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Samnite territory from Mount CavallerizzoOverlooking ancient Samnite territory from Mount Cavallerizzo

The truth is, the Romans didn't so much wash their hands of Molise as make it over in their own image, quickly realizing there was a denaro to be made in the sheep trade. We take a side trip one day to the Molise lowlands to visit one of the best-
preserved Roman country towns in Italy, Saepinum, strategically situated at what was the end point of a major tratturo. At the city gates, you can see the custom house still standing where every sheep that passed was counted to ensure the proper rendering unto Caesar. For the next couple of millennia, the Roman model prevailed, the sheep trade enriching not so much local shepherds as the foreign conquerors and their baronial overlords. Molise is littered with the castelli of this former aristocracy, most in some half-state between restoration and ruin.

At Pescolanciano, another checkpoint on the tratturo route, we get a tour of the old ducal castle by one of its few remaining heirs, la signora D'Alessandro.

"I had to move out from the castle into the coach house," she tells us. "Ghosts."

Della Ragion Pastorale at the Labanca Library in AgnoneOne of only four original copies of the Della Ragion Pastorale at the Labanca Library in Agnone.

Inside, the castle is a hodgepodge: We pass through a gaudy Baroque chapel, empty rooms with old frescoes on the walls, a 16th-century tower. Somehow the whole conveys an oddly visceral sense of the lives that have gone on here and the eras that have passed – more evocative, in its way, than the tarted-up palazzi of Florence or Venice. It is a testament, if nothing else, to the neglect that has dogged Molise since the Samnites.

Nowadays that neglect has less to do with the Romans than with Molise's never quite having managed the transition from feudalism to modernity. Ironically, this probably accounts for its greatest attraction, its mostly unspoiled natural heritage. Never once in our tratturo treks do we skirt a factory or cross a major highway, and, indeed, part of Molise is now protected parkland.

black trufflesA basket of the area’s famous black truffles

Mind you, even the vegetation here – mint and thyme, gentian and juniper – belongs to history. Apart from its age-old uses, ranging from the medicinal to the intoxicating, much of it owes its very existence to the transhumance, spread either by the shepherds who carried it or by the sheep themselves, who seeded and fertilized it with their droppings. Thanks to them, the vegetation along the trails shows a remarkable consistency to this day.

Since this is Italy, every trek ends at a trattoria. At La Grande Quercia, we eat under a massive oak that would have been a seedling around the time the Spanish Aragons took over in the 15th century. Mario, our host, serves us cazzarelli – a local pasta whose name is a diminutive for a certain sensitive part of the male anatomy – followed by steak brought out on oven-hot lava stones that allow you to choose your own stage of doneness.

"No offence," Mario says, going for a slightly softer sell than Adriano, "but you won't get beef like this in America. You have to raise the cow as if it were your own child."

I think of my 10-year-old back home and shift a bit uncomfortably, but from the way the meat melts in my mouth, like freshly churned sheep butter, I get the point.

shepherdOne of the last remaining shepherds shares the history of the transhumance trails.

On our final day, outside Capracotta, the traditional town of shepherds, we finally run into actual sheep, some 400 of them. Their shepherd, Ali, hails from Kosovo and, like the shepherds of old, is a hireling to one of the local sheep barons, who gives him a month off in every five to go home to his family. In his broken Italian, he tells us of a wolf attack a few weeks earlier that took 11 of his sheep.

"The boss, say is my fault. Five, maybe seven wolves! How can I stop them?"

"It's almost as if nothing's changed," Nicola says to me. "He's living the same hard life shepherds here have always lived."

A descendant of a long line of shepherdsA descendant of a long line of shepherds

Nearby, Nicola points out a still-standing vintage trullo, a sort of stone igloo that shepherds used as a shelter in ages past. The whole history of the region seems summed up in it, from the Samnites huddled in their hill forts to my own ancestors scrabbling together their meagre living to Ali fighting off the wolves and the cold.

We unwrap the sandwich lunch we've brought with us – local soppressata and caciocavallo, the favoured cheese of the transhumance – and share it with Ali in the shade of the trullo. It is as good a meal as any we've had.

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Getting There

Air Canada offers seasonal non-stop flights to Rome with service from Toronto and Montreal. When seasonal service ends this month, Air Canada offers convenient connections with Star Alliance™ member airlines. From Rome, Molise is a three-and-a-half-hour drive away.

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