18 May 2024

A Weekend on the Tiles: 48 Hours in…Ravenna

| The European |

With its eight world heritage sites studded with ancient mosaics, proximity to the ‘Adriatic Riviera’, and a growing reputation as one of Italy’s top foodie destinations, European cities don’t come much better – or more underrated – than Ravenna

Nestled on the eastern edge of Emilia-Romagna province, six miles inland from the coast, this culturally significant city – the resting place of national poet Dante Alighieri, muse for Lord Byron, and the base for Julius Caesar’s naval fleet – receives fewer overseas visitors than nearby Venice and Bologna. But to those in the know, savvy Italians included, Ravenna is anything but inferior; it’s a beautiful, buzzing, and charming destination that rivals its neighbours in everything but the crowds.

What to See

Stepping into this small, culturally vibrant city is like entering a perfectly preserved time capsule. As the capital of the Western Roman Empire in AD402, and later as the seat of Byzantine power in Italy, it’s said that Ravenna was busy creating groundbreaking art and architecture while the rest of the Europe was slumped in the Dark Ages. It was during this period that the city’s most iconic monuments were constructed and adorned with breathtaking mosaics. Today, eight basilicas and terracotta churches form the Early Christian Monuments of Ravenna World Heritage Site, six of which are easily accessible by foot in central Ravenna and can be seen in a day.

Among them is the early 5th century Galla Placidia Mausoleum, a wonder of early Christian iconography and symbolism. Don’t be fooled by its modest exterior – the interior of this cross-shaped, brick-built mausoleum has a vaulted ceiling adorned with a mesmerising depiction of the starry sky, complete with 900 glittering stars. Cole Porter visited Ravenna in the late 1920s and was so inspired by this mosaic that he wrote his famous jazz classic, Night and Day.

Mausoleum of Theodoric
Battistero degli Ariani

Next door, literally, sits San Vitale Basilica, another of Ravenna’s jewels. The church was built between 526 and 547 AD during the rule of the Ostrogothic King Theodoric the Great so its mosaics depict Christian symbols and scenes from the Old and New Testaments. Its apse mosaic is a masterpiece, featuring Emperor Justinian and his court in a vivid, shimmering gold depiction of imperial grandeur. Its elaborately painted dome, like much of the artwork in Ravenna, takes your breath away.

Ravenna’s oldest building, the early 5th century Neonian Baptistery, is a short stroll away. As its name suggests, this unassuming building was used for Christian baptism ceremonies and was built on the site of a Roman bath. Like Galla Placidia, entry is limited to five minutes to prevent overcrowding on busier days. That’s ample time to marvel at its ceiling centrepiece, though, which depicts John the Baptist baptising Jesus in the River Jordan. Zeus, as personification of the Jordan, is also present.

Nearby, the Archiepiscopal Museum of Ravenna is home to some of the world’s rarest and most important Christian relics. Among them is a circular marble slab on which the Council of Nicea – known to many from Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code – fixed the movable date of Easter so that Christians everywhere could celebrate the resurrection of Christ on the same day.  The 5th century Archiepiscopal Chapel is on the museum’s first floor and is another of Ravenna’s World Heritage sites. Its mosaics include Jesus dressed as a warrior and various martyrs, apostles and evangelists.

Elsewhere in Ravenna, the 6th century Basilica of Saint Apollinare Nuovo has walls lined with intricate mosaic scenes from the life of Christ, as well as processions of saints and martyrs. Catch your breath – and the scent of numerous exotic plants – in its beautiful cloister courtyard.

Although it’s not a UNESCO site, don’t miss the tomb of poet Dante Alighieri, the father of the Italian language. The Divine Comedy and The Inferno writer was born in Florence but later made his home in Ravenna. When he died of malaria 1321 his body was placed in a marble sarcophagus that can still be seen today.

Piazza del Popol
Basilica of Saint Apollinare Nuovo

Where to Stay and Refuel

The heart of Ravenna, and one of the best places to get your bearings, is the Piazza del Popolo, which can be reached on foot in ten minutes from the railway station. From here, most of the attractions are a short walk away. The square itself has been the seat of local power for centuries, and is home to a couple of laid-back cafes that offer good food and a place to watch the world go by, day or night. Grab a seat and relax with a coffee (espresso, Italian-style) and stuffed piadina, or flatbread, the speciality local snack.

Most of the city’s trattoria serve regional classics such as tagliatelle al ragù (pasta with meat sauce), tortellini in brodo (pasta parcels in broth), and affettati misti (assorted cured meats). Pair your meal with a local wine and finish it with an Amaro Montenegro, the traditional digestif.  If you fancy a night out on the tiles after seeing them, Ravenna has a vibrant nightlife with lively wine and cocktail bars and live music.

Whether you’re here for business or pleasure, Ravenna isn’t short of accommodation to suit most tastes and budgets. There are plentiful hotels, B&Bs and private apartments, all within walking distance of the train station. Try the Albergo Cappello, a 19th century hotel in the heart of the city centre, for its romanticism and traditional style, or the Santa Maria Foris boutique hotel for its modern, plush suites. Both offer good value for money and quality rooms and are ideally located for a mosaics tour.

Unlike busier Italian cities, Ravenna’s city centre isn’t crowded with tourists or souvenir stalls and has a real ‘local’ feel. But as a largely pedestrian area, few hotels offer private parking, and visitors will need a permit if they want to access its central ‘Limited Traffic Zone’ (LTZ). Thankfully, on-street parking outside the small LTZ is cheap and easy to find with decent-sized spaces.

Teatro Comunale Alighieri
Tomb of poet Dante Alighieri

Sun, Sea and Sand

No trip to Ravenna, whether for business or pleasure, would be entirely complete without visiting the ‘Adriatic Riviera’ and, thanks to quick and easy transport links, its gem, Cervia. This beautiful resort is one of the most popular destinations in eastern Italy and, in the (extremely busy) summer months at least, boasts a vibrant Ibiza-like nightlife. The town lies about 12 miles northeast of Ravenna and can be easily reached by car, bus or train in about 30 minutes.

Cervia has a rich and colourful history and there’s plenty of things to see and do in its historic old town. But the nine kilometres of white sand, Blue Flag designated beaches remain by far its biggest draw. Here, the promenade is flanked by scores of restaurants with covered canopies, under which you can indulge in glorious fresh seafood with your feet in the pristine sand. Thousands of loungers line the beaches or for a few extra euros you can avoid the crowds on a bagni, or private beach, of which there are many.

If you’re flying back from Venice Airport Marco Polo (VCE) and have a hire car, swing into Chioggia, a pretty little fishing town on the southern entrance to the Lagoon. Known as “Little Venice”, its geography is similar to that of Venice with picture-perfect canals, boats and ancient buildings dominating its historic landscapes. The town was a finalist for the title of Italian Capital of Culture 2024 and has been named as one of the world’s 52 top travel destinations.

Marina di Ravenna

Further Information

The Ravenna Tourist Board is a source of detailed information about the region. You can explore suggested travel itineraries, search accommodation, and view upcoming events on its website.

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