those we imagined to be Sepinesi of the past, with rather glum expressions. James, having something of a passion for historic photographs, hungrily studied the images, before his eyes suddenly widened. Closer inspection revealed an eerie truth to some of these portraits, for among their number were those which showed not the living, but the dead.
If there is one practice of the nineteenth century which may unsettle the inhabitant of the twenty first, it is undoubtedly the phenomenon of the mourning portrait. For what could reach more deeply into our fears, than a photograph of a recently deceased man, woman or child, dressed in their finest, as though ready to rise at the slightest sound. In the twenty first century, our rejection of the immortal is great, and thus so too is our fear of being mortal. Death stands at arm's length, prowling beyond the confines of comforting ordinary life, distant until that day he inevitably knocks and comes for us or a loved one. Yet here the dead stared out of the black and white, lifeless eyes which gazed across centuries. May their souls be at peace now. Some images showed bodies in coffins, and folk gathered around. We too caved to modern unease at such things, amplified in no small manner at the slight unease of the place itself. A most peculiar atmosphere pervaded that small corner of Italy, one both calming and alarming, and made one wonder if the outside world were welcome or nay. The world may have forgotten such places, yet such places do not forget.
Unsure of whether to explore a little more or make a dash for it, we resolved to continue our travels, lest we be swept up in the enchantments of Sepino and lose Saepinum. The man stood there still, as though a stuck record, staring vacantly into a distance that was not there, as though unaware of our presence. Had it been veiled in night, only the most rational and disconnected of men would have held no fear of ghostly apparitions as he trod the streets of the town.
We asked the owner which direction we ought to make for to reach the ruins. His sleepy gaze angled out beyond the door, and his arm raised to follow it, pointing north. Thus we bade a farewell to him, and Sepino, as we began our descent down the northern slope of the hill.
As suddenly as one comes to it, one leaves Sepino, and returns once more to the embrace of Mother Nature. Where Alto Molise is dramatic and vast, here it is intimate, tranquil and homely. The truce between Man and Nature holds, with bushy forests hemming in arable lands and swallowing many abandoned farmsteads of the past. Except for a man on his Vespa, we crossed the path of no-one on the way down, but just as well, for chatter would have distracted from the bucolic views. Painters who sought to depict the meadows of Arcadia need not have ventured further than here. The many shades of evergreen were pierced only by the ochres of tilled earth or the terracottas of isolated rooftops, and not a noise spoiled the moment, as birds both seen and unseen merrily chirped. The light of day made spectacular that which the dark of night would make menacing, as the path snaked its way north, with dense forest and wildlands off to the left and scattered farmsteads off to the right, that motorway somewhere beyond.
After a certain while strolling through the valley, the road became a beautiful avenue, enclosed by mighty oaks, flanked by a path which could have lead straight to Elysium. Spring flowers and dashes of colour were hither and thither, but of particular beauty were the vast fields of buttercups, as though Molise had been daubed by the Sun itself. May any who seek a pleasant walk through countryside take the path from Sepino to Altilia, for they shall not regret it. It being our first walk together in countryside under the Sun since our Wedding, it was a wonderful moment, and surreal to have the rhythm of our footsteps matched by the glinting of sunlight upon the new bands we bore on our fingers.
The few miles that the path took us seemed to both soar by, and last an age, as all great walks do, but at some point that afternoon, a reassuring brown sign lead us off to the right, signalling 'Altilia'. It was in that moment, that the a most unusual sound drowned out the tweeting blackbirds, the rustle of leaves and bells of cattle. A long, sharply crescendoing cry broke out, which could only have been emitted by a peacock - a most queer occurrence in the woodlands of Europe. Just then a more distant bird called out in reply, before the calm of before erupted to a choir of peafowl. The source of this tropical din was entirely unclear, whether there was an eccentric shepherd nearby who kept the birds, or some manner of sanctuary, we did not know. But their cries most majestically heralded our arrival in a yard alongside some ruined structures, abandoned by their owners some fifty years earlier. We cast a glance down to the right, where an alley darted off into their midst. At the end the unmistakeable forms of classical columns could mean but one thing - Saepinum at last.
