Raving about Ravenna

Embrace the detours. ~Kevin Charbonneau

This entry could have had several titles.  It could have been “The trip where everything started out disastrous then turned amazing,” or “If the world had ended, we would have been the first to meet Dante,” but that just goes to show how many things we crammed into less than 24 hours of being in Ravenna.  Let’s just say I’d be okay with living in Ravenna.

I dragged two other unsuspecting comrades along with my on this weekend trip.  Neither of them had ever heard of it before.  The only reason I’d heard of it was from history classes.  I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but had done my best to plan this trip as much as I could.  We left on Friday morning to catch our 9:33 train to Bologna, where we were going to change trains to Ravenna.  We had about 30 minutes between trains, and our train was 10 minutes let getting to Orvieto.  Providing the train continued to run on time, we would still have plenty of time to make our next train.  I wasn’t worried.

At least I wasn’t worried until we were about ten minutes away from Bologna.  Those last fifteen minutes suddenly turned into half an hour.  The Italian train system will undoubtedly continue to boggle my mind until I leave here, but for some reason, every three minutes the train would come to a stop and sit on the tracks.  No explanation.  You’re just late.  I kept glancing at my watch.  We had been supposed to arrive in Bologna at 12:36.  I hadn’t been expecting to get there until 12:45.  But when 12:50 came and went and we still weren’t moving, I began to wonder. We didn’t get into Bologna until about 1:10, meaning we had missed out 1 o’clock train.  Bummer.

But alas, one of the beauties about the Italian train system is the invention of regional tickets.  Regional trains stop more times that intercity trains, but cover a shorter distance.  The tickets that you buy for them can be used for the train on any day for about two months, so we merely had to wait for the next train leaving Bologna to Ravenna.  Which, or course, was two hours later—we had two hours to wait in Bologna.

I really have no desire to return to Bologna.  I’m sure it has its qualities, but the parts that we wandered through outside of the train station made me like Bologna about as much as I like New York City—hardly at all.  We finally found a little tiny park to sit down and eat the food that we’d brought for lunch.  This is where the excitement continued.  In my efforts to be a conscientious packer and spender on the trip, I had bought bread and peanut butter in Orvieto to make sandwiches for lunches.  I opened the bread, only to find that it already had a hole in it and was sufficiently moldy.  Strike 1.  I reached for the bottle of coke that I’d brought and started to unscrew the cap.  It took me about two seconds to realize that the sudden spray I was feeling was not coming from a spring shower or a sprinkler, but the exploding coke in my hands.  Fortunately, on of my companions had brought paper towels.  Strike 2.  I reached for the bananas that I had packed.  Somehow, within the four hours I had been traveling, they had gotten beaten up enough that only about half of each banana was edible if you didn’t want to eat banana mush.  Strike 3.  I traded peanut butter for bread with one of my friends and had lunch.

We finally caught the 3:06 train to Ravenna, and as soon as we got off the train, we were all glad that we’d come.  You walk out of the train station, and across the street is the main road to the center of town.  Everything we wanted was within walking distance, and the trees lining the road gave it a sort of Hollywood boulevard-ish feel.  It was a welcome and beautiful contrast to Bologna.  We walked to San Vitale, one of the main basilicas in the city, got a combined ticket for five of the places, and went it.

In all my visiting historical places around Italy, I think Ravenna wins for keeping historical stuff most authentically preserved without turning it into the massive tourist attractions.  Its still a draw for tourists, but the sites are on such a smaller scale that it’s not quite part of the same tourist industry.  And going into the Basilica of San Vitale wasn’t just going in the church—it was the entire grounds that were kept up to walk in.  Inside the church there were astounding mosaics—the ones I’ve always seen in my textbooks—and a pretty spectacular ceiling.  Within the same complex, there is the Mauseleo di Galla Placidia.  Again, small, but beautiful.  Ravenna is a living testament of how quantity is not always better than quality.  It was a tiny room, but kept dimly lit so that it definitely had the mausoleum feel.  And of course beautiful mosaics.

After hanging out in the courtyard area for a little while, we decided to go exploring around town.  The architecture of the whole town felt a little bit like you weren’t in Italy any more.  We meandered down to the church of San Francesco.  The walls were astoundingly white, which came as something of shock after all of the brilliantly frescoed walls of most of the churched we’d seen in the past.  The exciting (?) thing about this one was that the floor isn’t the original floor.  Since the church had been built, it had sunk into the porous ground and parts of it filled with water.  Underneath the floor of the apse, there’s a small window that looks into the original floor, covered with water, and with fish swimming in it.  They must be highly religious fish.  We also found the Duomo, which again starkly contrasted the other Duomos I’ve seen.  The façade was simple, and it was distinctly smaller than any other Duomo I’ve been in.  It felt more like an actual church that was used for things than a building that people are trying to make a museum but still use for worship things.

We found a cheap place to eat dinner (3 euros for 2 slices of pizza?  Yes please.), and decided to search for our hostel.  Our hostel, unfortunately, was not in the center of town, but was on the other side of the train tracks.  It had gotten good ratings on-line, and was mentioned in both Rick Steves and Lonely Planet, so I had faith in its quality, but faith began to falter as we kept walking into walked looked like sketchy city Ravenna.  Suddenly, I wasn’t so sure about the quality of this hostel.  Once we got there, though, all faith was restored.  Ostello Dante lived up to it reputation as a good hostel for an awesome price, although it was kind of creepy to have quotes from Dante’s Inferno painted on the walls.

The next day involved visiting another smattering of places.  After stumbling upon the ruins of Emperor Theodoric’s palace, we continued to Dante’s tomb, then went to visit the Neonian baptistery, a museum, and about three more churches in the town.  After we’d seen about every place within walking distance, we camped out in front of San Francesco and Dante’s tomb and played Go Fish—if the world ended that day, we wanted to be the first to see Dante come up out of the ground.  Unfortunately, my winning streak from the night before had failed to carry through.  After chilling for a couple hours, we took one more walk around the city and got on the train to head back in the middle of the afternoon.  The train ride back was much less eventful than the one coming.  The only remotely terrifying thing was that the screen told us that our train would be leaving from a platform that already had a train on it, hence making it physically impossible for both trains to be on the same track at the same time.  I’m proud to say that I had enough Italian to ask another women was in the world was going on—not in so many words, but she got the point and told me she was just as confused as I was.   She said some other things that I didn’t catch, but I’m pretty good and putting on the “I understood every word you said” face.  We even made it back in time to catch the funicolare up the cliff, which was the icing on the cake.

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