Basilica of San Vitale
For our first day trip from Reggio, we took a train to the lovely city of Ravenna. Located on the eastern edge of the Emilia Romagna region, Ravenna, was once the capital of the Holy Roman Empire (402-476). It was then taken over by the Ostrogoths and later, it was a major city of the Byzantine Empire. For this reason, it one of the best places in Western Europe to find the amazing mosaics of that era.
We took the train from Reggio to Bologna, then hopped a second train to Ravenna on a weekday in late April. An important holiday in Italy is April 25th, Liberation Day, so many families were taking advantage of a four day weekend. Ravenna was a popular destination for families and school groups that day, but it was a fun crowd to join for a day of art and history.
Piazza del Popolo
When we arrived at the train station, it was a short, easy walk into the old historic town center. We first walked through the Piazza del Popolo, which was full of activity. It’s a great spot to stop and enjoy an espresso while you people watch. We also noticed that Ravenna is a candidate for the European Capital of Culture for 2019—not bad for this rather small city.
We went to the local TI (Tourist Information Center) just past the piazza and got our maps and information. The ticket office for all of the mosaics was located nearby. They offered several different types of tickets depending on how many venues you thought you could handle in one day.
One of our Italian guidebooks recommended that you stop by a book store to purchase a book about the mosaics to have on hand. We chose, Ravenna City of Art, and it provided enough background information for us. Some of the churches have a gift shop with literature, but some don’t, so it’s a good idea to have your guide book ahead of time.
We chose the Basilica of San Vitale for our first visit. It’s a large church with some of my favorite mosaics. If you don’t have time to visit all of the wonderful sites in Ravenna, I would recommend going to San Vitale. First of all, the quantity and quality of the mosaics are amazing. Even though I had read about them ahead of time, I wasn’t quite prepared for such vibrant colors and exquisite detail. Be prepared to spend some time sitting and examining many mosaics. After admiring one wall or nave, I would give my neck a break and read about the next one to get some background. Without a book or guided tour, one would miss out on many of the details and symbolism. Sometimes I enjoyed listening to the teachers giving their guided tours, or I would listen to the parents who were reading aloud to their children.
Mausoleum of Galla Placidia
After San Vitale, The Mausoleum of Galla Placidia is a good choice because it’s close by. It’s a smaller building, but the mosaics are just as outstanding. I loved the contrast of blue glass sky covered with tiny golden stars in the cupola. But the animals and plants were also delightful.
The Mausoleum of Galla Placidia
Although it was probably a busy day for Ravenna, we found it easy to get around. The old city center has many pedestrian friendly streets filled with attractive shops, coffee bars, restaurants and gelato shops. There are enough interesting sites that we didn’t feel too crowded. In the smallest venue, the Mausoleum, they limited the number of visitors, so it was possible to move around and enjoy our visit.
There are plenty of restaurants throughout the old town and on the piazzas. We wandered down a side street and found a vegetarian Tavola Calda (sort of like a cafeteria or take out shop). We had a delicious lunch of pasta with vegetables and couscous salads. It wasn’t fancy, but it was tasty and fresh.
After lunch, we had a few more churches to visit and we didn’t want to miss Dante’s Tomb. Florence condemned Dante to perpetual exile (for his politics and refusing to pay a fine) so he lived in Verona, then later in Ravenna, where he died from Malaria. Although the city of Florence changed their minds and wanted Dante to be buried there, the city fathers in Ravenna refused. You can find Dante’s tomb (without Dante) in Santa Croce in Florence. But his true resting place is in Ravenna, and the admission is free. It’s a tiny Mausoleum, and not very fancy. But it’s close to the city center and not a big detour from the main sites.
The locals in Ravenna
We were glad we had the chance to visit this clean and pleasant town. It’s well organized and not as crowded as many more popular Italian cities. Like most of the towns in Emilia Romagna, Ravenna has easy, flat, pedestrian-friendly streets for walking (or bike riding) and exploring. If you get off the main routes and try a side street, you’ll have an even more relaxing stroll. If our apartment wasn’t so close, I would spend the night and spend more time in this area. It’s definitely worth a visit.