It was at the time of the Samnite Wars, four centuries before Christ, that men are first known to have dwelled in these parts, at a time when Rome and Samnium grappled for rule of Apennine Italy. The conquest of the Samnite citadel above would be a gruelling ordeal for Rome, for the Samnites were a people loathe to hide behind walls, and offered fierce war before allowing stone to stand between them and their hated foe. When at last, in the seventh year of the third century before Christ, the Consul Papirius raised the standard of Rome over the town, more than seven thousand Samnites had fallen rather than surrender it. That same year, Papirius would shatter the independence of Samnium once and for all at Aquilonia, not far away. It was said that such was the extravagance of the spoils of war, there was enough precious metal to beautify all of the monuments of Rome, and still have spare. The once fearsome mountain confederation was defeated, and the dominion of Rome now embraced both the Tyrrhenian and the Adriatic.
Rome ordered the survivors to resettle at the foot of the mountain, such that they might greater benefit from the new routes of commerce that Roman roads would bring, and dispense with thoughts of reconfederation. Thus was born the Roman city of Saepinum, which would be afforded the dignity of municipium in later centuries and prestige of colonia under the Emperor Augustus. What the visitor sees today is the Saepinum of the Principate, which bears the classic outline of a Roman colony. At its heart lies the forum, today largely ruined, crossed by two main streets: the cardo maximus, running north to south, and the decumanus maximus which bisects it, running east to west. The ruin of the buildings, and vantage points offered by the gatehouse, allow one a pleasing and extensive view of this simple yet efficient network.
The colonnade which catches the visitor's eyes, and is something of a symbol for the site, belonged to the basilica of the ancient city, located on the crossroads of the Cardo and Decumanus themselves. The casual traveller or reader, who might be unfamiliar with Ancient Rome, might assume that a basilica is a Christian structure. The term, however, predates the days of Christ, and derives from the Greek 'στοά βασίλειος', which one might translate as 'Royal Tribunal'. Indeed to the Romans, the basilica was a place to judge and be judged, and served as the public law court. For reasons of a practical nature, such structures were ample enough to host growing congregations when the Christian faith took ahold of Rome, and thus the association began.
The basilica of Saepinum is an atmospheric ruin, towering over both the visitor and the low walls which surround it, as though challenging the trees which face it for supremacy over the sky. It is both graceful and peaceful, and were the town as complete as in the days of the Caesars, it could scarcely detract from the mysterious harmony of the place. Turning west onto the decumanus, we came across the ancient macellum, or indoor market, alongside a rather charmingly ordered street where once the Saepinians lived and bartered their goods. Time had hewn away much of their height, but most intriguing traces survived, including the grooves where doors once slid.
The decumanus is the sole part of ancient Saepinum which lies open to the skies, freed of the structures of more modern agriculture which crown the cardo, many of which were built using stone plundered from the civic structures of old. On a day like the one which had seen us come to Saepinum, it is a most idyllic site, to be enjoyed by the scholar and casual tourist alike, for there is enough to intrigue and enough gone to wonder. Where it had gone, there were the most splendid arrays of buttercups, such that one might unpack a picnic as readily as explore.
A blissful hundred yards or so brings one to the imposing Porta Boiano, the most spectacular of the colony's gates to survive today. Two statues of conquered Teutons in chains flank the commanding presence of a Roman inscription, the first suitably monumental one to have faced us since leaving Rome. It declared:
TI·CLAUDIVS·TI·F·NERO·PONT·COS·II·IMP II·TRIB·POTEST·VI·NERO·CLAVDIVS·TI·F·DRUSUS·GERMANICVS·AVGVR·COS·IMP·MURUM·PORTAS·TURRIS S·P·F·C Tiberius Claudius Nero, son of Tiberius, Pontifex, twice Consul, twice victorious, bestowed six times with Tribunician power, and Nero Claudius Drusus Germanicus, son of Tiberius, augur, consul and victorious, saw to the construction and expenses of these walls, gates and towers
Thus the town of Saepinum would know the attention and benefices of Tiberius, some fifteen years before destiny would bestow upon him the purple mantle, and dignity of Roman Emperor. That such majesty once bestowed this place, so very deep in the glades of Molise, so long ago, was both an inspiring and poignant reflection, as the distant cry of a peacock pierced the gentle breeze.
