Halfway between Pisa and Florence, Empoli has none of the tourist attractions of either but can be proud of the recent achievements of its namesake football club. Empoli FC have long surpassed Pisa and may well finish 2015-16 in the same half of the Serie A table as Fiorentina.
But unlike Pisa and Fiorentina, Empoli’s top-flight exploits have only taken place in modern times. Before 1986, Empoli played their football in sundry Tuscan regional divisions and, most frequently, in Serie C.
The man who did most to upgrade their status was Luciano Spalletti. Having seen out his playing career at Empoli’s Stadio Carlo Castellani, this former midfielder took the Azzurri from Serie C to Serie A in consecutive seasons in the mid 1990s, before successful stints at Udinese, Roma and Zenit St Petersburg.
Perhaps higher up in the club’s pantheon of heroes, though, is Carlo Castellani himself. Born in nearby Montelupo Fiorentino, this forward spent most of his playing career at Empoli. Over two spells in the 1920s and 1930s, he notched 61 goals, a record only broken in December 2011 by Francesco Tavano. During World War II, when Empoli were forced to play in mainly black, Castellani was suspected of taking part in the Resistance. Deported to the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria, he died in 1944. The stadiums at Empoli and Montelupo Fiorentino are both named after him.
In peacetime, some of Italy’s most enduring goalscorers got an early start at Empoli. Antonio Di Natale played eight years at the Stadio Carlo Castellani, keeping the same prolific goal ratio after moving to Udinese in 2004. Massimo Maccarone made his name at Empoli before moving to Middlesbrough – he’s now back scoring for the Azzurri – while later Roma star Vincenzo Montella was a fixture here in 1994-95.
Current star is attacking midfielder Riccardo Saponara, back for a second spell at Empoli – his first came right after the club’s first, and so far only, appearance in Europe, the UEFA Cup of 2007-08.
The nearest airport to Empoli is Florence, 35km (21.5 miles) away. There is no direct public transport to Empoli.
A Volainbus (€6, €10 return) leaves every 30mins for Florence bus station via the main train station of Santa Maria Novella (journey time 20-25mins). From Firenze SMN, a frequent train to Empoli (around €5) take 30min.
From busier Pisa Airport 53km (32.5 miles) away, a half-hourly bus takes 8min to Pisa Centrale station. The train to Empoli takes 30min, the overall journey (€7) including waiting time just under 1hr.
Empoli’s local transport network consists of buses run by Piùbus. A single ticket from a kiosk is €1.10, from the driver €2.
Taxis sit outside Empoli station. To call one, phone +39 0571 73100. The fare from either Florence or Pisa airports would be well over €100.
The nearest hotel to the stadium is the two-star Vittoria, with a dozen modest, affordable rooms 5-10min walk from the main square.
The best establishment in town is the centrally located Hotel Tazza d’Oro. Although it may not have ‘attended for many years from V.I.P. of internernational jet-set’, it does comprise 50 comfortable rooms, facilitated by a restaurant and what Italians call an American bar, ie it serves mixed drinks.
Conveniently located a few steps from the station, the Hôtel il Sole is similarly old-school and all the better for a 2015 renovation. It should still be friendly and affordable when reopened in early 2016.
Bars cluster around the main square, piazza della Vittoria. Pick of the bunch is Vinegar. A stylish bar-restaurant, it’s still down-to-earth enough so that locals can gather round the counter and talk football by day and after dark. There’s TV football too, quality mixed drinks, a dining area to one side and a terrace overlooking the square.
Also popular by day is the Bar Leontina (via Leonardo da Vinci 2), a pleasant city-centre venue.
Opened in 2014, the Station Pub is the only one of its kind in town. A pub, near the station, with a British rail logo to prove it, it offers rarer beers (Grimbergen, Brooklyn, Sixtus) to a younger crowd, from 7pm onwards. Mounted Empoli shirts complement images of music icons in a student-bar atmosphere. Also close to the station, Viti is a typical corner bar for daytime coffees, beers and ice-cream, with a TV for football coverage.
For a taste of real Empoli, the Dopolavoro Ferroviario is a post-work spot for railway workers, alongside the station. TV football is paramount, prefaced by a cheap, honest meal, devoured in the adjoining dining room, accompanied by affordable wine and beer.