In 1211, travelling from Pescia and having arrived close to Sesto lake, Saint Francis came across Castello di Vico, an extraordinarily beautiful village known as the “the Pisan jewel”. Trade passed through the town from the most distant countries of the Mediterranean and the richest cities in Italy. Arriving by boat on the Serezza, surrounding by vessels from Lucca piled high with goods and filled with crew, the Saint was able to see groups of pilgrims who, having stopped in Lucca to venerate the Holy Face, continued to Vico on their way to Rome, Jerusalem or Santiago. Just outside Vico, the great monasteries appeared before him: the monastery of Santo Stefano di Cintoia, the abbeys of Sant’Andrea and San Jacopo, just some of the many abbeys and retreats on the mountain that everyone in Europe referred to as “Mons Eremiticus”. For Saint Francis, this mountain was a perfect image of a new Thebaid: a huge spiritual community visited by pilgrim saints since ancient times, who trekked the Longobard road now called with his name … St. Francis’ Way.
As a gateway to the Republic of Pisa, Vico had to be well fortified and Brunelleschi was the architectural genius who took care of it between 1435 and 1440. Still today, having passed through the villages, you reach the gateway to the republic and, right where St. Francis’ Way runs, having crossed through the walls, you find a really tall tower with four arches at the bottom. Like the better known Leaning Tower of Pisa, this tower communicates to visitors that they are entering the crossroads of the world, the same vibe felt by Pisans in the Middle Ages.
Vico is brimming with churches and towers: the Pieve di Santa Maria e San Giovanni, the town’s main church, faces east as a mark of its extraordinary importance. It shares its aspect with the church of San Frediano in Lucca, San Frediano in Pisa and Santo Sepolcro in Pisa and the Cavalieri di San Giovanni di Gerusalemme church located along the way to Rome. A pilgrimage is both a privilege and a dream for those who manage to complete it. In Vico the other churches are SS. Giuda e Simone, Santo Stefano (known as Pieve Vecchia), San Leonardo alla Porta all’Arno, San Bartolomeo with the Ospedale della Misericordia adjacent, where Saint Francis stayed to preach for a few nights. The Castello dell’Arcivescovo in Pisa, connected to the church of San Michele Arcangelo, with its strikingly tall Santa Maria tower, once the home of the archbishop of Pisa, dominates the array of towers and bridge houses in the city, which seems to rise up to the highest of heights.