Europe 2016: Ravenna, Italy – July, 2016
The next stop on our trip was the city of Ravenna which sits about 2 hours south of Venice on the Adriatic. Ravenna is another city that normally isn’t first on everyone’s list when you’re making your Italy travel plans but having already been to Venice in the past we were looking to see something new. Personally I pushed for Ravenna due to its historical significance and the amount of art and UNESCO World Heritage Sites which still exist in the city today, namely the magnificent mosaics which are among the most well preserved in the world. Most of the historic structures and mosaics surviving in the city were built by the Byzantine Empire in the mid 6th century. The Byzantine Empire or Eastern Roman Empire as it is sometimes known was the continuation of the Roman Empire in the eastern part of the mediterranean following the traditional fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century. The Byzantines are often forgotten in history but they played a pivotal role in the history of the western world and are certainly worthy of study! If you have any interest in learning more I would highly recommend you check out The History of Byzantium podcast which has kept me company on many a long drive to the mountains. The city is also known as the place where the famous poet, Dante Alighieri lived and died following his exile from Florence.
We arrived in Ravenna just in time for dinner and spent our first night in the city simply walking around the streets and searching out a restaurant. The old section of Ravenna is not as large and impressive as other more common travel options in Italy, but the streets were still alive with people and the lively atmosphere was certainly fun.
Most of the historic sites are centered around the old city but since it was so late our only plan was to walk around and eat dinner before turning in early and spending the next day site seeing. The old city has one main square, the Piazza Del Popolo which is near the center of the city and serves as a good point to remember when navigating the area.
On the night we arrived there also happened to be a craft fair going on in one of the smaller plazas with local people selling also sorts of handmade items. It was really no different then what you would see back home in the states. One thing that we noticed quickly about Ravenna which was pretty different from everywhere else we visited was that there really weren’t many tourists at all. From what we heard there are people who take day trips from Venice but otherwise there isn’t much tourism, at least not from Americans. Although funny enough, despite that I managed to run into a NJ State Trooper the next day in the Basilica of San Vitale. I guess it IS a small world afterall.
After exploring the city for a while and having dinner we headed back to the hotel for so much deserved rest before our big day of looking at some Byzantine Art (at least I was excited anyway!). As a side note here, you do need tickets to enter most of the big name sites in the city. The tickets are available at the ticket office which is just down the street (in eye sight) from the Basilica of San Vitale. At the ticket office you can either purchase tickets for individual sites or buy one combo ticket which covers most of them. We opted on purchasing the combined ticket which covers most of the major sites but does exclude some of the museums. However, we didn’t have the time to stroll around any museums so this setup worked out just fine for us.
On the following day we woke up bright and early in order to get a chance to see everything we could in the limited time we had because our plan called for driving 2 hours to our hotel in Torbole, on the north shore of Lake Garda at the end of the day. With that in mind we headed straight for the Basilica of San Vitale in the morning which is in my opinion the major attraction. Inside the basilica are incredible 6th century mosaics which are remarkably well preserved. I think I have a tendency to blabber on about history and since this is at its heart an adventure blog, I will simply direct you to The History of Byzantium blog for the long story.
The basilica is fairly bare on the inside in terms of statues and other ornamentation but it more than makes up for it with magnificent mosaics throughout. The most incredible of which are the mosaics above the presbytery which depict Jesus Christ, the apostles, and other saints, in addition to mosaics depicting the Emperor Justinian and his wife, the Empress Theodora. I was pretty blown away by the quality and beauty of the mosaics but I was also just very excited to finally be seeing with my own eyes mosaics which I have seen pictures of all my life. Even if you are not a history buff there is a good chance you may have seen parts of these mosaics before and that only speaks to their artistic beauty and significance.
We spent a good amount of time admiring the mosaics before continuing on our way to the back of the basilica. After exiting the basilica you come to another small building which is the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia who was the daughter of the Roman Emperor Theodosius I. Before becoming the mausoleum you see today it was actually the oratory of the Church of the Holy Cross. The mausoleum today contains three sarcophagi with the remains of Galla Placidia (died 450), her son Emperor Valentinian III (or possibly her brother, the Emperor Honorius), and her husband, Emperor Constantius III.
Although the sarcophagi are interesting in their own right, the main draw to the mausoleum are the numerous mosaics which line the ceilings throughout. The mosaics in the mausoleum are bright and intimate in a way that the ones in the basilica are not which only make them more dramatic.
After finishing up in the Basilica of San Vitale we continued our tour through the city. One of the other major sites we visited, although it is not very large, was the tomb of Dante Alighieri. The tomb is a simple structure but that does not make it any less interesting.
Perhaps more interesting than the building itself however are the stories which surround it. There are two main stories which we learned during our visit and they are both pretty interesting little bits of history. One story deals with the oil lamp which hangs inside the tomb which is lit in perpetuity and paid for by the city of Florence as restitution for the city having exiled Dante during his lifetime. The other, perhaps more interesting story, deals with a large mound in the courtyard just behind the tomb. During WWII the remains of Dante were actually buried under this mound because the residents of Ravenna feared that the tomb might potentially be destroyed by Allied bombing. However, the tomb was never destroyed and after the war Dante’s remains were moved back into the tomb.
After visiting Dante’s tomb we walked around for a short while longer before heading back to the car. Originally we were just going to spend all day in Ravenna before heading up to the Lake Garda region but having seen what we most wanted to see we decided to leave a little earlier and make an extra stop in the city of Verona. This turned out to be a great decision as Verona is a beautiful city which I will outline in my next post. All in all Ravenna was a great stop on our trip. It would be hard for me to recommend it as a stand alone trip because it is kind of small but if you have already visited most of the major cities of Italy and are looking for something new (or just really love Byzantine art!) it is a great option for a day trip.