I was last in Ravenna about a decade ago during a year long stay in Bologna as an Erasmus student. Ravenna is sort of a funny destination for the traveller. It’s relatively small and not many would rate it alongside cities like Rome or Paris in terms of things to see and do, and yet Ravenna was once the capital of the western half of the Roman Empire; i.e. it was the residence of the emperor – between the years 402 and 476 in the period after the empire had been split into two independent but cooperating eastern and western territories, with the eastern half being ruled of course from Istanbul/Constantinople.
And yet despite its illustrious past, when you walk around Ravenna today, it feels like you could be walking around any mid-sized northern Italian town – nice old streets with the odd standout piece of architecture but nothing particularly special to draw your attention. And then you turn a corner and you come upon the Basilica of San Vitale and your impression of the place changes in an instant – you are transported back into a world of high art, craftsmanship, and court intrigue. Ravenna is famous for the mosaics that were produced to beautify the surroundings of the line of emperors who lived there during its high period and many of them are included as characters in the mosaics. These images amount to a sort of cartoon strip, which mix life at the highest echelons of the Roman class system with narratives educating its viewers in Christian morality. As a glimpse into this early teasing out of the parameters of the Christian Church, they are fascinating documents.
Whenever I am on the Adriatic coast – which isn’t that often really, I feel like I’m on holidays. Italy is for the most part not blessed with great beaches except that is for here and maybe in Sicily. Towns like Rimini are synonymous with summers and beach life and as we drove along the Lido di Spina, a thin strip of land separating the lagoon just to the north of Ravenna from the sea, my mind was cast back to happy summers spent as a kid along the Wexford coast. Here it’s all tamarisk trees, caravan parks, ice cream parlours and sand dunes and if you squint your eyes just right, the two coasts don’t seem a million miles apart.
Our visit to Ravenna was short, as we had to continue on down the coast towards our final Italian destination of Ancona, where we would depart on a ferry for Greece the next day. As this road trip has gone on, we have tended to use Google Maps less once we are out on the open road. For one, it’s a killer on the phone battery and we’re always not a hundred percent sure if it’s taking us on a better route than would be the case if we just followed the signs. Anyway, leaving Ravenna we did turn on Google Maps and it turned out to be one of those situations where we shouldn’t have. You hear a lot about the state of Italian politics and its economy on the news and for the most part this all seems a bit abstract and distant. But when you drive its motorways and spend your time in the fast lane because the slow lane is filled with enormous potholes, Italy and its problems really hit home. When a so-called first world country can’t keep its main roads in good working order – and especially when there are a lot of tolls on the main roads – you have to think that there are serious societal problems underneath.
The final run into Ancona took in some beautiful scenic countryside. This land has deep time and deep history associated with it and its hard to miss it even when you flash by at 130km/hour.