If you mention ‘Pisa’, most people think of the leaning tower. Say ‘Venice’ and the canals spring to mind. When I told Italians that I was visiting the city of Ravenna, 75 minutes drive east of Bologna, everyone said ‘mosaics’. This city is renowned for its decorative art from the 5th and 6th centuries. Ravenna’s historic sites are so significant UNESCO has listed eight of them.
Andrea Accardi, General Manager of Terme Beach Resort, proudly told me that Ravenna had once been one of Europe’s most important places. In Roman times this prosperous port served as the capital of the Roman Empire. And tour guide Manuela Farneti explained why. “For centuries the town was surrounded by lagoons, which were connected to the Adriatic Sea. This was a golden age for Ravenna.”
Ravenna’s fortunes reversed when the lagoons silted up and the coastline retreated. Navigation became impossible but the bigger problem was the swamps, which became a breeding ground for mosquitoes. “People became too scared to visit as tales of malarial deaths spread across Italy,” Manuela told me. “Ravenna was known as the ‘tomb of tombs’ and was avoided for centuries.”
From the middle ages until the 19th century the town was a backwater and isolated. That bad luck benefits today’s tourists. Many significant historic sites have been untouched and unspoiled by development. “By the 1960s most of the swamps had been drained and there’s no malaria today,” Manuela told me.
The remaining swamp is now even encouraging visitors. This wildlife reserve on the River Po Delta is an important area for birdwatchers. Thousands of wild fowl spend the winter there or stop off during migrations, to the delight of ornithologists. The diverse range of birdlife includes tufted ducks, purple heron, oystercatchers and little terns. “There are pink flamingos, too,” Andrea said. “They appear in big groups of up to two hundred.”
Manuela walked me around the town’s main sites. We started with a story about a high profile malaria death. The Italians view the poet Dante as a national treasure, in the same way we do with Shakespeare. His Divine Comedy was one of the first works published in everyday Italian and tackled the tricky topic of what happens to the soul after death. This was revolutionary in the 14th century. Ironically, a trip to Ravenna allowed him to get answers to his question. He died here of malaria in 1321.
Dante’s tomb is on Ravenna’s Tourism Trail although it was built hundreds of years after his death and was empty at first. The monks in the monastery next door heard that men from Florence intended to seize Dante’s remains and take them back to his birthplace, so hid them. The bones were found by chance 350 years later in 1865. They were hidden again during World War Two.
Ravenna celebrates Dante’s life in the town each autumn. “We have a very beautiful celebration on the second weekend in September,” Manuela explained. “A group of Florentines come to town wearing their traditional costumes. There’s a procession and High Mass is celebrated in the church of St Francis. The visitors offer oil, which is burned continuously in a lamp that hangs down from the church dome. There is a pageant, concert performances and multiple-language readings of Dante’s work,” Manuela told me.
Locals are proud of a connection with another writer. English poet and political activist Lord Bryon moved to Ravenna in 1819, complete with seven servants and a menagerie of nine horses, two dogs, two cats, three peacocks and a duck. During his two colourful years in the town, Byron had an affair with a 19-year-old countess. He wooed Teresa away from her husband who was 40 years older than her. “We have 149 love letters that Lord Byron wrote to Teresa. They are currently housed in our municipal library,” Manuela told me. A plaque reveals how Bryon was revered in Ravenna as he backed an attempt to revolt against the Pope’s authority. Manuela translated the inscription as ‘Friend of the Patriots of Ravenna.’
Ravenna has a history of opposing rule from Rome – as Manuela illustrated with the menu over lunch. “There’s a long pasta that is twisted like a rope. It is called strozzapreti which literally means ‘strangled priest’,” Manuela explained. “This anticlerical feeling was widespread up until the beginning of the 20th century. This was known as the ‘Region of Priest Eaters’.” Many families, including Manuela’s, chose names that had no connection with the Catholic religion. “You’ll find plenty of Ravenna men named Spartacus, Galileo and Archimedes,” she told me.
There was no shortage of people wanting to enter the church when we arrived at Basilica di San Francesco. Here you can witness how Ravenna’s buildings have sunk down into the soft, marshy land. You can see the remaining top third of the doorway arch but it is near the ground, like a catflap. The church has sunk around two metres since the 5th century.
Inside, the mosaic-patterned floor is now under water. The friars have added goldfish for effect. I joined the queue of people waiting to peer inside a small window. You can put a Euro coin in a slot for a few seconds of light, so you can watch the fish swim above this historic art.
We went on to Ravenna’s oldest building, the Neonian Baptistery dedicated to the brilliantly named Bishop Neon. This octagonal, red brick building didn’t look that old or that impressive from the outside. But I’m so glad Manuela convinced me to step inside. The vibrant colours of the ceiling mosaic transfixed me. The patterns depict Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan.
The river water appeared to glisten. That’s down to the ancient mosaic-making technique. “All these mosaics were made of cubes of glass, coloured with metal oxide. They were made here and embedded into lime putty by workers on scaffolding,” Manuela said. I could only imagine how mesmerising the mosaic ceiling decoration would be when illuminated by lamps and candles, as its makers intended.
Nearby is the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia. The daughter of a Roman emperor built it as a tomb for herself, her husband and brother. As we walked in out of the sunshine it seemed quite dark but there was a calming quality to the muted light entering through the opaque, alabaster windows. Slowly my eyes adjusted to the breath-taking view above my head. 327 golden stars and a golden cross cover the dark blue dome ceiling. Photographs don’t do it justice. I couldn’t believe this incredible artwork was 1,600 years old. Ravenna Tourism’s Sara Laghi told me that this site inspired Cole Porter to write Night and Day. The imagery also influenced Austrian artist Gustav Klimt’s ‘Golden Period.’
