Archive for October, 2009

Riding around Altopascio Saturday, October 31st, 2009

Altopascio is a hamlet on Autostrada A-11 between Pisa and Florence in northwestern Tuscany. What’s there? Well, not much today. Just ‘the old town’ surrounded by a half dozen streets of residential neighborhoods. Today the town attracts no tourists. In the afternoons locals gather at the handful of bars for an aperitif, ice cream or espresso. It’s all small talk about the weather, the children, or upcoming vacations to the beach. There is a Sunday market on main street and a myriad of seasonal feasts celebrated throughout the year. People from Lucca don’t go to Altopascio. People from Florence or Pisa don’t go to Altopascio. It’s one of those exits on the highway that you note while going somewhere.


As a young lad growing up on a nearby farm I never went to Altopascio. In the seventies when I would visit my brother in nearby Chiesina Uzzanese we would stop at times to buy luxurious leather shoes at good prices on its main street. The massive church and town gates and old square invoked little interest. Historical information was scant. And…there were too many other more famous places to see. So, the history of Altopascio remained in the dusty arcane archives hidden in church vaults.


Then came the internet and there was an explosion of information easily available to everyone. The richness of these small jewels from bygone days was there to be gleaned for those with the interest. It was in the late nineties that my research began. Patricia and I visited the town of Borgo a Mozzano and its most unusual tenth century asymmetrical foot bridge linking Via Francigena over the Serchio River into Lucca. Via Francigena was the all important pilgrim’s road which emanated from Canterbury across France and the Alps into  Italy and down across Tuscany. One of the famous towns was…you guessed it, Altopascio. From the ninth to the fifteenth century Altopascio was noted for its contributions as a hospital, hospice, and hostel for traveling pilgrims to Rome.

The flow of pilgrim traffic would have filtered into the Lucca plain from the Apuan Alp passes following the paths of rivers and streams. The Serchio River into Lucca was one; Torrente Pescia into Pescia and Uzzano was another. Once through these perilous passes pilgrims would follow the web of roads leading into Altopascio. To the south was an equally dangerous area know as ‘Le Cerbaie’; this area was thickly wooded and laden with swamps. Both the mountain passes and the wooded swamps were infested with brigands laying in wait for hapless pilgrims to rob. Daily, before sundown the bell in the tall tower at Altopascio would ring for a continuous half hour. The bell was known locally as ‘La Smarrita’ and would serve as a beacon for pilgrims traveling in the area. Once within the walls pilgrims would find shelter for the evening, medical care if needed and hearty minestrone soup and bread. Those who could pay did so, others received all for free. No one was turned away.


The church tower which houses La Smarrita as seen from inner courtyard. Church and tower were rebuilt in 1830. The little bakery/bar on the right was an excellent spot to view the complex and update my journal along with a cognac or two.

This little area of Tuscany I call home. Over the past fifty years we have visited our family, vacationed at the beaches, toured the roads and hamlets, enjoyed family meals at unusual restaurants and it’s all been wonderful. But on my last two trips the bicycle has been my only mode of transport. And that has transformed the joy of vacation into a higher level…the excitement of adventure each and every day.  I grew to know the roads of Via Francigena from the seat of my bicycle. I gazed a the same mountains, stopped at the same churches, crossed the same bridges as ancient pilgrims did on their trek to Rome. I appreciated and marveled at  the richness of this little area when Florence and Pisa were the epicenter of the world.


Oldest portion of the town wall facing north.

In 1350 during the height of the Bubonic Plague when the wealthy Florentines sought refuge in desolate mountain retreats, the great Bocaccio in his ‘Decamaron’ makes reference to the cauldron of Altopascio. One and a half centuries later the famous, or some would say ‘infamous’, Niccolo Macchiavelli makes reference to the town also. I include this quote since it displays the typical Tuscan caustic, dry whit.

“Pirro, dall’altra parte, non e se non un cacapensieri, che morebbe di fame in Altopascio”

“Pirro, on the other hand, was such a shithead, that he would die of hunger in Altopascio. ”

In  the passages both Bocaccio and Macchiavelli use Altopascio as a known quantity. Can you imagine the intelligentsia of Florence or Pisa using Altopascio as a reference…it certainly would not happen today. But, back then, it was quite famous and known that care and food was available to all in Altopascio.

Cauldron of Altopascio as it appears today!

Cauldron of Altopascio as it appears today!

The height of zeal for pilgrimages occurred coincidentally with the Crusades beginning in 995. During mid eleventh century there was sizable and increasing traffic through the Lucca-Altopascio area giving impetus for local monks to initiate the hospital and refectory facility at Altopascio. The monks grew to be knows as Hospitalers and were officially recognized by Pope Gregory IX in 1239. Lands and money were donated and their holdings and influence grew. To the south and east of Altopascio is an area known as ‘Le Cerbaie’ which is swampy and thickly wooded and a natural haven for thieves and brigands and other such malefactors.  The Hospitalers donned the sword and cleared these areas and provided safe passage to the bridges of the Arno. These military Hospitalers were knows as Knights of the Tau(Cavallieri del Tau) wearing the distinctive designation of the white, Greek “t” emblazoned on their mantle. The complex reached it’s zenith in the thirteenth century and began a slow decline in the fourteenth century with the shifting of the papacy to Avignon. By the sixteenth century all came under the influence of the Medicis of Florence and modifications were made to the complex to  house granary co-ops of 28 local farms. By the eighteenth century the remnants of the hospital were transferred to the new and nearby facility at Pescia.

Emblem of the Hospitalers

Emblem of the Hospitalers

Emblem of the Hospitalers

Church and Belltower as seen from north

Church and Belltower as seen from north

View that pilgrims would have seen arriving from Lucca.

I spent some wonderful hours reminiscing what life might have been like in this spot. The pilgrims, the Knights of the Tau, the soldiers and merchants. At one time this was a busy thoroughfare for all going to Rome. I gleaned brochures from the nearby library and enriched myself with local lore. A glass of Chianti and focaccia, too!!!

Old town and inner courtyard!

Old town and inner courtyard!


Above are quaint scenes of old town inner courtyards which were rebuilt after the sixteenth century. My travels took me over most of the roads of Via Francigena between Lucca, Altopascio, and the Arno towns of Fucecchio and San Miniato. It was a pleasure to discover the importance of this area in a time gone by. All done, of course, by bicycle!


The Cycling Tuscan

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