Farther Afield Around Benevento: Discovering Sannio

The hilly area around Benevento is known as the Sannio and is famous for the production of some of Italy's best D.O.C. (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) wines. Apart from being a perfect destination for wine lovers, anyone interested in history, thermal spas, and genuine country cooking will also find lots to do. Local culture is very much alive here with each town claiming a very individual identity. The Sannio is way off the tourist radar and if you spend the night in a hotel in the area, you are likely to be the only foreign tourist.

Although most of the villages are served by SITA bus service (tel. 089-405145; www.sitabus.it), a car is the best way to explore the hills around Benevento.

The D.O.C. Wines of the Sannio -- Benevento is the capital of the Sannio region, which is well-known for its wines, claiming an unusually high number of D.O.C. vintages. Among the stars are Aglianico del Taburno, Solopaca, Guardiolo, Sannio, Sant'Agata dei Goti, and Taburno. Another famous name is the refreshing Falanghina, a white wine with an aromatic bouquet and a dry flavor.

Valle Caudina

Dominated by the Monte Taburno, this valley extends southwest of Benevento. Take SS 7 (Via Appia) out of Benevento, going toward Capua, and you'll reach the village of Montesarchio. Ignore the modern area and proceed to the picturesque historic district with its imposing 15th-century fortress. For a good meal in the historic district, head to Ristorante 'O Pignatiello, Via Variante (tel. 0824-833276; www.opigniatiello.it). Another noteworthy restaurant is Barry (which stands for "bar-ristorante") in the elegant Cristina Park Hotel, Via Benevento 102, 82016 Montesarchio (tel. 0824-835888; fax 0824-834903; www.cristinaparkhotel.it; 98€ double).

The national park of Monte Taburno (1,394m/4,573-ft.; www.parcotaburno.it), just outside of town, is a good place for hiking. The easiest way to reach the trail head is by car, taking the scenic local road marked VITULANO at the eastern edge of Montesarchio; it skirts the fortress and climbs to Piano Caudio (14km/8 3/4 miles from Montesarchio). Here you bear left at the fork in the road, following the signs for Rifugio-Albergo Taburno, a bar/restaurant/hotel at an altitude of 1,050m (3,445 ft.) where the trail starts. From the rifugio, the climb is fairly easy and you will reach the top in about an hour; the panorama on a clear day is splendid. Incidentally, this mountain is the origin of the aqueduct that feeds the fountains of Caserta's Royal Palace.

Continuing on road SS 7 and then turning on the local road, SP 125, you'll reach the pretty mountain town of Airola, dominated by its scenic castle. Its 16th-century church -- Chiesa dell'Annunziata -- is worth a visit, with a beautiful facade that is the handiwork of Luigi Vanvitelli, the same architect who designed the Royal Palace in Caserta and the artwork inside this church.

Farther along, you'll reach Sant'Agata dei Goti, a scenic medieval town built on a high tufa-stone cliff. Despite having been severely damaged by the earthquake of 1980, the unique town is still very picturesque, built along an unusual semicircular urban plan. It is famous for its many churches: The most attractive is the Duomo (originally from the 10th c.), which retains some of its beautiful mosaic floor and, in the crypt, the original frescoes. Other noteworthy churches are the 13th-century Chiesa dell'Annunziata and 11th-century Chiesa di San Menna. Sant'Agata is also a reputed destination for wine lovers and foodies. The local vineyard Mustilli, Via dei Fiori 20, 82019 Sant'Agata dei Goti (tel. 0823-717433; www.mustilli.com), is renowned for its excellent Falanghina and several reds well worth tasting, as well as some outstanding grappa; we definitely recommend a visit to the cellar excavated from the tufa stone (call ahead for reservation). Mustilli also operates as agriturismo from the 18th-century Palazzo Rainone, the family's home in the historic center of Sant'Agata: The restaurant serves superb meals prepared with the products of the farm -- homemade pasta (ravioloni, cavatelli, pacche) with seasonal sauces, such as wild mushroom in the fall and wild asparagus in the spring, and also agnello (lamb) and arista di maiale (pork roast). Guests sleep in six elegantly appointed rooms (90€ double; rates include buffet breakfast). Round off your gastronomic tour with the excellent ice cream at Bar Gelateria Normanno, Via Roma 65 (tel. 0823-953042; www.gelaterianormanno.it); among the many special flavors are bacio normanno (chocolate hazelnut) and spumone all'Annurca (a sherbet shake made with the renowned local apple variety).

