Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Hidden Jems: The best part of Italy

For every region of Italy that’s well known to travellers from all around the world, there is another quieter and less-explored option. There exist parts of Italy that are more firmly lodged in the world consciousness than many corners of our own country it’s not for nothing that one of the most enduringly popular areas of Tuscany has become known as “Chiantishire”. Such places draw their visitor numbers for a good reason; but there remain countless parts of Italy that are less familiar but equally rewarding. Here’s our pick of them.

If you like Tuscany… try Le Marche
Umbria is the obvious alternative to Tuscany but its hills and wines are fast becoming as well known as its neighbours’. So if you’re looking for somewhere new to visit but with the charm and scenery of Tuscany, try Le Marche - a mainly agricultural region on the Adriatic coast with just an hour between the beach and the Sibillini mountains. The Sibillini national park is ideal for walking, gentle cycling, mountain biking or horse riding. E lsewhere the region is dotted with caves including the famous Grotte di Frasassi which includes a cavern so large that it would fit Milan Cathedral inside it. The wines are little known outside Italy but are a joy to discover, while the food, like the region, is a mix of sea and land with regional dishes of both fish and game.

If you like Umbria… try Piedmont
If Le Marche doesn’t do it for you then Piedmont will. For epicures looking for the finest that Italy has to offer, this region abutting the French and Swiss borders is the place to go, as the towns that lend their names to food and drink show - Asti, Cinzano, Barolo. Most of Italy’s rice is grown here and risotto is a signature dish. In fact, this is where the Slow Food Movement, dedicated to real cooking with traditional ingredients, began.The medieval town of Alba is famous for its white truffles, and those wishing to give themselves a hearty appetite can take cycling or walking excursions in the Langhe Hills first. When you can eat no more, there’s skiing in north of the region or the baroque city of Turin to explore.

If you like Campania… try Lazio
History buffs often head to Campania wanting to visit Pompeii, Herculaneum and the treasures of Naples’ museums. But fascinating ruins in the midst of great scenery can also be found via a day trip from another booming metropolis, in the region of Lazio outside Rome. What’s more, the whole region is accessible by public transport. The most interesting ruins can be found in the north of Lazio, which was developed around 800BC by the Estrucans. Other important sites are Ostia Antica, the ruined port of imperial Rome and the ruins of Villa Adriana, Hadrian’s Palace, near Tivoli. There are beaches but, if you’re looking for somewhere to wash the dust off, Bracciano and Bolsena are volcanic lakes popular with Italians.

If you like the Amalfi coast … try Taormina
The mountainous Amalfi Coast is a popular tourist destination with its dramatic cliffs dropping into the blue Mediterranean; but if you’re looking for quieter mountains, perhaps Sicily is the answer. On the hill of Monte Tauro, overlooking two sweeping bays and the top of Mount Etna, Taormina gives visitors breathtaking views of all the little seaside towns. It has been praised by writers and artists of many generations: Goethe, D H L awrence, A lexander Dumas, John Steinbeck, Paul K lee and Gustav K limt. There’s excellent shopping both for the big brands and smaller curios, and a range of local wines and foods to try. In the daytime, visitors can explore the medieval streets and alleyways leading to hidden gardens or terraces overlooking the coast. At night the streets are perfect for an evening stroll, and very occasionally you might spot steam and light as E tna bubbles over and lava flows down her steep slopes. The nearest airport to Taormina is at the bustling port city of Catania, about 45km away.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Molise, a treasure in the heart of Italy

The Molise Region is situated in a mountainous area of Central Italy between the Apennines and the Adriatic Sea. Thanks to its wild landscape it is considered one of the most important green areas in Europe. With a surface area of less than 4,500 square kilometres, it is one of the smallest Regions in Italy. It’s economy is based on an agri-alimentary sector that has managed to preserve its traditions even during a recent phase of industrial development thanks, above all, to the quality of the grain, milk, oil and wine it produces.

Archaeological remains speak of ancient times: prehistoric and proto-historic villages, the rise of the Samnites, who settled here around the 7th century BC, the wars against the Romans, the fortified castles of the Middle Ages, the Barbarian invasions that changed the culture and landscape of the ancient Roman Samnius. With the Norman conquest Samnius became Molise. The Region's name derives from the de Moulins family: Rodulfus de Moulins snatched Boiano and Venafro from the Lombards and became lord of a territory with ancient Samnius and new Molise at its heart. The Samnites arrived in this part of the peninsula on the wave of the vast migratory flow caused by the decline of the Etruscans' power, and established their religious centre, the symbol of tribal unity, on the heights of Pietrabbondante. They defended themselves against the Romans during the Samnitic Wars (243-290 BC) along the Apennines, at the end of which they fell under Roman dominion. Periods of war and peace alternated over the centuries leaving deep marks that survive in the architecture from the Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Rococo periods.

