The deserted Italian city with culture, unbeatable food – and a beach to boot

The deserted Italian city with culture, unbeatable food – and a beach to boot

Ravenna Beach Summer Italy - Alamy

Ravenna Beach Summer Italy – Alamy

With a fascinating history stretching back thousands of years, some of the most spectacular mosaics in the world, an appealing pedestrianized area and tasty, authentic cuisine, Ravenna deserves far more than a day trip. The city Dante Alighieri chose for his exile is home to long sandy beaches, ancient pine forests and nature reserves on the nearby coast. Ancient artefacts continue to be unearthed and thankfully it’s a destination that’s definitely off the mass tourism trail.

Here’s what to do when visiting the city, along with the best places to eat and stay.

honorable origin

Elected as the capital of the Western Roman Empire by Emperor Honorius in AD 402, Ravenna maintained its status as capital for 350 years due to its strategic, easily defended position and east-facing port. After the fall of the empire in AD 476, the Ostrogothic king Theodoric the Great took command until the Byzantines of the Eastern Roman Empire (which outlived its western counterpart by almost 1,000 years) conquered Ravenna in AD 540 and held it there until 751 AD remained in power.

Sleek and welcoming, Ravenna today is a peaceful place, still with the atmosphere of safe haven that lured Dante; Bicycles whizzing through the narrow pedestrianized streets and squares are the only danger to watch out for. There’s also a thriving cultural scene, highlighted by plaques of literary references dotting the streets.

Piazza del Popolo Ravenna - Alamy

Piazza del Popolo Ravenna – Alamy

While Ravenna was originally built on a series of islands, the coastline has since retreated some five miles. The new Darsena docks redevelopment project is the right place to experience the sea in the city.

Across the station underpass (with a fascinating display of ancient artefacts discovered during construction) are waterfront walkways lined with herb beds and several bars and restaurants already established in the previously abandoned warehouses.

The new Darsena docks redevelopment project is the right place to experience the sea in the city

The new Darsena docks redevelopment project is the right place to experience the sea in the city

Magnificent mosaics

Dubbed the Mosaic Capital of the World for good reason, the magnificent, incredibly well-preserved mosaics at seven of the city’s eight Unesco World Heritage sites attract visitors who make it to Ravenna. Gold leaf on glass, lapis lazuli and mother-of-pearl are among the precious materials used for masterpieces that inspired writers such as Dante, Byron and Oscar Wilde, and also sparked the golden phase of Austrian artist Gustav Klimt.

Each of the three cultures that established their capitals here (Western Roman Empire, Ostrogoths and Byzantines) left their mark in overlapping ages and styles, among the oldest and most notable is the mausoleum built by the Empress Galla Placidia in the 5th century (although it was never actually used). as her grave) with its starry sky and the famous images of drinking doves.

The neighboring 6th-century Basilica of San Vitale is huge by comparison, but with an equally simple brick façade, and has celebrated mosaics of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian and the woman he changed the law to marry, Theodora.

The mosaics of the Basilica of San Vitale - Gim42/iStockphoto

The mosaics of the Basilica of San Vitale – Gim42/iStockphoto

Some of the strangest mosaics are in the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, built by the Ostrogothic king Theodoric, originally with Arian symbolism in works modified under subsequent Byzantine rule when Arianism was no longer recognized.

Visiting the sites with a guide (guide-ravenna.com) is the best way to interpret the symbolism and nuance, and a hands-on course in mosaic making is an unforgettable way to familiarize yourself with the skills involved. Koko Mosaico (kokomosaico.com), directed by Arianna Gallo, whose husband Luca Barberini is one of the most interesting contemporary mosaic artists in Ravenna, organizes courses in traditional mosaics lasting between two and 40 hours.

The Joys of Dante

While colorful mosaics can be seen everywhere and even adorn the street signs in the city center, there is much more to see in Ravenna. The connection to Dante is celebrated and the city is proud that the supreme poet spent the last years of his life here. There are annual events and a whole “Zona Dantesca” centered around the poet’s monumental tomb, the Dante Museum and the Church of San Francesco, where his burial took place and which has a strange crypt that is constantly flooded.

