Ripafratta underground – fosso del Mulino
The ” Fosso del Mulino”, history and technique.
Whether you walk through San Giuliano Terme or you are going to Pisa, the Fosso del Mulin will always peep out along your way. Also known as the “Canale demaniale” or “Fosso Macinante”, this stream is fed by the Serchio river and connects directly to the other large stream, the Arno river.
The route is known to all visitors to the north-western long-mountain, in fact starting from Ripafratta the course of the river crosses Pugnano, Molina di Quosa, Rigoli, Orzignano and cuts the capital of San Giuliano Terme in half. From here a sharp bend makes the path parallel to Monte Pisano abandon the ditch to head along the via del Brennero to the historic center of Pisa, not before crossing the “Fiume Morto” river at the height of “La Figuretta“, literally “passing it” with a bridge not intended for cars or pedestrians but to let the canal water pass over the river below without any contact.
What we want to talk about in this article, however, is not so much the path of the canal, however worthy of note given the life that has been created around those waters over the years, but its source and the engineering work that has always been hidden under the town di Ripafratta which makes possible the existence of this small but extremely important canal.
We are not far from the church of Ripafratta, there are no traces of the ditch; the village almost perched on the hill is composed of a homogeneous mixture of history and modernity, between medieval towers such as the “Centino” and “Niccolai”, the famous Rocca di San Paolino, to then move on to more modern homes.
The “gap” between everyday life and the underground heart of Ripafratta is not magnificent, seeing it is impossible if you are not from the place or you know its existence.
A small wooden door divides the main road from the staircase leading down to the ancient Port of Ripafratta, a place where until the early 1900s boats arrived ready to load the products of the local mills and oil mills to bring them directly into the the city of Pisa and from there to the bakeries, ovens and shops. The power of water in fact for many years has moved the blades of mills and millstones, bringing the small village to grow exponentially thanks to the processing of products offered by nature and grown locally.
The access today is very small, a stone staircase in fact leads almost to the height of the water that flows about 4-5 meters below the town of Ripafratta, passing under the houses. On the right and left the ditch of the mill disappears in two tunnels where darkness dominates: on one side the Serchio river which with two huge pipes brings its waters into this small and peaceful canal, on the other hand the long tunnel that leads to the open air exit about 500 meters further downstream. Looking carefully in the canals, however, you can see the niches in which in ancient times the boats stopped to load the products dropped directly from the upper floors with rope systems or slides. What today is in fact a canal devoid of human presence (except unfortunately for waste on the sandy bed) until a century ago was a place populated by workers, where lives intertwined and everyone did their part to move the economy of the country and its goods.
The visit obviously does not last long, but with a very watchful and attentive eye you can notice several interesting details. The first in front of us can give us important information, in fact it is an ancient stone slab that still has the metrics engraved to measure the depth of the water. So far everything may have been normal, but what immediately catches the eye is that the water during our visit is no more than forty centimeters high while the plate marks a meter and twenty; in fact, in the centuries of life of the Fosso del Mulino tens of centimeters of mud and earth have accumulated coming mainly from the natural bed of the Serchio river which have hidden the second important detail, that is a brick and cement quay that ran through all the tunnels probably used as underground dock for boats being loaded.
We leave the basement to walk to the place where the canal actually originates. We cross the railway and find in front of us an enormous stone wall that divides two rushing waterways that have nothing to do with our calm and clear ditch.
Below this other majestic hydraulic work are the floodgates or two huge “taps” that control the flow of water. Today the floodgates are controlled electronically remotely maintaining a constant supply of water in every season. In the past, they were manually operated as we will see in the next paragraph.
On the left, however, you can still glimpse the old bridge from which the first part of the Fosso passed, still not buried previously to the construction of the other artificial canal: the Ozzeri, which in the photo above is visible on the left of the wall.
To conclude the visit, returning to the village of Ripafratta, hidden under a parked car and with fallen leaves: you can admire these stone wheel spokes. For many it might seem normal civil works, perhaps to control the water or to reinforce the ground, instead they are stones installed there with the aim of increasing the grip of the feet of the workers who had to manually open and close the channel supply gates by means of a huge wheel placed in the center of those spokes.
Let’s save the fortress!
The visit lasted no more than forty-five minutes, in addition to the civil engineering works, it was also possible to visit the town church and its bell tower, obtained from a medieval tower very similar to the other three defensive works that surround Ripafratta.
For those who would like to experience firsthand and visit the small village of Ripafratta, the guided tour “The Secrets of Ripafratta” will take place on Sunday 15 March.
The town can be easily reached by train from Pisa, Lucca and San Giuliano Terme by going down to the station of the same name a few hundred meters from the meeting point.
For info and reservations you can write to firstname.lastname@example.org or on WhatsApp to +39 3398358584.
Many thanks to “Salviamo La Rocca” of Ripafratta, in the specific figure of Francesco Noferi for the excellent technical and historical explanation, access to hidden places and total support. Finally, remember that the aforementioned association periodically organizes events to promote the small village and its fortress through guided tours, historical re-enactments and conferences.