Up the Valley of the Volturno
Updated: Jul 8, 2018
Deeper exploration into Molise takes us from the borderlands to the regional capital of Isernia, one of Europe's oldest inhabited areas!
Contrary to the received wisdom of travel, train stations in small Italian towns can often be rather relaxing places. With their platforms perhaps a foot or two above the rails, and the absence of imposing stone walls granting unobstructed views of the countryside yonder, more often than not one may bask in the golden afternoon sun while one awaits in a sort of serene limbo. No matter that the toilets may often be tucked far away, and that a walk to find them seldom finds them unlocked. No matter that the modest validation machines (woe betide the traveller who forgets, or is unaware, that one must always insert one's ticket into said machines before boarding) have a habit of being fuori servizio (out of order). In Italy after all, wise and fortunate is he who hath booked his ticket online. Courageous yet optimistic is he who tries his luck on the day.
So it was we calmly took up a pleasantly free bench in Venafro station, comparing the notable tan we had both worked up in a but a day. After some time indulged in such shameless vanity, a rather curious looking fellow passed close by. Hailing from cultures where engaging in the art of conversation with passers-by in transportation situations is quite the taboo, that familiar sensation of anxiety bred with inquisitiveness took ahold of us. No such fears are here to afflict the peoples of Italy however, as an innocent question aimed at asking the time may within minutes lead to the pouring out of souls and inner fears. This man, sporting facial hair which seemed beyond his years, came close and scrutinised us for but a moment. "Voi sieti americani?" (Are you Americans?), the fellow inquired, with a sincere, yet curiously unsmiling face. "No no, io sono australiana e lui è inglese", Katrina smilingly replied. "Hello", he said, with a heavy accent, and that was the end of that, as he turned and walked away. What a curious exchange, we thought, as we speculated for some time on the nature of it all.
The regional train which soon pulled in brought with it a pleasant journey along the Volturno Valley, with the mountains flanking it growing ever higher and ever more snowy at their peaks. Though the journey to Isernia from Venafro is but half an hour, deeper into Molise we went, and felt. Before long the city rose from the skyline, a narrow ridge thrusting up from the valley floor. Mercifully, Isernia station lies atop the ridge, on the border of the new town and the old.
Telling our friends back in Rome that we intended to stay in Isernia for a couple of days often inspired expressions indicating that they feared for our sanity, or else that it wasn't a 'gran che' ('anything special'). We found, as we set off down the rise from the station, that we rather appreciated its unusual character and near total absence of tourism. The historic centre of Isernia, once known to the Romans as Aesernia, is unusual among its brethren across Italy. For when day broke on the 10th September 1943, when market day was in full vigour, the city suffered an intense bombardment at the hands of the advancing Allies. Fully a third of the dwellings of the city were obliterated, and thousands of civilians slain. Twelve more times would Isernia endure the rain of fire from the skies over the following weeks, and the historic centre still today bears painful memories of those dark days, the seventeenth century streets oft punctuated by more modern structures of varying aesthetics.
Following Corso Garibaldi down the slope, Isernia suddenly narrowed to barely three streets across, following its Ancient Roman street grid with the utmost loyalty. Flat topped 1960's condomini (apartment blocks) gave way to terracotta tiles, as the true centro storico begins. Isernia is not quite as ghostly a town as Venafro, but feels distinctly 'country'. Seeing that our lodgings were still someway further, we quickened pace, the chiselled flagstones of the street giving the wheels of our suitcases a noisy ride.
Upon finding our hotel, after a pleasant promenade through the historic centre, which teased us with distant views over the valley, we found it empty, locked and with all lights switched off. The familiar fear of a weary traveller in the 21st century, booking lodging online, struck again, yet a phone call brought the revelation that our host had been delayed at a funeral, and was on his way. Looking across the street, a shower of confetti heralded a graduation, a newly laurel crowned laureata (graduate) emerging merrily from a stone arch, her nearest and dearest celebrating in earnest. Life beyond the great urban centres of the world has a way of reminding us of the important things in life.
Not knowing whether to see amusement or sorrow in the contrast played out, we took a half hour or so relaxing in the nearby café, refuelling with an incandescently hot macchiato. The proprietor happily chatted and asked of our stay, seemingly surprised, bemused and delighted that we had indeed chosen Molise for our first port of call. Off he went with a list of places we simply had to see, heartening us by confirming the beauty of many of the towns we were indeed heading for. He too, it transpired, was heading off to Termoli in a few days time for a rest at the coast. We eagerly scribbled down his tavern recommendation, glad of local knowledge.
