With a staggering eight Unesco World Heritage sites, Ravenna is an amazing place by anyone’s standards. The former Byzantine city, and capital of the Western Empire, has a magical blend of new and old. Its captivating elegance has a way of making you feel relaxed and comfortable, from the first time you set foot along its graceful pedestrianised streets. It’s somewhere that enchants and astounds its visitors, and that you’ll never tire of.
Its charm lies in the endless variety of things to do and see. There’s art, history, culture, cuisine, festivals, coastline, and, of course, the wonderfully warm and friendly people.
The first thing you need to do is find somewhere central to stay. Ravenna was designed before the conception of traffic, and thankfully the majority of the ancient centre is still kept relatively free of motor vehicles. This makes it a perfect place to explore on foot, and the majority of the main places of interest are within a fairly small area. The Hotel Diana, a modernised 3-star hotel in a quiet back street, is just a couple of minutes gentle stroll from the city centre. The rooms are spacious, and the food excellent. If you are lucky (or you ask), it’s possible to get a room with a balcony overlooking the impressive tower of the San Giovanni Battista.
Even though it’s the enviable heritage that draws most visitors here, Ravenna also boasts a particularly sociable environment. Try and plan your days so that you can be in the main square – the Piazza Del Popolo – around lunchtime. The pavement café’s buzz with that unmistakably Italian atmosphere, and there’s no better place to sit in the sun, enjoy a glass of local wine, and soak up the vibrant scene before you. The Grand Italia has the best position, and a perfect lunchtime menu. It’s also surprisingly reasonable for such a delightful spot.
The square is exactly as you would imagine the heart of an historic Italian city to be. All the buildings have warm red and yellow hues, which are perfect for the equally warm climate. A line of arches stretch the length of one side, forming an impressive arcade that gives some welcome shade, and two Romanesque columns stand proudly holding statues that keep watch over the proceedings.
In the evening you are spoiled for choice amongst Ravenna’s many first class restaurants. Food is important in this region, and the local cuisine is something held in high regard by all who try it. A variety of seafood from the Adriatic, fruit and truffles from the mountains, and excellent local wines from the plains, all combine to make choosing from the enticing menus as difficult as possible. One particular favourite is the Cinema Alexander Ristorante. Situated next to the Porta Sisi (The city gate at the southernmost end of the pedestrian area), it is, as the name suggests, a converted cinema. Its art-nouveau style, with films projecting on the walls, and huge pictures of famous actresses from the days of black and white movies, creates a perfect atmosphere to match the exquisite food.
But it is, of course, the fabulous cultural treasures that have acted as a magnet to travellers for hundreds of years. Ravenna is often called the Capital of Mosaics, and a few hours spent exploring the principal sites will soon leave you in no doubt as to why.
In the 5th and 6th centuries Ravenna was one of the most important cities in the world. It had already been the Roman capital of the Western Empire when the Goths took a shine to it, and it was further enhanced under their Christian control. Then, along came the Byzantines who made it their showpiece city, building lavish religious structures decorated with some of the most awesome mosaics the world had ever seen.
General consensus points to the best being the huge octagonal Basilica di San Vitale, that dates from early in the 6th Century. Vast areas of the interior are covered with intricate and breathtaking mosaics, portraying images so precise they could be paintings. The colours still leap out at you, and even now look like they were constructed only a few months ago. Local guides explain that certain tiles were deliberately placed at slightly different angles, thereby creating subtle light movements as you change your viewpoint. It’s this simple but brilliant technique that seemingly brings the pictures to life. The quality is still excellent, and you’ll find yourself disbelieving just how many centuries these works of art have survived.
Close by, but around 100 years older, is the tiny Mausoleum of Galla Placidia. Be prepared to wait for your turn to enter, as only a few people at a time can fit into this darkened dome. A curtain is hung across the door to keep out the light, so that when you enter you are transformed into a strange but beautiful nighttime scene, with a thousand stars glittering on the ceiling above. As your eyes become accustomed to the low light, you begin to see the magnificence of the mosaics covering almost the whole of the interior. Gaze in amazement, but gaze quickly, as soon your time will be up, and those next in the queue will take their turn.
All of the Unesco World Heritage Sites are stunning, and each worthy of your time. If possible use the services of a local guide, as unless your knowledge of Italian history is pretty good you’ll not get the most from your visit. Much of what you’ll see is not readily appreciated without some related insight.
Away from the culture, Ravenna also has a thriving events and festival season, with music concerts throughout the summer, exhibitions, and the famous Mille Miglia car race passing through. For children (both young, and grown up ones!), there is also the action packed Miriabilandia theme park close by on the coast. If you prefer a more relaxed day trip then the mountains are only an hour away, with vast areas of national parks and riverside treks to discover.
Whatever it is that first brings you here, however, you’ll be sure to fall in love with Ravenna. It’s far more than your average city break.