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Mosaic marvels in Ravenna, a small town in Italy

Costa Rica

Ravenna is the answer to the ‘Where next after the big Italian cities?’ question. This A-list town is awash with wonders, including the finest mosaics you will see anywhere, in some of the oldest churches. The writer is smitten by this North Italian gem, where everything is within walking distance in a traffic-free centre, from Dante’s tomb to some of the best fast food around. Picture (Church of San Vitale) - the author, September 2008.

Just the ticket

Trains to, and in, Italy are fast, comfortable and easy to book (Rail Europe). And they sure beat driving. Leave London St Pancras mid-afternoon for Paris and the Milan sleeper, and next morning Italy beckons. Staying in Venice, we took an easy day trip to Ravenna, down below the river Po. (You need Venice Mestre station for the fast trains. Ryanair’s coach from Treviso airport also calls there.) In 49BC Julius Caesar gathered his forces at Ravenna before crossing the Rubicon. The Roman Empire took its last stand here – falling to that very civilized barbarian, the Goth king Theodoric. We travelled there across the flat, fertile fields of Emilia-Romagna, the Apennines to our right, in a smart new double-decker train. A display showed our speed and the temperature, inside and out.

Mosaic marvels.

Ravenna’s astounding mosaics are a wonder of the world. How fortunate that artists used this long-lasting medium 1500 years ago rather than paint, which would certainly have degraded long ago. UNESCO gave World Heritage listing to eight of the town’s early Christian buildings, mainly for ‘the supreme artistry’ of their mosaics, on floor and wall. They are wonderfully well preserved, sumptuous stretches of gold and blue and purple. For the power of its mosaic display, few churches in Italy match Ravenna’s Church of San Vitale (begun by the Goths, finished by the Byzantines in AD547). Vivid images of the superstars of their day, the Emperor Justinian and the Empress Theodora, with crown and jewels, blaze out of the distant past, alongside Old Testament stories including Abraham’s feast, and Abel’s sacrifice.

Ancient colours

See all of this astonishing concentration of ancient religious buildings, and their radiant decorations, with a single ticket (see website below). Next door to San Vitale are the earliest of the town’s mosaics, in the simple brick Mausoleum of Galla Placida (sister of the Roman emperor Honorius), built around AD450. I liked the detail beyond the serious religious subjects - two collared doves drinking at a fountain, the prolific pot plants, the Good Shepherd’s muscular sheep. A handy map guided us on around town.
Star exhibit at the museum is the C6th ivory throne of Archbishop Maximian. Each of the two baptisteries (Neonian and Arian) has a dome featuring its own mosaic blockbuster, of Christ’s baptism with a supporting cast of Apostles. The powerful Mausoleum of Theodoric is entirely empty. Sant Apollinare Nuovo Church rounds off the tour with more outstanding mosaics.

Fast food haven

They recommended Ca’ De Ven (pizza and pasta restaurant with wood-panels, painted ceilings, and many good wines by the glass) but it shuts on Monday, the day we visited. Don’t panic. Back to Piazza Andrea Costa, in the historic Centre, is Bizantino. This clean and bustling self-service restaurant is excellent for a quick, economical bite. You can really believe the ingredients came fresh from the adjoining market that morning. We filled our plates with wonderful grilled vegetables and chicken, cappelletti (‘little hat’ shaped pasta), and home made bread and puddings, with a small bottle of Lambrusco the zippy local wine (served chilled). €25 for two.
We shopped at the excellent Upim food store (like an Italian Marks & Spencer), 150 Via di Roma, for our picnic on the train back to Venice.

Salute the poets

Dante’s Tomb is a quiet, restrained little resting place for the author of the Divine Comedy, one of the masterpieces of Italian (or any) literature. Look for the little oil lamp hanging above the tomb. It burns permanently, paid for by the city of Florence in penance for ejecting the poet in 1372. In a little garden next door is the mound where they temporarily buried Dante’s remains in 1944, as protection from possible Allied bombing.
There is a literary bonus in the adjoining square of San Francisco. A plaque marks the house where Lord Byron lived in 1819 and 1820, in one of the happiest and most productive periods of his life. The poet, madly in love with 19 year old Countess Teresa Guicciolo (married to a much older man), followed her here and wrote some of his best work.

Fine frescoes.

If time is short, squeeze in a stroll through the traffic-free town centre, then find a café under the Venetian Palace in the Piazza del Populo. If you have longer, take the train (1 hour) down the Adriatic coast to Rimini for the town’s new attraction, ‘Little Pompei’. The remains of this 2000 year old house of a Greek doctor (Surgeon’s Domus) unearthed during work on the town’s gardens, opened to the public in 2008. Javelin marks on the floors suggest a violent clash before the house burnt down around 200 AD. Frescoes discovered under the rubble (look for the three brightly coloured fish), ceilings and walls with floral and animal motifs, and a view of the harbour, are displayed under an glass panel.
Finds, including some remarkable surgical and chemist’s items, are on show in the museum.

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