The Matese is one of the most ancient European mountains, preserved in time as 70 millions of years ago, and there is a spring of water which is collected today and sold as "Sepinia" in the area called presently "Tre Fontane". Not very far from the spring, the most intact dinosaur in Italy was found. The prehistoric site called Terravecchia was the refuge of the first shepherds, who during the Bronze Age climbed to drink from the springs in the Matese. Matese is one of the most important groups the Apennines, the Region's highest mountain being Monte Miletto (2050m) not to be missed are the climb up this mountain. To the west a rocky barrier rises up brusquely with vertical walls: Le Mainarde, scattered with villages, beech woods and forests of silver fir, such as the Montedimezzo and Collemeluccio forests, which have been declared Biosphere Reserves by UNESCO. In some municipalities, and also in the Abruzzo National Park, it is possible to catch sight of wildlife in its natural habitat. For example, in Pizzone, you can see the brown bear, and there is no lack of charming settings such as the upland plain of Valle Fiorita and the basin of Montenero Val Cocchiera, where wild horses graze. 

Historical Itineraries
A place not to be missed is Sepino, the archaeological area which takes you to the village of Altilia. The site of Saepinum is at the crossroad of two important, ancient trails: the north-south trail along the Tammaro Valley used long before the presence of the Romans as the path for seasonal migration of shepherds and livestock into Apulia and Campania, and the east-west path leading through the mountains to the Adriatic Sea. Since prehistory there was a settlement in this fertile plain created by the Tammaro River where the local population traded with migrating shepherds. In the Iron Age a citadel of Samnites supervised over this trading activity: the citadel, surrounded by mighty walls, was called Saepins, and ruins can still be seen on the top of a hill called Terravecchia (953 mt above sea level).
During the second Samnite War in 293 b.C. Saepins, "fortissima atcque potentissima" was conquered by consul Lucius Papirius Cursor. The heroic Samnites went out of the town to fight the Romans, and 7300 of them died, while 3000 were taken prisoners (as reported by historian Livius). The few who survived abandoned the citadel and settled in the plain, where later the new Roman town of Saepinum was to rise.
The Roman town flourished during the imperial period. Recent excavations still in progress have brought to light the remains of private buildings, a fairly large theatre, a basilica, the forum, the "Griffon Fountain", two mausoleums, baths, and long stretches of boundary walls with four gates.
In the 1st century AD Saepinum was one of the 35 Roman municipia in Italy, and economic development started under Augustus who granted of parcels of land throughout Italy to veterans returning from foreign wars, and also Saepinum saw new landowners just outside the city-walls.
In the 5th century it also became a bishopry, then after the Lombard invasions took the name of Altilia. In the 9th century was raided by the Saracens, and at that time the inhabitants moved to a higher position, where the present Sepino is still situated.
Another pleasant visit is to Isernia Trivento, the ancient Samnitic fortress, and then on to Termoli, the most important seaside resort on the Molise coast where boats leave for the Tremiti Islands.
Another itinerary takes in Venafro, and on to the Benedictine monastery of S. Vincenzo al Volturno. It then skirts the artifical lake of Castel S. Vincenzo and up to one of the loftiest municipalities in Italy, Capracotta (1,416m), between Monte Campo and Monte Capraro.
Finally, you can come upon the traces left by Homo Aeserniensis and his prehistoric camp dating back around 700,000 years - the most ancient settlement in Europe.

Altilia: The site
Along the fast lane connecting Isernia to Campobasso, after passing Isernia there is an exit named "Sepino", that will lead to a town rich of thousands of years of history. Before reaching the present-day town, there is a turning to the right (north-west direction) to "Altilia" which must be followed for about 2 miles. Altilia is a village rising amid the ruins of Saepinum, one of the most extraordinary archeological sites of central Italy, a Roman town where excavations began in the early 1950's. Sepino rises at the foot of the Matese Massif, there the Samnite citadel of Saepins was built. As the water became the most important element of Saepinum/Altilia, the town was filled of hydraulic plumbings, aqueducts and mills, and magnificent spas. The town developed when rich Roman imperial families came to enjoy the healthy water. 