Our spectacular room was no less a feast for the eyes than our lodgings in Venafro, though certainly a hotel and less a home. Our top floor had a charming bedroom with a frescoed ceiling and, bizarrely, appeared to have some kind of room with a dance floor laid down at the top of a flight of stairs beyond the bathroom. The glass windows all around served as something of a magnifying glass, focusing the solar heat and raising the humidity, and inducing a brief pause for thought on this apparent bonus to the listed features of the accommodation.
Back out on the street, which formed the spine of the centro storico, blissfully unencumbered by bags, we set off back up the slope, now with an explorer's drive and intrepid spirit. A towering campanile (belltower) soared overhead. Oddly thick around the midriff, the bulging stone seemed rather wide for housing merely bells, dramatic a feature though it was. As we approached, suddenly off to the left a piazza opened out, rounded out at its furthest point by a stately façade. Seeing the name written before it, James' interest was piqued, for it apparently belonged, or once belonged, to the princely House of d'Avalos, an ancient family long established in Southern Italy, and powerful lords of the Kingdom of Naples, yet once hailing from the Crown lands of Aragon, Eastern Spain of yore, before the ambition of Alfonso V of Aragon would carry them to Italian shores. The King's conquest of the South, at the dawn of the Renaissance, would forever give this land her Spanish flavour. Not a soul in sight as we crossed the threshold, the front doors wide asunder. We dared not climb the marble staircase within for fear of trespassing, but were not disappointed by the elegant room in which it was housed, a lone window looking out across the Volturno Valley. What esteem Isernia once held, in an era before our own.
Passing under the arch of the portly belltower, we were greeted from both sides by a quartet of toga clad statues, each set in a corner, brilliant white in marble against the soot blackened blocks of the tower. Recycled sculptures from the Forum of old, bidding a triumphant welcome to all who come to this place. Classically grandiose indeed is this place, as Ionic columns soar overhead, heralding the Cathedral of Saint Peter the Apostle, Mother Church of western Molise. Its nineteenth century splendour belies its ancient roots, as modern marble takes its place on a pagan plinth, all that endures from the church of old, struck down by the force of earthquakes and Allied bombs. As the Ancien Régimes of the old world were laid low across Europe at the hands of Napoleon, it would be Nature who would bring the cathedral down in the Summer of 1805. Little remains of the ancient church today, as the interior reveals mostly white and austere walls. A marble plaque above an aisle recounted a visit made by His Holiness Pope Francis four years earlier. Seldom do the churches of Italy have commemorative slabs so beautifully and so recently carved. It was heartening to know that the skill of Italian masons lives on still.
Yet the floors of the great cathedral held much to intrigue. Occasional slices had been removed, revealing tunnels underground. The glimpse of a pedestal, the corner of a block and the whiff of the ancient past were all that were needed to entice us in. So out of St. Peter the Apostle we trod, and round to the left. We saw that mere minutes were left to see the undercroft before closing, and we seized our chance. Two merry Isernian ladies, perhaps at the onset of middle age, yet spritely in character, eagerly beckoned us in. Whether volunteers or not we could not say, yet their jovial words could not help but inspire us, as we took our tickets and turned to the spiral stair. A hint of the eccentricity that was to come soon presented itself, when to the surprise and humour of James, it was revealed that the handrail upon which he had leaned while listening had in fact been in need of some more hours to dry, leaving as it did a vivid black smear across his hand and arm. The absence of any sign indicating wet paint, or mention from our jolly hosts, could not help but lead us into laughter.
Freshly decorated for the visit, James led the way into the bowels of Isernia's under-cathedral. Something between an open archaeological site and a cave lay at the bottom, with white gravel strewn across the floor, and broken marble and blocks punctuating the wide space. Yet at the middle, clearly visible, was the pedestal of a temple, built centuries before Christ. It was in fact a temple to the Capitoline Triad, the major deities of Classical Rome - Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. Where Antiquity brought the Caesars to Aesernia, the 21st century brings the Popes to Isernia.