We followed the mighty walls around to the north east, warmed by the light which glowed upon the opus reticulatum cut stones. A little beyond the second tower, so generously funded from the purse of a princeps, a lowly stone arch lead us into a sudden opening, both modest and grandiose, urban and rural, artificial and natural - the theatre. Of course no self respecting Roman colony could want for one, but the theatre of Saepinum is uncommonly entrancing. Weeds push their way through the cracks in the seating, yet they do so across the ruined auditoria of the Mediterranean. The acoustics impress, yet they do so more wondrously at Epidaurus. Few other sites, however, were so picturesquely repurposed from being the stage of the highest of dramas, to the front doorstep of farmers. Where once the Saepinians of Antiquity sat enthralled by the tragedies of Andronicus, the Altilians of the eighteenth century trudged through mud, and children darted along the seating, dogs eagerly prancing in their wake. It was not until the 1950's, and the beginning of a great survey into the life of the South, that the last folk left. It is a fine place to be seated, to relax and to ponder, or else set up easel.
The Sun began to fall, and the shadows grew longer over the slabs. We had but one chance to make it back to Campobasso that day. We had just enough battery left to see that we had a little over an hour to find the 'bus stop' for the capital. Thus with a touch of humour and pang of foreboding, we arose and followed the cardo out towards the motorway, that object of our curses and laughter. Perhaps predictably, no option presented itself for how we would follow it to roughly where we had disembarked and live to tell this tale. Cars and the occasional juggernaut simply raced down it, with neither a path nor even a ditch to shield the ambitious pedestrian from atomisation. We would not be finding our return that way. It remained for us to take the cross-country way.
We spotted a lady at the edge of the site, and took a throw of the dice. "Lei sa per caso come tornare a Campobasso da qua?" ("Do you know by chance how to get back to Campobasso?"), Katrina nervously asked. The lady exhaled, a lips sealed as she thought. "Mmm.... beh credo sia un po' complicata, io sto andando a Bojano - se vuoi vi posso dare un passaggio fino a lì, forse ci sarà un treno ma veramente non so" ("Hmmm... well I think it's a tad complicated, I'm going to Bojano - if you like I can give you a lift that far and there might be a train, but I'm really not sure"), she kindly replied, grimacing slightly as she finished. Between being stranded at Bojano, and being stranded here with a glimmer of a chance, we politely declined the former and offered ourselves to the latter.
With a spring in our step we set off along the only dirt path we could find which appeared to be heading south east, passing under a rather austere stone arch, into country that one couldn't be sure was farmland or woodland. The timely appearance of a flock of sheep seemed to answer the question in characteristically Molisano understated style, as the ewes unpretentiously waddled over the path and towards a farmstead which stood in the shade of a tree and, intriguingly, a mausoleum. Familiar to who has gazed upon the sepulchre of Caecilia Metella along the Via Appia, the vast tower-like structure houses the mortal remains of Caius Ennius Marsus of the Voltilia tribe, as the inscription upon it authoritatively declared. Undoubtedly the man had wielded a great reputation in the ancient colony, and we wondered if he would be outraged or tickled at the notion that his tomb now flanked a modest barn. The pastoralism of the Samnites lives on.
The walk on to Macchie was an adventure in its own right, as we spent an uncomfortable proportion of the route praying that we were not trespassing, and praying even more that the route would not lead us astray. One must remark that many of the dwellings we passed along the way were some of the most homely looking structures we had ever seen in Italy, being inviting bungalow-type edifices, having the unusual allure of a front garden and path leading up to the front doors, and a vast back garden or field. That no hoarse shout echoed out telling us to scarper, and no warning shot tore apart the peace certainly assisted in our positive impression and spirits. Indeed the only living things beyond the verdant flora seemed to be livestock and beasts of burden.
