Monday, May 23, 2005

Day 7: Ravenna

Rain reappears this morning. After breakfasting with our friends who are off to Ferrara, we grab umbrellas and walk in a steady drizzle to the Basilica of San Vitale. San Vitale is a 6th century church that contains spectacular mosaics from the the glory days of Ravenna, when it was the seat of the government for the western part of the Roman Empire. The mosaics cover almost every available surface in the front of the church and the colors and the detail are stunningly beautiful. Even on a cloudy days, the biblical scenes, the portraits of the apostles and other historical figures and the large mosaic of Christ overseeing it all are vibrant and fascinating. And the floors are amazing also....beautiful designs that cover virtually the whole church. We have a book that identifies and describes the different mosaics which helps me avoid the sense of frustration I sometimes feel when visiting churches and museums.

By the time we leave the basilica, the rain has stopped and the sun is shining again. The next stop is the Mausoleum of Galla Placida, the daughter of Theodosius the Great, the last ruler of the united Roman Empire and a woman involved in all types of intrigue and adventure . Her mausoleum is a small building.....dark and dimly lit...but the ceiling and walls are decorated with beautiful mosaic designs and rich colors as well as portraits of the Apostles and two biblical of a young, beardless Christ with a flock of sheep and another of St. Lawrence.

Leaving the mausoleum, we stroll through the town and stop at the covered market, where we window shop and eventually buy some cherries, which are now in season. I am frustrated in Italian markets because I like to pick out my produce piece by piece which is not allowed in Italy. So the cherries, while good, aren't as high a quality as they might have been if I could have hand selected each piece. Our last stop for the morning is the Neonian Baptistery, next to Ravenna's Duomo. The mosaics in this building, which was built over a Roman bath complex, are also very well preserved and depict the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River (similar to the scene in the Arian Baptistery that we visited yesterday) as well as portraits of the Apostles . The baptismal font in the center of the building is from the 13th century and is large enough to fully immerse adults.

We head back to the hotel and get the car; our Swedish friend Ulf (we had met him in 1994 while waiting to buy tickets in Pompeii and have kept in touch since then) is taking the train from Faenza to spend the afternoon with us in Ravenna and we are going to the train station to pick him up. We have a nice lunch sitting outside at La Gardela (we had eaten there in 1994)--a very nice risotto with asparagus and grilled sausages for me, a less successful risotto with vegetables and a very good veal scallopini for Ulf. Diana's meal is unremembered right now. We have a nice local white from the hills outside Faenza and enjoy a relaxing, friendly meal.

After lunch, we get in the car and head out for another basilica just outside town on the road to Rimini....Sant'Apollonaire in Classe. We are also on the lookout for a place to buy a small ceramic plant holder that Ulf wants to bring back to Sweden. The basilica of Sant'Apollonaire is large and quite austere but very well lit. The large mosaic that fills the apse is an allegorical vision of the transfiguration of Christ....the dominant color of the Mediterranean landscape is a soft green and but there is a remarkable cross set in a blue circle. There is a lot to see--more biblical scenes and the portraits of important church figures, graceful Greek columns, etc. but the soft colors and designs in the apse command most of the attention.

On the way back to Ravenna, we stop at a flower shop but they don't have exactly what Ulf is looking for.....we are directed to a nursey on the road to Porta Marina. I guess "directed" is too strong a word--we are pointed in a direction but get no or address or telephone number, except that it is "not too far away". In any case, we reach the beach without passing anything that looks like a nursery. However, as we are heading back to Ravenna, Diana notices a building supply place with terra cotta urns on display. We pull in and inquire, the staff pulls out catalogs and searches the computer, and Ulf is given a choice of several pieces. The ceramic plant holder is wrapped and boxed, everyone shakes hands and we are on our way back to Ravenna.

Our plan is to drive back to the center of town, stroll around for a while, perhaps sit in a cafe and have a drink and then take Ulf back to the train station. The plan is foiled by the extremely devious and frustrating Ravenna traffic plan which apparently won't let cars reach the center of town. Whenever I think I am heading in the right direction, we invariably reach an intersection where all but the one street is one way against us and we are forced to circle back to try another route to the center. After four or five false starts, I park and we walk the last ten minutes to reach the center.

We walk through the historic center of Ravenna for about a half hour and then head back to the car to drive back to the station. Since we had driven there earlier in the day, I don't expect to have any problem getting there. However, whenever we get in sight of the station, the road we are driving on decides to change direction and send us the opposite way. We finally do reach the station, after seemingly circling it for a half hour and almost making a complete circuit around Ravenna. We say good bye to Ulf and head back....again taking a very roundabout and frustrating route to reach the parking lot close to the hotel.

We decide to eat in a restaurant very close to the hotel (no more car adventures this day); Vecchia Ravenna is on the next street. It is a pretty, well lit trattoria with very few customers on this Monday night. The staff is friendly and we eat very well and pay very little. Diana has the menu of the day, highlighted by a delicate yet very flavorful risotto with four cheeses and while I have lasagne with meat sauce (very nice but not as good as Diana's risotto) and a beautifully cooked rana pescatrice (monkfish) delicious roast potatoes and a not very good dish of spinach. With a half liter of house wine, the bill came to about Euro 40.00 (a real bargain).

It is a short walk back to the hotel through deserted streets. Tomorrow we are off to Venice.


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