The Empolese-Valdelsa has a essential position and most of its towns are located along the Francigena, as well as other important commercial ways. Thanks to this strategic position many important craftsmanship developed over the centuries and are still important as the glass production in Empoli, the majolica in Montelupo and the manufacturing of onyx and semi-precious stones in Montaione.
Follow the three-day itinerary and discover this hidden part of Tuscany visiting the workshops and the museum of the Empolese-Valdelsa. If you’re traveling with children checkout the post with 7 ideas for families in the area!
Let’s start our itinerary from Santa Croce sull’Arno, located at the border between Pisa and Florence. The area of Santa Croce is famous for the production of leather that has been manufactured here since the 18th century and that counts more than 500 small factories working within the so-called leather district.
Also Fucecchio is part of this leather district, and is renowned for the production of leather shoes and bags. It is the first (or last) town of the Florentine metropolitan area that lies in between the Arno river and the Via Francigena. In the city center don’t miss Piazza Veneto with its Palazzo Corsini and the Civic Museum where you can see the large fresco of San Cristoforo crossing the Arno dating back to 16th century.
The name of Fucecchio is often associated to the beautiful area of the marsh, the Padule di Fucecchio in Italian. This is the largest inland marsh in Italy, where you can do bird watching to see starks, herons and cranes, and has been protected and used since the Renaissance when the Medici family built the large and beautiful bridge of Cappiano as we see it today. The area is famous for the handmade production of chairs and other objects using aquatic plants.
Following the Arno river, our next stop is Empoli, unexpected gem of Tuscany. The city center is full of shops and restaurants and has its core in Piazza Farinata degli Uberti overlooked by nice buildings with loggias, like Palazzo Ghibellino hosting the Museum of Paleontology, and the green and white marble facade of the Collegiata di Sant’Andrea. Not to be missed a visit to the Sacred Art Museum of the Collegiata di Sant’Andrea to admire frescoes by Masolino and paintings by Lorenzo Monaco and Filippo Lippi, and the Glass Museum located in the former storehouse for the salt coming from Volterra.
As a matter of fact Empoli is famous for the production of glass since the 15th century, but it was during the 20th century that the green glass of Empoli became a product of excellence known worldwide. The green color is unique, and is given by the concentration of iron oxide in the sand used. The green glass produced in Empoli was first used to produce traditional wine bottles, flasks and jugs to create innovative and fancy tableware, that are still manufactured in the area
Empoli is also famous for being the birthplace of Renaissance artist Pontormo, who was actually born in the village of Pontorme; there you visit the House of Pontormo where he was born as Jacopo Carucci in 1494.
Kick off the second day by visiting the tiny village of Capraia Fiorentina, castled on a Tuscan hill overlooking the Arno river and Limite sull’Arno, literally located next door - Capraia and Limite are often mentioned as one thing. Limite is strongly related to the Arno river: there is the oldest Italian association of rowers, Società Canottieri, founded in 1861, and the Museum of Shipbuilding and rowing where you learn more about the tradition and history of shipbuilding manufacturing techniques developed here.
Before you cross the Arno stop by the Fornace Pasquinucci, the historic kilns founded in the 19th century by the Pasquinucci brothers who transformed the sand from the Arno into cook and kitchenware like pots, vases and bowls. On the other side of the river stands Montelupo Fiorentino that is renowned for the production of ceramic and majolica.
Actually the city of Montelupo was one of the first manufacture of majolica in Italy in the Renaissance - there were about 50 workshops of ceramics in the 15th century exporting in Europe. The production of pottery started in the Middle Ages and continues nowadays, as proves the large collection of handcrafts on display in the Museum of Ceramics and the presence of several workshops, in and outside the city center. Pottery is also celebrated with the international Festival della Ceramica held every year in June.
Next stop is Montespertoli that you may reach by following the Strada della ceramica and stopping by the pottery workshops on the way. Along the way pass by Montegufoni: this tiny village hosts an ancient castle founded in the 10th century; nowadays the castle of Montegufoni is a luxury retreat surrounded by vineyards and olive groves and hosts the stunning fresco by the Futurist painter Gino Severini: the artwork was commissioned in 1921 by the English owner Sir George Sitwell and depicts the masks of the Italian commedia dell’arte. The castle of Montegufoni played and important role during WWII because it was the place where major paintings from the Uffizi Gallery were hidden.
The town of Montespertoli is famous for the production of Chianti wine, that is celebrated for a week every year during the Chianti Montespertoli Exhibit held in late May; to the tradition of wine making and wine culture is also dedicated the Museum of Grape and Wine, just outside the city center. Outside from the city center there is also the Museum of Sacred Art that display some valuable masterpieces as the Madonna with child by Filippo Lippi. To discover hidden sights and local wineries follow the signs of Strada del vino Chianti Montespertoli that includes also the magnificent Castello Sonnino.
Start the last day by visiting the Benozzo Gozzoli Museum in Castelfiorentino: the museum displays the stunning cycle of frescoes by Renaissance artist Benozzo Gozzoli realized between 1484 and 1491. The frescoes were originally part of large aedicules on the major ways to Castelfiorentino and depicts the life of the Virgin Mary.
Not to be missed the Sanctuary of Santa Verdiana and the connected museum that displays artworks by Cimabue and Taddeo Gaddi.
Following the Francigena, you will reach Montaione, located on top of a windy hill offering a breathtaking view over the Tuscan countryside. In front of the Church of San Regolo, preserving a Madonna with Child by Cimabue school, it happens frequently to see children playing football; narby visit the Civic Museum that hosts an important Etruscan stone portraying an Etruscan commander. Montaione is also famous for the manufacturing of semi precious stones that were extracted in the tiny village of Iano; nowadays there is only one workshop still manufacturing precious pieces of furniture using the traditional techniques.
Not to be missed in the surroundings San Vivaldo, also known as the Tuscan Jerusalem. In the early years of the 16th century Father Thomas from Florence built 34 chapels reproducing in small scale the Holy City in Jerusalem: each chapel was decorated with beautiful terracottas depicting episodes from the Life of Christ. This place played an important role in past thanks to Pope Leone X, who attested that the pilgrimage to San Vivaldo had the same value as a pilgrimage to the Holy City.
Last but not least visit the medieval hamlet of Certaldo. This tiny village is still enclosed in its medieval walls and was the birthplace of Italian poet and writer Boccaccio - the House of Boccaccio is an important cultural center and museum. Take a walk in the center and visit the Museum of Sacred Art and the Museo del Chiodo, a large collection of nails of different size and use, collected over the years by a local carpenter. Actually this area of the Valdelsa is famous for the woodworking of beautiful picture frames.
Certaldo is also famous for the production of the red onion, cipolla rossa di Certaldo, that has a sweet taste and was first described by Boccaccio in the Decameron. The jam made with this onion perfectly matches the Tuscan pecorino cheese.