Valle Telesina 

Spreading northwest from Benevento along route SS 372, this valley is well known by wine lovers destined for Solopaca, the village that gave its name to the best of the region's D.O.C. wines. This is a charming valley of green hills dotted with hilltop villages. One of the most attractive is Torrecuso, with its medieval borgo crowned by a castle and great views from its cliff-top location. This is also the location of a reputed vineyard, La Rivolta, Contrada Rivolta (tel. 0824-872921; www.fattorialarivolta.it), the producer of an excellent Aglianico del Taburno: Terre di Rivolta. The charming 19th-century country residence Le Vigne (tel. 0824-872682; www.levignetorrecuso.it) has elegantly appointed guest rooms a short distance from the vineyard.

Farther along is the popular Telese Terme, a green and pleasant little town, famous for its sulfuric springs -- good for the skin and beneficial to ear ailments as well as respiratory illness -- that appeared after an earthquake in 1349. The largest spa is Terme di Telese (tel. 0824-976888; www.termeditelese.it), located in a beautiful park where pavilions and pools have been built over the natural springs, offering baths, mud applications, and a number of other therapies. We also recommend the smaller and more romantic Aquapetra Resort & Spa, Strada Statale Telesina 1 (tel. 0824-941878; fax 0824-901557; www.aquapetra.com; 250€-350€ double). The best hotel in town is the elegant 19th-century Grand Hotel Telese, Via Cerreto 1, 82037 Telese (tel. 0824-940500; fax 0824-940504; www.grandhoteltelese.it; 170€ double; 230€ suite; rates include buffet breakfast), near the Terme di Telese but offering its own small spa. Within walking distance of town are two other attractions: About 1km (a half-mile) to the southeast is the pretty Telese Lake, and a few miles to the west are the ruins of Telesia ★, a Sannite and then Roman town. For a typical Sannite meal and good local wine, head to the Locanda della Pacchiana, Viale Minieri 32 (tel. 0824-976093).

North of Telese, Guardia Sanframondi has a panoramic medieval castle that protected the surrounding borgo. The two churches Chiesa dell'Annunziata and San Sebastiano are worth a visit for the art that decorates them. Farther north is Cerreto Sannita, a harmonious ensemble of late-baroque buildings. The village was rebuilt at the end of the 17th century, after an earthquake completely destroyed it in 1688. Many of its churches are worth a visit, including the Cathedral, San Martino and San Gennaro. The town is also renowned for its Capodimonte porcelain; local artists in Cerreto and in the nearby village of San Lorenzello continue the tradition today. You can admire the local craft at the Mostra Permanente della Ceramica Antica e Moderna, Piazza L. Sodo, off Corso Umberto I (tel. 0824-861337), and the Museo Civico e della Ceramica, Corso Umberto I, inside the church of San Gennaro and the Convent of Sant'Antonio (tel. 0824-815211). To purchase some of the craftwork, head for Keramos, Via Nicotera 84 (tel. 0824-861463), one of the best showrooms in town. Last but not least, Cerreto is popular with locals for its restaurants: We recommend Il Pozzo dei Desideri, Via Michele Ungaro 122, behind San Martino church (tel. 0824-816050; closed Wed and first 2 weeks in July). It serves delicious homemade pasta, such as pappardelle ai funghi porcini (pasta with porcini mushrooms) and a splendid costata alla griglia (grilled steak drizzled with local olive oil). Juicy steaks and succulent pasta dishes attract locals from throughout the area to the Agri Hotel's La Vecchia Quercia, Via Cerquelle (tel. 0824-861263; www.vecchiaquercia.com closed Tues), on the hill overlooking the village, a short distance out of town.