Close by is the eight-sided Basilica of San Vitale, which is decorated with more mosaics, this time portraying Emperor Justinian and his wife, Theodora. I was astounded to hear that, until recently, these works were disregarded. Byron was more interested in the newer Baroque frescoes and referred to the 6th century mosaics as ‘a bore.’
There must be many more mosaics under Ravenna. In 1993, underground car park construction was halted after workers uncovered the remains of a private mansion’s fancy flooring. The mosaics were buried at a depth of around 7m. Over the centuries, the owners replaced the old designs by laying more mosaics on top. The oldest, best-preserved layer has been laid out in an underground display space that you access through a church.
Mosaics are an important part of Ravenna’s past but these decorative skills are still being taught at two local colleges today. If you visit Ravenna as a tourist, Luca Barberini can teach you mosaic-making. “You can choose a day session where you’ll make a small portion of mosaic using ancient techniques. Or you can come for five days and study for eight hours each day to create a larger mosaic,” he told me.
I stayed a few minutes drive from town at the Terme Beach Resort, perfectly situated between the Adriatic and a pine forest nature reserve. The small resort has developed as a health spa around its thermal waters.
Manager Andrea told me that they have hot springs and thermal pools at a constant 33°C. Access is included along with the gym. “We’ve also got a spa with a range of massage treatments and a sauna,” he explained.
Guests stay in spacious and airy, high-ceilinged rooms featuring contemporary décor and lots of light, wooden furnishings. My room had views over the forest to the rear. Some rooms face the opposite direction and look out over the sands.
”The resort has been here for over sixty years and it has been changed a lot. The whole building is made of wood, so it has a New England or Norwegian type of appearance,” Andrea told me. There’s a long decking area offering expansive views along the long sandy beach, packed with sun loungers and umbrellas. At night I enjoyed watching dozens of twinkling lights from boats sailing along this stretch of the Adriatic.
The low-rise white wooden resort has a relaxed, unfussy feel. “You come here with shorts and flip-flops. That’s it. We don’t expect you to come into the restaurant dressed like you are going to a black tie dinner,” he said. If you just want to relax, the resort has its own private stretch of sand. You can also go jogging, Nordic walking and in winter you can go horse riding.
Ravenna is a popular live music venue and Terme Beach Resort is home to the Spiagge Soul Music Festival. Spiagge means beach and the event takes place on the sand outside the resort. It’s just celebrated its tenth year.
Soul doesn’t cover the full range of music performed. You’ll also hear blues, reggae, funk and African rhythms. Festival director Francesco Plazzi told me that over 20,000 people attend the events during the festival, which lasts for almost three weeks.
If you prefer classical music, then the annual Ravenna Festival offers concerts and opera performances in historic settings around the city, including the ancient Roman port of Classe. “During the festival, all of the city becomes a stage,” Festival Director Franco Masotti told me. The main festival runs in June and July and there’s an additional autumn event featuring three operas.
This is Italy, so opera is popular! “Verdi was born near here,” Franco told me, adding, “In the second half of the 19th century, even uneducated people could sing operatic arias by heart. Opera was used to convey the liberal ideals of those fighting for Italy’s liberation.”
Franco told me that the festival team try to keep ticket prices low, even though opera is expensive to produce because there are so many people involved in each production. “It is important that a family with two children can come here without losing all of their money,” he said.
As we chatted, the warm, acoustic echo carried his voice across the empty auditorium of one of the festival’s special venues. We met inside the Teatro Alighieri, Ravenna’s stunning canary yellow neoclassical opera house. The architects responsible for La Fenice in Venice designed it. When that Venetian theatre caught fire, its restoration team visited Ravenna for inspiration.
Whether you prefer dinner before or after theatre, you’ll find plenty of choice in Ravenna, especially if you’re vegetarian. “This region is called Emilia Romagna,” Manuela explained. “You’ll find homemade pasta filled with cheese, served with sauces such as sage in butter or a meat ragu.” Manuela assured me that Ravenna’s restaurants aren’t tourist traps. Locals eat there. “Our restaurants do not offer tourist dishes like spaghetti Bolognese, which is something that Italians never eat. It is an invention,” she said. We ate at the excellent Ristorante Ca de Ven.
If you’re looking for cheap eats, you’ll find many cafes sell a flatbread made with olive oil. Ravenna’s deputy mayor for tourism, Giacomo Costantini, told me that he loves eating piadine. “It’s our gourmet street food,” he enthused. I suggested it looked like pitta bread. “But it’s better!” Giacomo replied. “You can eat it with fish, vegetables or different types of ham or salami.
Giacomo also recommended the local ice cream. You’ll find interesting flavours including ricotta, mascarpone and the traditional fresh soft cheese called squacquerone. Caramelised figs are another popular addition.
Ravenna offers a great deal of choice whether you’re looking for a spa break, sunbathing, food or music festivals. Andrea worked in London for years before he returned home so he knows how easy it is to reach Ravenna. “We are fifty minutes from Bologna Airport, which has seven flights to London each day during the summer and five daily flights all year round,” he told me.
A flight from London to Bologna takes two hours. Tickets can be bought for around £30 one way. From Bologna, transfer to the city’s railway station and board a direct train for Ravenna.
You can find out more about visiting the city at Ravenna Tourism.