On our second last visit on the river cruise itinerary, we once again headed out towards the Emilia Romana region, for a full day exploring Ravenna; the city of mosaics. On the way, I enjoyed catching glimpses of the beautiful agricultural countryside and the tall, slender black poplar trees which will always remind me of this holiday. Evidently, their wood is excellent for making furniture.
Ravenna is a former capital of three different ancient empires, with some of the most stunning art and paintings I’ve ever seen and it well deserves its many listings in UNESCO World Heritage. It is also another university town and, once again, bicycles were everywhere, although the streets make some attempt to give pedestrians a path in between with a smoother section on either side for the bikes. At least cars are not allowed in the historical centre!
Our walk took us first to the Basilica of San Vitale and the most interesting mausoleum in the grounds behind, which is the burial place of Galla Placidia, daughter of a Roman emperor. The mausoleum only holds so many people at once and we managed to visit it first. What an amazing, atmospheric building inside. It has some of the best preserved and oldest Roman art mosaics in the world, dating from the year 500, and it was truly awesome, in its correct meaning. I could understand why it was one of our guide’s favourite venues and I just wanted to stand and absorb it in silence. Fortunately, they allowed photographs without flash so I managed a few.
Then we approached the Basilica, which didn’t seem out of the ordinary from the outside but is one of the most important examples of early Christian Byzantine art and architecture in Europe. We saw why on entering when my jaw dropped even further. Stunning doesn’t really describe the famous glass mosaics on every wall, some of them in gold. I mentioned before that every picture tells a story in Italian churches and this was very evident here where many Bible stories were portrayed in wonderful, intricate detail.
After our art appreciation tour, we headed for the place I really wanted to see, the Tomb of Dante Alighieri, the most famous 13th century Italian poet who wrote the Divine Comedy, a work about Hell, Purgatory and Paradise in three parts. Our guide told us that he is also regarded as the father of the Italian language. A lovely young Italian woman we met on our return flight told us he is still studied in all schools today. Although born in Florence, and a resident in many of the towns we visited, Dante died in Ravenna and is honoured there with a special tomb, and a statue in the square. I was delighted when Simon bought me a card for my anniversary which has one of Dante’s sonnets written on the front in beautiful calligraphy.
Since we were out for the day, some of us had lunch together in the recommended restaurant, Ca’Ven, a very good choice. I wondered at the cavern-like interior and art on the walls and discovered it used to be a type of church building at one time. While the others had the local flat Panini type bread with a filling of their choice, we opted for the grilled chicken and vegetables and roasted wedged potatoes – a much tastier meal with its oils and herbs. We shared the large plate of vegetables with a couple of the Americans at our long table so it was good fun all round.
It was a most interesting day out and although Ravenna is not the prettiest town we visited, I feel privileged to have seen some of the most famous art and mosaics in Western Europe. But it is the quietness in the darkened mausoleum with its ancient Roman art that has stayed in my mind.
Look out for our final stop at beautiful Verona next week!