Altopascio and the knights of Tau
With a population of 15,000, Altopascio is one of the main centers of the province of Lucca. Already inhabited in Roman times, the center reached its maximum splendor during the Middle Ages when, starting from the 11th century, it developed around a Spedale (a kind of hotel) governed by an order of hospital friars known as Knights of Tau (or Knights of Altopascio).
The Spedale di Altopascio quickly acquired great importance thanks to its position along the Via Francigena, one of the main routes followed by pilgrims on their way to Rome. Along with the spedale, the order of the Knights of Tau also became very important to the point of spreading throughout Europe until, in 1459, Pope Pius II decided to dissolve it to merge it with the Congregation of Bethlehem, which he created.
The spedale survived for a long time to the knights, remaining in activity until 1780; its structures still make up a good part of the historic center of Altopascio.
Places to visit in Altopascio
Altopascio is located in a very interesting position halfway between the beautiful city of Lucca and Montecatini Terme, one of the most famous spa towns in all of Tuscany. The historic center of Altopascio preserves some interesting monuments that testify to the past of this pretty town. Let’s see together what are the main things to see in Altopascio and its surroundings.
Medieval walls and city gates on Altopascio
The history of the castle of Altopascio follows, step by step, the building and political evolution of the spedale that started from the beginning, a series of more or less important expansions. The first fortification should date back to the time of the foundation of the spedale, and the existence of an even older, Roman or even pre-Roman fortification, to watch the ancient Via Romea, cannot be ruled out.
Altopascio still preserves evident traces of the defensive structures that were built during the Middle Ages. In particular, some sections of the medieval walls of the village can still be seen, although over time they have been incorporated by the houses of the historic center, some towers like that of the Voltola, and some of the doors that opened into the walls. In the past there were four: Porta dei Vettori (also called Porta Fiorentina), Porta Mariani (or Porta Pesciatina), Porta degli Ospedalieri and Porta della Torre Campanaria (no longer existing). Each of these doors was defended by a watch tower; paradoxically, the best preserved is the bell tower (which once defended the only door that no longer exists today).
The small but pretty Piazza Ospitalieri di Altopascio is one of the most suggestive places in the entire historic center. Around the square there are some historic buildings such as the cloister of the ancient hotel (transformed into a loggia in the sixteenth century), the Medici farm and the Piaggione building, born as a complex of silos built by Pietro Leopoldo in 1774. Today the Piaggione houses the city library and the Raccolta Storica della vita materiale dell’Antico Altopascio (Historical Collection of the material life of the Old Altopascio), which bears witness to many aspects of the material life of the area through numerous local finds. Iin the center of the square there is an ancient octagonal well.
Chiesa di San Jacopo Maggiore
The church of San Jacopo (the full name would be the church of Saints Jacopo, Cristoforo and Eligio) is the main place of worship in Altopascio. Built in Romanesque style during the 12th century, the ancient church was rebuilt in the nineteenth century and the original church was used as a transept of the new larger building. Fortunately, during those works the medieval façade of the church was preserved with its beautiful portal, arched decorations and marble cladding, with bands of white and green, covering the highest part of the wall. I suggest you to pay attention on the remarkable sculptural decorations attributed to Biduino (dated around 1180).
On the right, looking at the new facade of the church, we can admire the majestic bell tower which was built around 1280. The structure is characterized by a series of openings that follow the scheme, from the bottom upwards, single-light, mullioned window, three-light window and four-light window, and is equipped with a battlement, a legacy of its ancient military function. On a stone of the foreign wall, the bell tower still bears the ancient symbol of the knights of the Tau.
Places to visit around altopascio
A short distance from Altopascio, in the area of Badia a Pozzeveri, is the ancient Abbey of San Pietro. Documented since the 11th century, this historic abbey was owned by the Benedictines first and then by the Camaldolese, reaching the peak of its splendor towards the end of the thirteenth century. Unfortunately, after the battle of Altopascio in 1325, the abbey underwent an unstoppable decline from which it never recovered. Since 2011, the abbey is the subject of a vast archaeological excavation project conducted by the University of Pisa in collaboration with the Ohio State University.
If you are a nature lover, you can consider a visit to the Riserva naturale del Lago di Sibolla; an interesting environment especially for its floristic richness: in fact, here are some types of plants that are rather rare in Italy.
Altopascio città del Pane
The town of Altopascio is also famous as the “Città del Pane” (City of Bread) due to its centuries-old cereal tradition. Bread is also the protagonist of the annual “Festa del Pane” held in the city; an excellent opportunity to taste a typical local product!
How to get to Altopascio
By train: Altopascio has its own train station which is just 500 meters from the historic center and is regularly served by regional trains.
By car: the city is located along the A11 motorway, the so-called “Firenze-Mare”, about sixty kilometers from Florence, 20 from Lucca.