We recommend pushing farther north to the picturesque village of Cusano Mutri, with its stone houses and well-preserved Norman castle. Also worth a visit are the two churches: Chiesa dei Santi Pietro e Paolo and San Giovanni.

Ciro the Dinosaur -- East of the medieval village of Cusano Mutri is the Geo-Paleontological Park of Pietraroja (tel. 0824-868000; www.geologi.it/pietraroja). The area, rich in sedimentary rocks, has yielded many fossils, including a complete baby dinosaur of a unique species, Scipionyx samniticus. Locals are very proud of the discovery, and -- with typical local enthusiasm -- they nicknamed it Ciro, an endearing and very traditional local name.

Val Fortore

Most of the visitors who pass through this valley, which spans north of Benevento along the SS 212, make a pilgrimage to Pietrelcina (about 12km/7 1/2 miles from Benevento), the home village of Padre Pio (a monk and a controversial figure, who died in 1968 and was canonized in 2002 by Pope John Paul II). The excursion is well worth it, if only for the ride alone, as the meandering road takes you through scenic green mountains. Should you need another reason to visit, we suggest sampling the cuisine at the impressive local Boda de Ciondro, Via Tratturo (tel. 0824-997601; www.bodadeciondro.it; Tues-Sat 6:30-11pm, Sun and holidays noon-4pm, closed 1 week in July).

Farther north is San Marco dei Cavoti, the destination of a different kind of pilgrim, one who comes to savor the delicious local specialty: torroncini. Made in small batches by local confectioners, these bite-size nougat candies are made with honey and nuts and often dipped in dark chocolate. While you can find torroncini in Benevento, only here can you sample a staggering variety. The best are the baci (kisses) from Premiata Fabbrica Cavalier Innocenzo Borrillo, Via Roma 66 (tel. 0824-984060), although his descendants are worthy competitors: Anna Maria Borrillo, Via Martiri di Bologna 18 (tel. 0824-984939), and Dolciaria Borrillo, Contrada Catapano 22 (tel. 0824-995099). The runner-up is Antonina Petrillo, Vico San Vincenzo 2 (tel. 0824-969266), in Montefalcone di Val Fortore, a picturesque village nearby.

On the Way to Avellino 

More than the scenic surroundings and local history, the real draw here is two restaurants that are among the best in the region: Both are very close to Benevento and make great dining excursions. In Beltiglio, a hilltop village near the small town of Ceppaloni, about 10km (6 miles) southwest of Benevento, La Rete, Via Masseriola (tel. 0824-46574; www.ristorantelarete.com; Thurs-Mon 12:30-2:30pm and 8-10:30pm) offers authentic cuisine featuring the best and freshest local ingredients. The succulent appetizers include excellent local cheese, cured meats, and bruschette (grilled rustic bread with a variety of toppings), and the meal continues with the superb fusilli porcini e salsiccia (with porcini mushrooms and sausages), the unique gnocchi al tartufo su salsa di parmigiano (potato dumplings with truffle and Parmesan sauce), or a delicious vegetarian lasagna (with ricotta, basil, and fresh tomatoes). For a secondo, do not miss the grilled boar and lamb. Children will enjoy the outdoor playground.

The long-established Antica Trattoria Pascalucci, Via Ianassi 17, Localitá Piano Cappelle, San Nicola Manfredi (tel. 0824- 778400; reservations recommended; secondi 12€-22€; daily 12:30-3pm and 8-11pm, closed Dec 24-25) is off the SS 7 (Via Appia) about 4km (2 1/2 miles) southeast of Benevento. The large menu includes tasty local peasant cuisine and seafood recipes from the Naples coast. Start with the antipasti for a taste of local cured meats and delicious sottoli (vegetables prepared and kept in olive oil). Continue with tubetti alle cozze (short pasta with mussels) or fusilli ai funghi porcini (with porcini mushrooms). You can then attack the secondo, choosing between perfectly grilled meats and daily catch al forno in umido (baked with tomatoes).

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.