Often overshadowed by Italy’s better-known cities, Ravenna is one of the most amazing cultural centres you will ever visit
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, had me captivated from the first time I arrived. To this day, it is still my favourite Italian destination, and a place I never tire of. I think 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 most of the main places of interest are within a fairly small area. I like the Hotel Diana, a modernised three-star hotel in a quiet back street, but 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, as I did), you can 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, I’ve always found it also to be a particularly social environment. I try and plan my days here so that I’m in the main square – the Piazza Del Popolo – around lunchtime. The pavement cafés and general buzz about the place are unmistakably Italian, and there’s no better place to sit in the sun, enjoy a glass of local wine, and soak up the vibrant atmosphere. The Grand Italia has the best position and a perfect lunchtime menu. It’s also surprisingly reasonable for such a delightful spot.
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, which I discovered only recently, 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 excellent food.
However, it is, of course, Ravenna's fabulous cultural treasures that have acted as a magnet to travellers for hundreds of years. It’s 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.
The best, in my opinion, is the huge octagonal Basilica di San Vitale, dating from early in the 6th century. Vast areas of the interior are covered with intricate and breathtaking mosaics, portraying images so precise I still check each one to ensure it’s not a painting. A local guide explained to me that certain tiles were deliberately placed at slightly different angles, thereby creating subtle light movements as you change your viewpoint. It’s this that seemingly brings the pictures to life. The quality is still excellent today, and I’m sure you, like me, will find it hard to believe just how many centuries these works of art have survived here.
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 transported into a strange but beautiful night, with a thousand stars glittering on the ceiling. 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. I have to admit I was so amazed by this one small building, I could have stayed for hours.
All of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites are stunning, and each is worthy of your time. If possible, I recommend you go with a local guide, as unless your knowledge of Italian history is pretty good, you’ll not get the most from your visit without some related insight.
Away from the culture, Ravenna also has a thriving events and festival season, with music concerts throughout June and July, exhibitions, and the famous Mille Miglia car race passing through. For children (both young ones and grown up ones like me!), there is also the action-packed Mirabilandia theme park close by on the coast, and if you prefer a more relaxed day trip, then the mountains are only an hour away.
Whatever it is that first brings you here, however, I’m sure you’ll fall in love with Ravenna as much as I have.