The architecture of Roman Saepinum
The Roman Saepinum was diamond-shaped, with each side of 320 mt, and divided into four quarters by two main roads, the Cardum Maximum and the Decumanum, that intersected in the center of the town, where the forum, basilica and market were situated. The Cardum Decumanum was the ancient shepherds tracks still existing at the time of the Samnite Saepins. The area is 12 square hectares, circled by a wall of about 1200 meters, which originally included 27 towers. Entrance was through four gates - three of them are still standing - each sided by two towers.
Inside the wall at the north gate are remnants of thermal baths. Along both axes of the town, remnants of stone walls have been restored to show where the original residences and shops stood. The 'industrial' section of town consisted of structures where wool and hides were prepared. Also, there is a theater that could accomodate 3,000 spectators. Next to the theater, 17th century farmhouses have been restored and serve as a museum. Outside the walls are the ruins of two large funeral monuments. The tomb on the north side is square and bears clear Greek ornamentation. The tomb at the south gate is round and typical of the age of Augustus. One of the two towers guarding the South Gate actually served as a cistern, gravity-feeding water to the entire town, which is on a slight downward slope to the north. Latin inscriptions on the gates and buildings abound, telling which wealthy family donated this and that structure.

The Forum of Saepinum stands where the town's two main roads met, that is the Decumanus and the Cardum Maximum, both built in pre-Roman times. The forum was the major public area in every Roman town, and it was here that trade and commerce were conducted alongside political and administrative business as well. Saepinum's forum was a huge irregular rectangular space covering an are of 1400 square meters, for centuries it remained covered in earth and was floored with rectangular slabs of stone only in the Augustan age, when a gutter was built in as well to allow rainwater to drain away from the forum. As in other Roman towns, the Forum of Saepinum was surrounded by inportant public buildings, rather than private houses: the South-east side of the forum has only been partly excavated, while on the opposite site have been found several chambers, probably used as meeting places for priests or as the seat of the town's Senate. Near the forum there is a temple possibly dedicated to the Capitoline trio of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva and on the far side the so called baths of Silvanus. On one of the short sides stand another place of worship and a public fountain, along with other less important buildings.
The north-west side of the forum is closed in by the Basilica, one of whose sides faces onto the forum area. The Basilica measures aboiut 30 per 20 meters and dates back to the mid-4th century AD. It served as an administrative office and Hall of justice. The peristilium stands above a low podium: there are 8 ionic columns on each long side and 4 columns on each of the short sides, delimiting the confines of the basilica area itself. The columns and their ionic capitals were originally more than 6 mt tall. The facade overlooking the forum had three entrances as did the other facade looking onto the decumanum, The 20 elegant columns are supported by numerous fragments of remains from buildings of earlier eras. 

Pietrabbondante's earliest known inhabitants were the Samnites, who arrived in Pietrabbondante in the 6th century BC. Many historians believe that it was home of the Assemblies of the Federal Government of the Samnites. The Samnite town stretched for just over six hundred meters; nevertheless, the area remains rich in archaeological material.
The theater-temple complex is located on the outskirts of Pietrabbondante about 966 meters above sea level, next to another small temple with arcaded shops from a previous era (200 BC). To build it, the Samnites got two terraces along the side of the mountain, but at different levels on a single axis. The top two buildings housed the temple and side porches. The overall size of the area is 55 x 90 meters. The theater consists of two elements: the auditorium and the building stage, which two stone arches link together. The auditorium could contain 2500 spectators and has good acoustics. The seats were made of stone. Each stone seat is from a single stone block and the dorsal elegantly thrown backwards; at both ends of each row listed a sign that reserved three rows for judges, priests, and so on. On both sides of the orchestra, retaining walls of the embankment end with atlases carved in stone (like the Odeon of Pompeii, however, the material is made of soft tuff). The entire embankment is supported by a large semicircular and polygonal blocks processed by cutting without regular contours.

Molise is the primary producer of white truffles in Europe and its flourishing cheese industry provides dairy products sold in all the large Italian cities. Its various "Soppressate" are the pride of local tradition, followed by naturally cured pork salami. Among the many popular festivals, recalling Molise's traditions for centuries, are the "ndocciata" torch-lit processions in Agnone, the cart races in S. Martino in Pensilis and Ururi and the Mysteries of Campobasso. Scapoli is the only village where the "zampogna", the classical shepherd's instrument, is still produced. The Region has an ancient tradition of silver and goldsmithing especially in Campobasso and Agnone. Famous also are the steelworks of Campobasso and Frosolone.
on, where the present Sepino is still situated.
Another pleasant visit is to Isernia Trivento, the ancient Samnitic fortress, and then on to Termoli, the most important seaside resort on the Molise coast where boats leave for the Tremiti Islands.
Another itinerary takes in Venafro, and on to the Benedictine monastery of S. Vincenzo al Volturno. It then skirts the artifical lake of Castel S. Vincenzo and up to one of the loftiest municipalities in Italy, Capracotta (1,416m), between Monte Campo and Monte Capraro.
Finally, you can come upon the traces left by Homo Aeserniensis and his prehistoric camp dating back around 700,000 years - the most ancient settlement in Europe.