Vicopisano - What happened to the wealthy hill town in Tuscany?
Updated: Sep 1
Prior to the 15th century, Vicopisano was a bustling town with a plethora of rich merchants. The town gained its wealth and popularity due to its geographical position along two rivers: The Arno River that flowed from the Mediterranean sea connecting Pisa to Florence and deeper into the northwest and the lesser-known Auser River that ran north and south to the city of Lucca. They could pretty much do anything if they controlled these trading/shipping lanes. Documents show that a castle was built on this land to protect the routes as far back as 900 AD
Noble families started erecting their tower houses in the 12th century. Vicopisano with its exclusive connections to the river routes became the capital of the Pisa area in the 13th century. Soon thereafter fortification began for the protection of the Pisan Republic. But eventually, the town would fall to the Florentines in the early 15th century. I was told by my guide that the town although totally surrounded by the Florence army protected its walls and the families inside for 90 days. This is something that the people of Vicopisano are very proud of even today.
Brunelleschi having just completed the monumental Duomo in Florence was assigned the task of creating an even better fortification for the newly acquired Vicopisano. Brunelleschi designed an impressive defensive complex that includes watchtowers, higher than normal walls, and stairs to the fortress that were used for dropping stones, boiling oil, fire, and anything else they could think of down on the attackers below. These stairs were recently renovated and opened to the public for the first time in over 400 years.
Due to the power struggle for control between Pisa and Florence, the Arno river was in constant threat of diversion. Unfortunately, the town's demise came when the river was diverted in the 16th century. The maritime merchants relocated their businesses and left Vicopisano to struggle economically. This may not have been so bad for present-day Vicopisano as the river diverted meant that the future struggles and world wars were not interested in the hill town. This is why so much of the old history has been well preserved.
It's a quiet, close-knit village on the verge of waking from its current economic hibernation. Local townspeople are working proudly to bring merchants and shop keepers back to its main street, Via Lante which has for centuries past been a lively mix of commercial and residential use.
Vicopisano can be seen in an hour or two, but I encourage you like always to stay as long as you can. The locals are lovely and really want to be inviting to tourists. Try to speak your best Italian and they will do the most to make you happy. Below I offer some of my favorite things to do when I visit.
Palazzo Pretoria and Brunelleschi's Rocco - this monumental complex also includes the hidden prisons and historical archives. There is a lovely raised map that a local did that shows the geographical location of the town with relation to the rivers, Pisa, and Florence. English speaking tours are available.
Open every weekend from the Pisan New Year ( March 25th) until the end of November.
Saturdays: 3:30PM - 7:00PM Sundays: 10AM - 12:30PM and 3:30PM - 7:00PM
Guided Tours: 7 euros. Reservations: 050551285 or email@example.com
Torre dell"Orologio (Clock Tower) - a quick tour that shows you what life was like in a tower and how this particular tower evolved from a watchtower to a residential tower, to a clock tower. Fair warning - only accessible by climbing the original steps (more like a ladder) and tiny entrances into each floor. Being with the clock's bells at the top is worth it. That and the views of course.
Open Saturdays and Sundays: 9:30AM - 12:30PM and 3:00PM - 7:00PM
Entrance Only: 3euros Guided Tours: 7euros
Reservations required: www.coopcapitolium.it
I Chiassi - tunneled alleyways that lead from the lower part of town on Via Lante to the Castle. These made for quick entrances and exits to the castle by the town's militia. These are some of my favorite places to photograph. look for them whenever you stroll Via Lante. If you have kids - take a seat at Tommy's (see the first restaurant listed below) and send the kids out to see how many tunnels they can find on the street.
Hiking and Mountain Biking - at the foot of Mount Pisano, there is much to be explored with Visocpisano as your base.
Guided Tours: Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
30Metriquadri - also named by the locals as Tommy's Place as the owner is Tommy. This spot gets top billing from me because of Tommy himself. I have never seen anyone work so hard at making his guests enjoy their experience. Whether it's a short stop for a caffe (espresso) or a full-on lunch or dinner, Tommy is there to make it all go wonderfully. He speaks great English too!
Hours: 9:30AM - midnight
Reservations: +39 050 866 5374
Aurora Taverna - a great place for a coffee or aperitivo and to people-watch. This little bar is in the main piazza. I love to sit here watching the local men banter with each other as their wives do the shopping at the daily market in the same piazza.
Piazza Cavalca, 11
Hours: 9:00AM - 1:00PM and 4:30PM - 11:00PM
Reservations: none needed
Le Belle Torri - is your place for pizza. Beware local pizza is super thin. But they have a million toppings to choose from. They also have other items that feature seasonal produce and fresh seafood.
Via Loris Baroni, 10A
Hours: 6:00PM - 11:00PM Closed on Mondays
Reservations: email@example.com; +39 389 2006606
Ristomacelleria Testi - right next to the pizzeria is a more elegant option. He is the town butcher by day and a grill master by night.
Via Loris Baroni, 6A
Hours: 8:30Am - 2:00PM and 5:00PM - 8:00PM
Reservations: +347 691 5966
Medieval Festival - first weekend of September. Historical groups, medieval emcapments, street performances, jousitng competitions, and an exclusive authentic medieval dinner (only 20 - 30 people each night) **Reserve your seat at the table early +348 5110315. The cost of the dinner is 45 euros per person. You can also try emailing your request to: firstname.lastname@example.org
By train - Take the train to the Pontedere Train station which is 5 miles from Vicopisano. . From there take the city bus to Vicopisano. It drops you off right in the main square - Piazza Cavalca. For less angst, take a taxi from the train station to Vicopisano. The taxis sit right outside the station.