Walk 131: Ravenna…Just incredible mosaics

The ‘Needs to Know’

Distance: 5.8 miles (9.3 km)

Time to walk: This is an exploration walk & you’ll want to spend time admiring the incredible mosaics. With time for a coffee & lunch, it took us just over three hours

Difficulty: Easy & all on flat, hard surfaces

Parking: We were holidaying in Bologna & caught the train to Ravenna, so this walk begins at the railway station

Public toilets: Cafes, bars, restaurants etc

Map of the route: 

We’d come to Ravenna having seen Rick Stein visit the incredible mosaics in his ‘Venice to Istanbul’ television programme

Ravenna is the capital city of the Province of Ravenna in the Emilia-Romagna region of Northern Italy. It was the capital city of the Western Roman Empire from 402 until that empire collapsed in 476. It then served as the capital of the Ostrogothic Kingdom until it was re-conquered in 540 by the Byzantine Empire. Afterwards, the city formed the centre of the Byzantine Exarchate of Ravenna until the invasion of the Lombards in 751, after which it became the seat of the Kingdom of the Lombards

Today it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site for eight buildings with their well preserved late Roman & Byzantine architecture. It’s the mosaics that everyone comes to see & no photograph can do them justice as they are simply awe inspiring

Let’s Walk!

1. Our walk begins in this beautiful town in the Via Argentario at a coffee bar & there’s plenty to chose from. What was surprising was, that although this is very much a tourist town, the prices were extremely reasonable, about £1 a coffee…

Everywhere you look is this town you’ll see mosaics. Even the street signs are made this way & the flag reminds us where we are

You buy one ticket from the shop on the left which covers all the mosaic sites. These are then stamped upon entry

2. Ahead is the arch leading into the Basilica di San Vitale, but for the general public this is the exit route…

To find the entrance to the complex keep to the right along Via Galla Placidia where, on the right’s a small church that most people simply pass by. We recommend you go into Santa Maria Maggiore

The church was erected by Bishop Ecclesius between 525 and 532, & rebuilt in 1671 in baroque style on the basis of a design by Pietro Grossi. The cylindrical bell tower dates back to the 9th & 10th century. Evidences of the former building are the original columns & their capitals, as well as the inside division into a nave & two side aisles.
The church hosts late-Renaissance paintings & sculptures

3. Come out of the church & cross the road into our first religious site. This area contains the Basilica di San Vitali & the Mausoleo di Galla Placidia, which is where we’re heading first

Because it’s a confined space, numbers are limited, but you never feel that you’re being rushed. The UNESCO experts describe the Mausoleum as “the earliest & best preserved of all mosaic monuments, & at the same time one of the most artistically perfect”

We can honestly say that nothing can prepare you for what you’re about to see & the detail of it. It’s actually hard to believe that you’re looking at mosaics

The building was formerly the oratory of the Church of the Holy Cross & now contains three sarcophagi. The largest sarcophagus was thought to contain the remains of Galla Placidia, daughter of the Roman Emperor Theodosius I. The sarcophagus to the right is attributed to Galla’s son, Emperor Valentinian III, or to her brother, Emperor Honorius. The one on the left is attributed to her husband, Emperor Constantius III

The original purpose of the building is unknown. The most common story is that the structure was built by Galla Placidia, who was a well known patron of the arts, to be used as a mausoleum for her & her family. There seems to be no evidence to prove or disprove Galla’s connection to the building

4. Come back out of the Mausoleum & walk towards the next stop…the Basilica di San Vitale, one of the most important surviving examples of early Christian Byzantine art & architecture in Europe. The Roman Catholic Church has designated the building a “basilica”, the honorific title bestowed on church buildings of exceptional historic & ecclesial importance, although it is not of architectural basilica form

The church was begun by  in 526, when Ravenna was under the rule of the Ostrogoths & has an octagonal plan. The building combines Roman & Byzantine elements & is most famous for its wealth of Byzantine mosaics, the largest & best preserved outside of Constantinople

They really are incredible & it’s hard to believe that what you’re looking at is made up of small, individual coloured stones…

5. Exit the grounds through the arch we saw earlier & turn right down Via Mura si San Vitale where you’re immediately away from the crowds &, at the end turn, left into Via Cavour

The reason we’ve come through the backstreets is on the corner you’ll find Porta Adriana, one of the original entrances into the city. In 1545, the gate was moved & rebuilt by Cardinal Legato Capoferro. The present construction dates back to 1583

Two semi-circular crenellated towers originally rose on both sides of the gate, replaced in the 18th century by two extant square bastions

