Ravenna is one of those places that you can’t believe isn’t more famous. True it’s one of many art towns in Italy’s Emilia Romagna region, but has something quite different to offer. Its churches contain a series of stunning Byzantine mosaics created in an age when this small place was the leading city of Western Europe.
If you’ve read other posts about my trip to Emilia Romagna you’ll know my base was Bologna and Ravenna was an easy train journey from there. It takes just over an hour, so further than the likes of Modena and Ferrara, but we were really glad we decided to visit this little gem.
From Ravenna station it’s just a few minutes walk to Sant’Apollinare Nuovo which is deemed to have the second finest mosaics in the city. Dating back to the 6th century the church has a tall tower which is typical of Ravenna and inside there’s a long nave and side aisles with rows of Greek marble columns.
Above them are incredible Byzantine mosaics on panels that stretch the whole length of the church. They include processions of martyrs bearing crowns – 22 women on one side and 26 men on the other. There’s also the City of Classe which shows ships in the protected harbour and the city’s monuments as well as the Palatium which depicts the royal palace.
You can buy a joint ticket at Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo which also gets you into some of the other main churches. We couldn’t believe it only cost 9.50 euros and snapped it up before heading over to San Vitale. This church contains what are regarded as Ravenna’s finest mosaics but is also really interesting from the outside, being an octagonal shape and clearly the work of some talented architects.
Inside the church the mosaics are stunning and one of the most important surviving examples of early Christian Byzantine art in Europe. There’s a lot to take in and it was much busier than the first church we’d visited (which despite being the second finest we probably preferred!). At San Vitale we found it best to just take our time and look at each part in turn to try and take it all in.
In the grounds of the church is the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, the daughter of Theodosius the Great, the last ruler of the united and peaceful empire. She had a very interesting life including marrying into the German family that had kidnapped her. She also became Ravenna’s patroness, hence there being a chapel in her name although she’s not actually buried in one of the tombs. Apparently it’s anyone guess who is in them!
Despite it being just a simple brick building it does hold some brilliant mosaics inside. The two most important depict Jesus as the Good Shepherd and St Lawrence with a flaming grid-iron. Plus the vault itself is a stunning deep blue with hundreds of golden stars in concentric circles.
With those main sights ticked off we were ready for lunch and headed through Ravenna’s pretty streets to Piazza del Popolo. This square is the centre of the city and having been built by the Venetians, it definitely has shades of Venice about it with twin columns similar to St Mark’s Square. At one end behind the columns is the Palazzetta Veneziana where the Venetians governed from, while the other end has one of those medieval leaning towers that we’d seen so many of in Bologna.
The piazza is the perfect place to sit outside a restaurant and watch the world go by. There are plenty to choose from but we opted to share a pizza and salad at Il Roma.
There are a few other churches and museums to visit in Ravenna but it was a hot day and we’d seen the best so decided to head back to the station via Battistero degli Ariani. Just a tiny place, the baptistry is tucked down a side street off Via Roma. Again the inside offers unexpected delights with a gorgeous ceiling mosaic of the 12 Apostles arranged around the baptism of Jesus.
Back on Viale Farini, the main road to the station, we spotted another church we hadn’t seen on the way in, San Giovanni Evangelista. It turned out this was built by our friend Galla Placidia in AD425 and is the oldest church in Emilia Romagna. Unfortunately it’s on marshy ground so it’s a constant battle to stop it from sinking! But it has a very pretty leaning tower, which seemed a fitting last sight for our final day trip from Bologna.
To see more photos from Ravenna click an image below to scroll through the gallery. And for other posts about my trip to Emilia Romagna visit the Italy section of my blog.