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- The specific of this long (29 Kms.) Via Francigena's stage - which I traveled on a sunny February day - is to join the hills north of the Arno river with those to the south side, crossing what is now the demographic and productive core of Tuscany, but which in the golden age of Francigena (VIII-XII centuries) was a mostly wild and lonely area.
Not only that: this region had to appear particularly insidious, as it was largely covered by low, swampy lands: The Fucecchio marshes, still existing on the east side, and the Bientina marshes on the west, dried up in the 19th century, skirted nearby the route, which therefore had to follow a relatively high path to avoid the swampy lands. This was possible thanks to the low ridge of hills called "Le Cerbaie" ("Cerro" is Turkey oak, Quercus cerris L.; in ancient Italian "Cerbaie" means "Cerro" woodlands), which in fact was followed by the road.
These hills, which are still very wooded today (and protected as a natural reserve area), however only affect the route in its first half: further the route descends into a low plain, the result of reclamations carried out in the early modern age; then it crosses the alluvial plain of the Arno river, finally it climbs up the San Miniato hill.
The road is almost everywhere well signposted; but even in this case it may be useful to print the stage's maps available on the web.
The reasons of interest of the stage are many. The Cerbaie woods are evocative, because they help to imagine how lonely and wild the whole Via Francigena (and not only this stretch) must have been a thousand years ago. A long stretch of ancient cobbled road, north of Galleno hamlet, is beautiful to see and walk; but one must be aware that it probably dates back to the fifteenth century, and certainly not to the Via Francigena's golden age.
At the next hamlet, Ponte a Cappiano, the route crosses a scenic fortified bridge-lock from the 16th century. The bridge with its locks regulated the Usciana river, emissary of the Padule di Fucecchio, therefore it allowed to keep the swamp waters high, favoring fishing. Immediately after the bridge, you cross a bare and lonely plain, following first the embankments of the Usciana river (canalized), then of some smaller water bodies, until you reach the considerable Fucecchio town, full of historical memories and buildings.
After Fucecchio, the path crosses the Arno river, then it goes along it for a (fortunately short) truly ugly and dirty stretch. Finally it becomes back a walk on some pleasant canals' banks, until it gets to the foot of the hill on which San Miniato stands.
I hope that the interest of the path results through the description I have made. I just want to add that some explanatory panels (Italian / English) line the street, and help to interpret what you see, from the point of view of both natural and human geography.Written February 13, 2020This review is the subjective opinion of a Tripadvisor member and not of Tripadvisor LLC. Tripadvisor performs checks on reviews.
- The unaware visitor who enters from the south side (as has happened to me) in the Ricasoli square - the heart of the old Altopascio - and continues in the opposite direction, north, until exiting the surviving gate, probably will be struck by the tiny size of the latter, and of the walls that flank it: they really don't seem worthy of a real medieval city, even if small.
That visitor will be right: in fact Altopascio, in the periods in which it was really important (XI-XV centuries), was not a city, but a fortified "complesso ospitaliero" (hostel - hospital ensemble), at the service of travelers on the "Via Francigena" or "Via Romea".
Today a part of educated public opinion is aware that the Via Francigena (and in general the medieval pilgrimage routes) didn't look like, say, the "Via Appia" or other Roman consular roads: unlike the latter, which were characterized everywhere by strong ballast (as well as other artifacts), the medieval roads were above all "itineraries", in which the "hubs" were much better outlined than the "spokes": the latter were little or nothing distinguishable through technological traces on the territory, therefore the tracks were easily variable over time, depending on the convenience.
But Altopascio was precisely - from the moment of the first formation of the "Via Francigena" (VII century) - a well-defined "hub", as an almost compulsory passage for travelers, restricted as it was from marshes both on the west and east sides.
So the presence of a "spedale" (medieval Italian word denoting a "hostel" which is also, to a varying extent, a "hospital") is early, and is at the origin of the settlement. Around the present Ricasoli square, and the adjacent Ospitalieri square, westward, the “hostel-hospital” ensemble and facilities at its service (today not easily recognizable) were distributed: barns, warehouses, staff quarters, headquarters of the administration, etc.
The San Jacopo church itself is an eloquent indication of this character of the settlement: very small, almost a chapel (but with a beautiful XII century two-colored facade), so much so that it was adapted in the nineteenth century as a transept of the current church; but at the same time flanked by an oversized XIII century bell tower, justified by having to spread its chimes to guide travelers.
Much more could be written about this ensemble: for example the leading role of the so-called "Tau" monastic-chivalric order, here embedded; o the transformation of the ensemble into a farm owned by the Medici Grand Dukes, rulers of Tuscany (XVIth century); but I think these few lines are enough to understand the originality (today inconspicuous) of the ensemble, and of Altopascio as a whole.Written January 17, 2020This review is the subjective opinion of a Tripadvisor member and not of Tripadvisor LLC. Tripadvisor performs checks on reviews.
- I visited the "Badia di Pozzeveri" site along my route of the "Via Francigena", stretch Lucca to Altopascio.
I noticed the stark contrast between the buildings already intended for rectory and accommodation for the peasants, perfectly restored and used as a hostel (but closed when we passed) and the abbey church, boarded up and with an abandoned appearance.
On the churchyard the remains of ongoing archaeological excavations (but currently inactive) are evident.
It amazed me that, since in the past this was an abbey, there were no traces of structures such as cloisters (and therefore of accommodation for monks) and other parts that allowed the abbey to function. I later read that these parts were there, but they have totally disappeared: the monastery has been suppressed since 1408 (centuries later than the decay of the Via Francigena, which had justified the abbey) therefore the work of destruction has could have gone on for centuries ..
I also learned that the archaeological excavations, conducted in collaboration by Pisa and by Ohio State Universities, are specifically aimed at the paleopathological analysis of the human remains found, and from this point of view they have international relevance.
It's to be hoped that a decent appearance of the church can also be restored following these excavations.Written January 20, 2020This review is the subjective opinion of a Tripadvisor member and not of Tripadvisor LLC. Tripadvisor performs checks on reviews.
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