Of all the places to visit in Italy, Ravenna isn’t the most obvious. In fact, most people haven’t even heard of it. But Ravenna has been on my travel list for nine years. Why? It has to do with the Romans.
No, not the Romans that live in Rome today. It’s the ones that lived there a couple of thousand years ago. They constructed churches, baptisteries, mausoleums, and all kinds of other buildings in Ravenna, some of which represent the best-preserved works of Roman architecture in the world.
I fell in love with said architecture when I took an art history class in Prague during my college study abroad days. Ever since then, Ravenna has been on my mind. When I planned my trip to San Marino, it only made sense to include the nearby Italian city in my itinerary.
And that is how I ended up spending my 30th birthday in Ravenna.
After departing from San Marino, my friend and I traveled to Ravenna by train from Rimini. Once again Rail Europe offered me a ticket on the hour-long journey, which ran along the coast and passed through large towns and small on its way through the Emilia-Romagna region.
When we arrived, we walked the short distance from the train station to our hotel, the Albergo Cappello. The manager had offered us a room for the night, and we found the place to be every bit as much of a historic boutique hotel as we had anticipated.
Our room was cozy and comfortable, as were the other rooms and suites we saw. Some contained impressive chandeliers, while others were decorated with green silk wallpaper and beautiful beamed ceilings.
After we checked in, we took a walk through the pedestrianized old town and found a restaurant in a plaza. There we enjoyed a lunch of pizza, red wine, and tiramisu. It was the perfect introduction to Italy, and at less than 30 euros for the whole meal, it was also a great reminder that the less touristy parts of the country offer far greater value than their better-known counterparts.
After lunch we walked to the foremost of Ravenna’s Roman sites, the Basilica di San Vitale. The building’s plain brick exterior belied the sumptuous, colorful church inside. Everywhere I looked there were stunning mosaics depicting Biblical scenes, and by the time I left my neck was sore from looking up at the myriad of tiny tiles.
Speaking of tiny, next to the church was the small Mauseoleo di Galla Placidia. Like the basilica, its low ceilings were covered with blue mosaic tiles depicting scenes from nature and scripture. The only thing not to like about it—and Ravenna in general—was the plethora of loud school children and their noisy guides. Other than that, it was pure mosaic marvel.
Our entry tickets to the basilica included several other sites in the small walled city center, including the next stop on our self-guided Ravenna tour, the Basilica di Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo. Its walls showcased one of the most amazing mosaics I’ve ever seen. The golden tiles of a line of saints sparkled in the sunlight as the white ones of their tunics shone like the light of heaven.
Nearby was the Battistero Neoniano, another small-but-impressive space that was teeming with the tiles of so many mosaics. Adjacent to it was a church and a small museum called the Museo Arcivescovile, which housed some Roman ruins and other excavated items.
After all the sightseeing in Ravenna, we had worked off the calories from our lunch and up an appetite for dinner. This took place at a restaurant called Antica Trattoria al Gallo 1909, which was located just outside of the historic city walls. Despite the modernity of the city around it, the restaurant had a historic interior and a family-run feel.
There we enjoyed a dinner of local meats, heaping pasta dishes, and fresh sorbet with fruits. Once again we were stunned at how good a value the meal was, and decided to spend our extra cash on more good food and wine. It was a good thing, too, because the next stop on our Italy tour was Bologna, a city known for its excellent culinary offerings.
So what did I think of Ravenna? Did I enjoy my time there? Did the city live up to my nine years of anticipation? It did. In fact, it exceeded all of my expectations.
Not only were the Roman sites more impressive than I ever imagined, but the food, accommodation, and intimate feel of the historic walled city surpassed anything I anticipated for a city so far off the tourist trail. And like San Marino, it would be good to keep it that way. In fact, I think we should make this whole trip our little secret. Et tu?