After some time in this trance-like state, we suddenly came across a stream choked with small rocks and finely worn pebbles. It was a beautiful sight, as the last and robust rays of the Sun danced off the water, and the feathers and seed heads flowing in the breeze. With an abrupt drop in the stream over a fall on one side, and the course veering off to the west in the other, there was nothing apparently for it but to carefully edge a good three metres across a concrete slab no wider than our wrists. Our celebrations at having managed this while wielding backpacks and cameras, was swiftly cut short by a sudden stampede of hooves. From out of nowhere, a muscular bay stallion bore down upon us, snorting in a most unfriendly manner. We both jumped, and stayed as close to the water's edge as we could, as the horse came to a halt, glaring. A rope was tied to a ring on its bridle, though it seemed suspiciously feeble, and certainly not up to the challenge of arresting the momentum of the beast should it have decided to charge. The knot tied to a metal ring in the grass some three yards yonder too, might have held a boy scout's guy rope, but to our untrained eyes would surrender to half a tonne of equine fury. May you take pity upon the ludicrous predicament we found ourselves in, dear reader. A risky stream crossing immediately behind, an irate horse in front and a somewhat hypothetical bus stop somewhere beyond the woods. The stallion took a stride closer, as the rope slackened at its rear more than would have been reassuring. Eyeing the time anxiously, we had not a moment to lose. Reasoning that it would have been crassly hubristic to face down a horse on its own territory, and profoundly awkward to attempt to explain our quest to any farmer who might arrive, we decided to head back over the stream, and seek a longer way yet safer way round.
Light no longer fell upon the grass, but hid behind the tops of the trees, and we half ran, half jogged a little to the east down the treeline, before mercifully locating another track of beaten earth, which seemed strangely wide, as though water had once flowed down it. But east it went, and so did we. Thankfully it was not too long before we crashed through the last copse of trees and came found ourselves at the foot of the embankment we had first arrived at some five to six hours prior, and breathed a sigh of relief. Under ordinary circumstances, now would have been the time to relax, but this was no ordinary situation.
Chance and raw instinct saw us reach the top, and road level. Now desperation sank in. Where was the bus going to stop? In our folly we had hoped that it would all become clear when we finally searched for it, yet alas no. Simply open autostrada (motorway). James took a deep breath and hurtled across to the other side at a choice moment, holding onto the crash barrier as he attempted to go further in each direction, in a vain attempt to seek clarity. None was forthcoming, though a bus was, albeit in the wrong direction. With amusement we saw that it was the very same bus which had dropped us off hours earlier, and even the same driver. Curiously, he did not stop where he had earlier. Stumped, we waved at him from the side of the road. With an expression of alarm, his eyes widened as he took one hand off the steering wheel to gesture vaguely to the other side of the road, before the bus careered past. It was of precisely no help.
For around a quarter of an hour we waited under the signpost of the exit, it being the safest option, as James periodically dashed across to attempt to look in the distance for a bus. By the time it had otherwise come into view would surely have been too late to attempt to make it stop. Leaning against the steel barrier, we laughed and reminisced about our adventures in Molise, which had taken us from the charming arms of Venafro to the foundries of Agnone, the breathtaking beauty of Alto Molise and stormy Adriatic coast. Molise is a wonderful patch of Italian earth, thoroughly undeserving of its neglect, though undoubtedly all the more curious to the traveller for it. Its folk are gentle and traditional, and take care of their land, though questionable deeds have been done in the last sixty years. The urban planners of new Isernia, for example, were apparently uninspired. The cuisine is reminiscent of the cucina povera (simple fare) of Puglia, but without trying to be so, and was both wholesome and rich in flavours. Precisely how different it and its people are from those of Abruzzo, or all other peoples once subject to Naples, remained to be seen. "Molise non esiste", Italians joke. While it appeared our bus might not exist, Molise certainly did, and to visit her bears something of that comforting relaxation that one might feel when going to stay with one's grandparents. It is the Suffolk of Italy.
After some time, a bus actually appeared on the horizon. Chances could not be taken. James took up position in the centre of the lane and roundly waved with both arms as long as he dared, before dashing back to the crash barrier. A tense minute followed, before it came back into view. The driver stopped as casually as if we had been waiting at a major bus terminal, and nodded with a smile when we over-enthusiastically enquired, "Campobasso?". Passing a scattering of sleeping passengers, we collapsed onto a pair of seats.
It was peculiar to think that we would be walking under the mighty Vittoriano in Rome the next day. Our time in Molise had come to an end, but our adventures were just beginning.