There is strength in numbers. Certainly, the few people who in the year 1000 AD were living in a cluster of four little villages must have thought so. The area was constantly being caught up in the skirmishes between the Guelfs and Ghibellines, between Pisa, Lucca and Florence; thus it was that the inhabitants of the villages decided to club together in a safer, stronger site. They were lucky that Lucca decided to fortify their borders around the same time, and helped anyone who wanted to move to this new little town, Castelfranco. Indeed, Castelfranco owes its name to the fact that anyone who came to live here was affrancato (exempt) from paying taxes. It was the survival instinct that birthed a new town, which then learned how to grow and develop independently.
Little if anything remains of the walls that were the raison d'être of Castelfranco di Sotto, for
they were swept away when the Arno burst its
banks in 1333. They were completely rebuilt, and it is these reconstructions
that we admire today. The strategic
position of this area has always been a boon to Castelfranco, so that even
when people were flocking to the countryside, farming cereals and legumes,
trade and craftsmanship continued to flourish too. The town has always enjoyed
the logistic conditions that favour urban development: after the Second World
War, footwear and leather tanning were two major industries here.
Now that Castelfranco di Sotto has no enemies
against which it need protect itself, it has settled into its role as a
beautiful, important little part of local heritage. The landscape has been shaped
by centuries of erosion, for watercourses criss-cross the Cerbaie area, at the
heart of which lies the Montefalcone Nature Reserve. This amounts to more than 500 hectares of breathtaking scenery,
which probably looks much the same to us today as it did to the pilgrims who
walked the Via Francigena, bound for Rome.
The Cerbaie fall along the stretch of the pilgrimage route that connects
Altopascio with Ponte a Cappiano, and it is equally amenable to walking and