This is a unique road trip itinerary that takes you through a region of Italy that featuring hilltop towns built on rocky outcrops, pre-Roman ruins, castles and fortresses. Virtually known to tourists, don’t be surprised if you don’t see another foreign tourist during your entire visit.
Molise is the second-smallest region of Italy, by both population and land area (after the Aosta Valley), representing 1.5% of the Italian land mass and 0.5% of the country’s population. It’s a mountainous region, located in central Italy direct east from Rome (distinct from Le Marche further north, which is more hilly). It’s subdivided into 2 provinces, landlocked Isernia on the western half, and Campobasso to the east which extends to the Adriatic sea.
The closest international airport is Rome-Fiumicino Leonardo Da Vinci. Arrange for a car rental from either the airport or Rome. Make sure you have (or rent) a GPS or ensure you can use your phone for Google Maps. We’ll be going into some very rural areas and small villages. If you drive manual transmission, car rentals in Europe are inexpensive compared to North America.
This itinerary also pairs very well with a few days in Rome, either at the beginning or end of the trip.
Day 1 – Agnone
The villages on this itinerary are all fairly close, no more than an hour apart. We based ourselves out of an agriturismo near Agnone, but you could really base yourself out of any town in this itinerary.
We stayed at Country House Masseria Acquasalsa, with spacious guest apartments in a pair of rustic stone buildings, surrounded by working farms near Agnone. Each apartment has a kitchenette and dining/seating area. For animal lovers, they have resident donkey, who is very friendly and loves attention.
Agnone is a pre-Roman Samnite town with pre-Roman and Medieval architecture. (More on the Samnites later.) It has a population of 5,000.
The Piazza Plebiscito square at the heart of the historic centre is a great starting point for exploring Agnone. It also has a lovely deli shop and small grocery store, and a cafe-bar that sells bottles of wine.
Agnone is famous for its history in bell-making. The Marinelli Pontifical Foundry is a bell foundry that back to 1040 (considered the oldest foundry in the world), and has been in the Marinelli family since 1339. Since 1924, it has been the “pontifical foundry,” making bronze bells for the Roman Catholic Church, accounting for the majority of its business. It produces around 50 bells per year with a team of 12 artisans, using the same process as in the middle ages.
Day 2 – Bagnoli del Trigno and Pietrabbondante
Bagnoli del Trigno is a breathtakingly beautiful village of 700 people that wraps around a rocky outcrop. The town’s unique “skyline” with its two rock spurs, and its narrow winding roads provide plenty of photo opportunities. Find a place to park, then explore the town by foot. On the main rocky outcrop is Castello Sanfelice, a medieval fortress currently undergoing restoration. Nestled between other rock spur is San Silvestro, a Romanesque church from the 8-9th centuries. The belltower, with its distinctive onion roof, is separate from the church building, built on higher bedrock.
Pietrabbondante is a similarly small village (population 700) only 30 minutes away from Bagnoli. The village dates to the Samnites, who arrived in the area in the 6th century BCE (10th BCE in some sources). The Samnites were an ancient people in south-central Italy. Little is known of their early history. They allied with Rome (against the Gauls) in the 4th century BCE, but shortly after were at war. The Romans would eventually be victorious, and the Samnites were fully assimilated and ceased to exist. It’s believed that Pietrabbondante was cultural, religious and political centre for the Samnites.
The main attraction of Pietrabondante is the ruins of the ancient Samnite theatre and temple, located on hillside just outside today’s village proper. The ruins date to the 2nd century BCE and were abandoned by the 2nd century CE, only to be rediscovered in 1857 (the temple was only discovered in 2005). Some of the Cyclopean masonry is truly amazing.
After visiting the Samnite ruins, head into the village. Make your way up to the Santa Maria Assunta church near the at the top of the rocky outcrop. If the church is open, it’s worth peeking inside. But regardless, follow the path behind the church that leads to the hill peak for breathtaking views of the surrounding area, at an elevation of over 1,000 meters.
Day 3 – Saepinum Archaeological Zone
Continuing with our Samnite history tour, we head south into Campobasso, to the Saepinum Archaeological Zone. Saepinum was originally established by the Samnites, but was conquered by the Romans in 293 BCE. It would later be invited by the Arabs in 882 following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. The ruins contain the 2 main roads, 3 of the 4 city gates, the forum, basilica and theatre.
Day 4 – Monteroduni and Pescolanciano
Our itinerary turns to later areas and some castles. Monteroduni is a town of 2,000 perched on a 468-meter hilltop. It likely dates to the Samnites. Today’s town is built around a 9th century rectangular crenelated castle with cylindrical corner towers. Pignatelli Castle was built by the Lombards and renovated in the 13th century by the Counts of Molise following damage from two violent earthquakes. Following additional earthquakes, it would fall into the hands of the Pignatelli family who transformed it into a stately Renaissance home in the 17-18th centuries. Now, it’s the town hall.
Pescolanciano is a town of 850 at an elevation of 800 meters. Similar to Monteroduni, it’s built around a castle. Castello d’Alessandro is irregularly shaped (somewhere between an irregular pentagon and hexagon), appears to emerge directly from the rock spur, and is accessed by a drawbridge. While documents point to a fortification in this spot in 573, some historians date the castle between the 9th and 13th centuries. During World War II, it was seized by the Germans and used as a Nazi headquarters for the area (likely the only thing that saved it from destruction). It’s currently being restored so it can be opened to the public as a historic site.
Day 5 – Cerro al Volturno and Castel San Vincenzo
Cerro al Volturno is another town of Samnite origins, today with a population of 1,200. It’s built around Castello Pandone. The original fortifications date to the 10th century, and it gained its Renaissance shape and grandeur in the 15th century. It appears possible to rent the castle as a 2,700 sq. ft., 4-bedroom, 3-bathroom holiday home accommodating 12 guests. As a fortress, it’s not known for it’s abundance of windows, but the views are spectacular.
Castel San Vincenzo is a town of 500 with an artificial lake created in the 1950s for a hydroelectric plant, though it blends in beautifully with the natural environment.
Castle San Vincenzo is also home to a historic Benedectine monastery, San Vincenzo al Volturno. Originally the site of a Samnite town, the monastery is believed to have been founded in 731. The current church building, San Vincenzo Nuovo, is a modern building from the 1960s, though ruins and frescos from the 9th century can be visited.
If you have extra time
There are several ways to extend this itinerary.
Still within Molise, you could visit the coastal town of Termoli. Situated on the Adriatic Sea, it’s a resort town popular with Italians. Originally (and still) a fishing town, it features wooden fishing platforms that extend out into the sea, called a trabucco. It also has a Romanesque cathedral and a 13th century castle, renovated in the 13th century after an attacked by the Venetian fleet.
Alternatively, assuming you’re flying through Rome, spend a few days (or a a week) in Rome.
Have you visited these attractions or tried this itinerary for your 5 days in Molise? Let us know what you thought in the comments!