A variety of Dantesque installations have sprung up across the city in recent years, including QR codes linked to his verses to mark the important recent anniversaries of his birth in 1265 and his death in 1321. The Piazza San Francesco is also home to one of the center’s pretty inner gardens at Cripta Rasponi, not to be confused with the delightful Giardino Rasponi (Piazzetta Paolo Serra), which has the added attraction of cafe tables scattered around the historic herb garden.

The tomb of Dante Alighieri - Giacomo Banchelli

The tomb of Dante Alighieri – Giacomo Banchelli

Forest, beaches and flamingos

The village of Classe is connected to the city by a five-kilometer cycle path and has one of the most amazing monuments of Ravenna, declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco, Sant’Apollinare in Classe. The imposing church surrounded by trees has a beautiful interior with rows of elegant arches, ancient sarcophagi and even more stunning Byzantine mosaics. Nearby is the atmospheric site of the old port of Classe, which thrived first as a military port then as a commercial port and was one of the largest in the Mediterranean. Here you will also find the Museum Classis Ravenna, housed in a former sugar factory and with excellent exhibitions unraveling the complex history of the city.

The vast 900-hectare Pineta di Classe pine forest that stretches down to the coast was originally conceived by the Romans as a source of wood for boat building and was tended for centuries by the monks at Sant’Apollinare. Today it is criss-crossed by pedestrian and cycle paths and gives the beaches of Ravenna a charming green backdrop. The beaches, with their golden sands and calm waters, are understandably popular in summer. Among the many seaside restaurants here and in other resorts along the coast is Cervia, 24 km south of Ravenna, famous both for its so-called “sweet” salt and for the community of flamingos that live in the salt flats nature reserve.

Ravenna's beaches, with their golden sands and calm waters, are understandably popular in summer

Ravenna’s beaches, with their golden sands and calm waters, are understandably popular in summer

A touch of Emilia-Romagna

This part of Emilia-Romagna is famous for its warm and generous hospitality and, as with the rest of the region, the food is fantastic.

Cappelletti pasta stuffed with cheese is a specialty that can almost always be found on Ravenna’s menus, served in broth, with ragù or in other combinations such as the delicious asparagus and ham sauce at Al Rustichello (rustichelloravenna.it).

Osteria dalla Zabariona (osteriadallazabariona.com) is the place for authentic, old-fashioned flavors like roast eel, local beef or fish soup and a good selection of Emilia Romagna wines, while Ca’ de Vèn (cadeven.it) is a real Ravenna institution , popular with residents and visitors alike for its historic interior, signature wines such as Sangiovese and well-structured Albana white, and delicious traditional dishes; For an informal meal, try the ubiquitous piadina flatbread, perhaps with tangy soft squacquerone cheese.

Mercato Coperto (mercatocopertodiravenna.it) in the center of Ravenna is a beautifully restructured historic food market that is a good place to buy or sample cured meats, cheeses and a kaleidoscopic array of other produce including seafood, rare Mora Romagnola breeds.

Although locals tend to head to the coast for a feast of fish, there are a few good sea-themed restaurants in town. Try Il Mare di Felice (ilmaredifelice.com) and for an excellent wine selection and bistro-style menu, there’s BaldoVino (facebook.com/enotecabaldovino), a wine bar with charming interiors and a small courtyard garden.

how to get there

Ravenna is an hour by train from Bologna, where there is the nearest major airport, and buses run between Ravenna train station and the beach, five miles away. The pedestrian zone is easily explored on foot, although most residents cycle and there are bike-sharing schemes; There are enough parking spaces on the outskirts.

Where to sleep

In the center of Ravenna there are some quality bed and breakfast options such as Le Case di San Vitale (lecasedisanvitale.it) opposite the Basilica of San Vitale, M Club and Santa Maria Foris. The Palazzo Bezzi is a solid pick for a hotel with more facilities, including a small gym and spa, and convenient parking.

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