After a short but thoughtful visit to the undercroft, we re-emerged at ground level, ever vigilant of coloured handrails, to find ourselves face to face with the two ladies once more. From a glance at the visitor book, we had the impression that we were the only visitors from foreign lands that day. Straight into characteristically Italian forthright conversation we leapt, as our origins and presence in Isernia were subject to friendly and excitable interrogation. One had the impression that a thousand questions were warring to get out, as though they were children wrestling each other to see who would get to press their ear to the door and most effectively eavesdrop. Katrina held herself well in the Italian, wading through the Molisan dialect like a hot knife through the buffalo mozzarella that she dearly loves. When we told them that we had been married some weeks earlier, the joy was all but too much. In flawless unison, their eyes flew straight to Katrina's navel. "Poi arriva il bambolotto!" ("The baby is on its way!"), the elder blurted out, with a scarcely contained excitement. The other barged in, "Che bello! Ma quando arriva?" ("So beautiful! When is it due?"). Many hours since have we spent laughing at this moment, and the apparent absurdity of newly married wife not being immediately pregnant. Much vocabulary was scrambled to explain that this was in fact, not the case, and we passed wonderful conversation with these two memorable ladies. As it turned out, both had children who were our own age, and were full of ideas of places to go and eat, as well as family planning. The younger was merrily telling us of the Isernian pasta dish we simply had to try, but suddenly interrupted herself, as though fearful she had uttered a swearword. Gesturing with her hand towards Katrina's navel once more, she explained "Dovrei smettere, altrimenti ti arrivano le voglie!" ("I should stop, or you'll get cravings!"). We decided to run this risk, and noted down a few of the restaurants and taverns nearby whose culinary virtues they extolled.
One of them, it so happened, was just across the piazza. So, after bidding a reluctant farewell to the formidable ladies, and a brief stop for an aperol spritz to take in the experiences had so far, we made our way to Osteria Del Paradiso.
Once an old postal station, built into the side of the city walls, the Osteria was intriguing from the minute the front door opened. old stone arches rose above a tiled floor, wooden bedecked part of the walls, white plaster and black and white family photographs all the rest. Lightbulbs sprouting from a hanging old cart wheel lit the place, casting atmospheric shadow on perhaps eight tables. It was exceedingly unpretentious, yet still bathed in a certain elegance of the past. We took a seat at a table for two, and a checkerboard tablecloth, that quintessentially Italian asset, was billowed over the table, like a stage curtain before the first Act. After sitting for a few minutes, we suddenly realised that we had no menu, and looked around for some clues as to what to expect. None were forthcoming. But the owner was.
A powerfully built fellow, with deep black hair, he had the distinct look of an Italian Fred Flintstone. His voice however, was calm and paternal. We asked if there was indeed WiFi available. He gestured at us to wait a moment, before disappearing into the kitchens. A few minutes later, he reappeared. Whipping his spectacles out, he took a biro and scrap of paper, and handwrote the password. One suspects that the Isernians are far too wise to indulge in such things as browsing and sending messages at the start of a meal. We asked if we might have a look at a menu. He kindly explained that there was no menu, but added "Ti dico a voce, comunque" ("I'll tell you it, though"). Enthusiastically he recited three pasta dishes for our primo (first course), including one exquisite sounding maccheroni preparation, whose long shape he elicited with delicate gusto. Our hunger fired, we eagerly ordered two plates of the maccheroni. A few minutes later, he returned to inform us that that maccheroni were alas unavailable. Thus was our choice whittled down to two.
Both dishes, as it turned out, were delicious, the rigatoni with ricotta and broccoli particularly so. Delightful home cooked fare, served with a smile. Yet as fascinating as the food was, we were enthralled by the stories of the owner, who introduced himself as Giancarlo. He told us that the restaurant had been in the family for near a hundred years, and that he gave up his job in the civil service to come back to Isernia and run it. He told us of Molise today, and what he liked of it and what he desired to change. He told us of a book that he had written, and that he would be honoured if we would have a copy. We replied that the honour would be ours, and so we decided to come back for dinner the next day, and interview Giancarlo more fully. He is an intriguing fellow, with much to share and warmth to give.
After a hearty meal, we bade good night to Giancarlo and offered our gratitude for his fine company. An early start awaited us the next day, but as we made our way back down the ridge, we were content. We had found Isernia, Isernian beauty, Isernian cuisine, and best of all, Isernians themselves.