The world’s only city, with Istanbul, to have been capital three times for three different reigns or empires. But if Turkey’s capital city has changed name every time – from Costantinople to Byzantium to nowadays Istanbul – Ravenna hasn’t: this midsized town (160k unhabitants today. It was 80k at the end of WWII) in Northern Italy has gone through the mazes of history always with its original name.
Three times capital: of the Western Roman Empire, between 402 and 476; of the Ostrogoths Kingdom, between 493 and 553, and finally of the Exarchate of Byzantium, from 568 to 751. Three and a half centuries when Ravenna (here a full gallery of photographs) was the heart of the world, and kings and emperors resided in it, and called in the major artists and architects to embellish their capital city. The result is a a unique panorama no other city that size can present, some eight sites listed as UNESCO World Heritage, meeting points between West and East civilizations, between the two sides of the Mediterranean sea, the two souls of Christianity which was, in those years, rising up as leading faith.
Until the late years of the Roman Empire, Ravenna was but a navy base peopled with sailors from all shores of the Mediterranean and all that could be useful to the gigantic Roman war fleet. Which was hosted just outside the town, at Classe (Classis in Latin being Fleet). Quite a humble start, yet the very base of Ravenna’s cultural wealth: the combination of sailors from Italy, Asia Minor, the hellenic world, the Iberian peninsula, Sicily, Africa, and all places and peoples in the Mediterranean region would result, in a matter of a couple of centuries, in a unique cultural environment, and in the mosaic artistry Ravenna is so proud of and renowned for.
It is in Ravenna, not in Rome, the Roman Empire lived its final days. The emperors had abandoned the Eternal City, clearly impossible to defend and even to live in, early in the fifth century, and moved northward under the protection of the navy base. Another reason for the choice were the legends about Ravenna’s foundation: Greek and Latin historians and writers alike would date it seven generations before the Trojan war. Seven, like the hills of the Eternal City. Troja, the legendary city Enea came from, and Enea was also in the Roman pantheon. Ravenna personified continuity with Rome’s myths and security under the fleet’s umbrella. The move would only delay the final bell, though, as in 476, under attack by the Ostrogoths, the Empire fell. In the pine woods right outside the city, the last fight by a Roman empireal army: the legionnaires led by Paolo, Emperor Romolus Augustulus’ uncle, clashed with the invading army and lost. The Roman Empire was no more. Ravenna was the new center of the universe.
A visit to Ravenna requires a few days: three, if you want a close but quick encounter with its historical and artistic heritage, its eight UNESCO sites, its mosaics, plus a taste of its food. We shall not forget, Ravenna is in Emilia Romagna, the heart of cucina italiana, cuisine the Italian Style: here you can find plenty of restaurants, small and large, some really very small, where to dive deep into real Italian food, cooked and served the real Italian way. Forget about five star luxurious restaurants with teams of chefs and masterchefs: it is in smaller and less ambitious restaurants like those Ravenna can offer you true Italian food can be found. Walking the cobbled streets in the historical heart of this midsized city, strolling on pathways whose history goes all the way back to pre-Christianity era, getting lost into the beauty and charme of twelve century old mosaics, and finally sitting at the table in a typical trattoria, where locals mix with visitors and foreigners, with some of the best example of Italian cuisine you could ever find, that’s priceless!
The Eight Wonders of Ravenna
The Basilica of San Vitale, the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, the Arian Baptistery and the Baptistery of Neon, the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe, the Oratory of Sant’Andrea (or Archiepiscopal Chapel) and the Mausoleum of Theoderic: here is the list of early Christian religious monuments recognized as “of outstanding significance by virtue of the supreme artistry of the mosaic art that they contain, and also because of the crucial evidence that they provide of artistic and religious relationships and contacts at an important period of European cultural history”, as the UNESCO declared in its explanation for enlisting the sites, back in 1996. All in downtown Ravenna, with the only exception of the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe, a few minutes drive outside the town, at Classe. The local Tourist Office offers a special card that includes visits to most of these sites.
The Basilica of San Vitale and the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia can be visited together: indeed, they are one site only, included in the same compound. A visit can take an hour, maybe two, maybe even more: it’s not unusual to find visitors sitting still in a sort of Stendhal syndrome before the mosaics in San Vitale. Galla Placidia can be reached walking through San Vitale. Visits inside the small tomb are limited in number of visitors: max party of 10 at the same time. In peak days, time of permanence is limited, too: max 5 minutes per group. If you can, avoid peak days. You may enquire with the local Tourist Office the best time for a visit, it would really be a shame to lose a chance to enjoy thoroughfully such beautiful mosaics! You can shoot photographs, but be careful not to turn your flash off.
Sant’Apollinare Nuovo and Sant’Apollinare in Classe are the best examples of mosaic artistry, silent witnesses of a cultural and religious environment where East met West. Here time looses any meaning. You could not help feeling enchanted by the majestic beauty in these true masterpieces of art! A visit here can last eternally: invest a couple of hours for Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, located in downtown Ravenna, and at least three (including driving back and forth) for Sant’Apollinare in Classe. Sant’Apollinare Nuovo has a specific character: it was the stronghold in the West of the Arian theology, declared an eresy at Nicea (325 a.C.).
Where to eat
Three places, each representative of a different category of restaurants, yet all great examples of the best Italian cuisine. Romagnola, in this case. Better place a phone call and make a reservation, before going in. La Rustica is a very small trattoria, twenty seats, maybe twentyfour. Here you can find the locals celebrating family reunions. The menu changes with the seasons, but it’s strictly local and traditional. Servings are quite abundant, for a foreigner, average for an Italian. Quality is high, prices are low. Taberna Boaria offers a variety of food representative of what people used to eat in Roman times. The place is set like an old Roman taberna (tavern). That’s the scenic part of it. Then comes quality, and that is very high. Their mix of grilled meat is a must. For vegetarians or vegans, the menu offers a great choice of primi piatti, pasta of all kinds. As for the wine, their Sangiovese comes from one vineyard only, and it is bio. You’ll find a bit different, for it is served Roman style, that is with a little taste of spices. Prices are a bit higher here. Then come the third and last place, Ca de ven, both an enoteca (winebar) and a restaurant. Eating here is quite an experience. The building dates back to the 1300s, vaults are high and decorated with frescoes and paintings, walls are made of the typical midle ages bricks, and host 19th century shelves with hundreds of bottles of the best local and Italian wines. Here prices rise up a little bit, they might be out of budget for many travelers, but believe me, a dinner here is poetry!