6. Walk down the attractive Via Cavour. There’s lots of shops & restaurants to explore on this street

At the end’s Piazza Andrea Costa where there was a lot of building work going on, but if there was one brand of coffee you could buy here, guess what it would be

7. Turn right & walk along Via Matteotti…

…to arrive at another lovely, small square Piazza XX Settembre. Again, unfortunately there was building work happening

8. Continue to the right on Via Rasping to a much larger square called Piazza Kennedy which was renamed after John F Kennedy in April 1964. The square’s the scene of music festivals &, when we visited, was the finishing spot for a cycle race

Wandering through the city, all the time we’ve been heading towards the next important site which is the Battistero Neoniano (the Baptistery of Neon)

9. Exit the piazza to the left & ahead’s the Neonian Baptistery, which also shares its site with the Musio Arcivescoville & Cappella di Sant’Andrea, the Archbishop Andreas palace chapel

Enter the gate to the complex, show your ticket & choose the Baptistery first…

10. The Baptistery is the most ancient monument remaining in the city & was partly erected on the site of a Roman bath. It’s also called the Orthodox Baptistery to distinguish it from the Arian Baptistery constructed on behest of Ostrogothic King Theodoric some 50 years later

The octagonal brick structure was erected by Bishop Ursus at the end of the 4th or beginning of the 5th century, as part of his great Basilica, which was destroyed in 1734. It was finished by Bishop Neon at the end of the 5th century, at which time the mosaic decorations were added

The ceiling mosaic depicts John the Baptist baptising Jesus standing waist high in the River Jordan. A procession of the twelve apostles proceeds around the centre mosaic in two directions, ending with St Peter meeting St Paul

11. On leaving the Baptistery, walk round the back & enter the Museum, where you’ll find relics of early Christian Ravenna, including fragments of mosaic from the first cathedral church. What everyone, including us, comes to see is the tiny chapel of Sant’Andrea, dating from the Gothic kingdom. Just stand & be in awe of the mosaics

The museum houses the private chapel of the bishop, dedicated to Sant’Andrea, (Saint Andrew). A central feature is the little contemplation of the Word, encapsulated in the initials of Christ, & which reaffirms the Orthodox creed reigning, when the Arians had supremacy in Ravenna

Ravenna continues to amaze…

12. Leave the complex through the rear gates & walk down Via Canneti & then left into Via de Gespari, where there was a local craft market

At the end’s Piazza del Cacuti…

We’ve spotted that Dante was buried behind the square so set off to find his tomb. Cross diagonally right & walk through the gap. Directly ahead’s the Basilica di San Francesco

13. Walk through the gap on the top left side to arrive at the piazza containing the Basilica di San Francesco…

The Basilica of San Francesco was first built in 450 by Neo, Bishop of Ravenna & dedicated to St Peter & St Paul. It was later also known as the Church of the Apostles. In the second half of the 9th century & over the course of the 10th century, the earlier church was demolished to build a larger one & a tall bell tower, both of which survive

Dante Alighieri’s funeral was held in the church in 1321. Between 1500 & 1700 the church was restored again & again & Baroque altars & decorations were added

14. Come back out of the church & turn right to find Dante’s tomb…

Dante died in Ravenna in 1321, where he was in exile, just 90 miles from his native Florence. But since his works often included thinly veiled references to powerful people of the time, he wasn’t really welcome in Florence anymore, so he was interred here in Ravenna

It took a couple of hundred years, but when enough time had passed to heal old wounds & his work proved to be beloved masterpieces, Florence decided they wanted their poet back, even building a beautiful memorial for his remains

In 1519 Pope Leo X ordered the bones to be transferred to Florence, but the papal order was refused & instead, an empty coffin was sent back. The Franciscan monks who had charge of Dante’s remains had secretly removed them from the tomb, & hid them in their monastery

It’s not clear exactly when, but at some point the remains were moved again, & they ended up in the wall of the church near the tomb. It wasn’t until 1865 that the hidden bones were found during some renovations, almost 350 years after they had been quietly whisked away

15. Turn right & walk through the archway into Via G. Guaccimanni…

…turning left through Via Boccaccio

16. At the end, turn left into Via Mariani…

& then cross the road into the wonderful Piazza Garibaldi

17. At the left side of the Piazza, walk through the archway…

…to arrive at one of the city’s main squares…Piazza del Popola, which was built by the Venetians as the core of the renewal process carried out under the dominion of the Serenissima

Following the example of Piazza Saint Mark in Venice, in 1483 two columns were erected on the square in order to delimit its borders from the canal Padenna. The lion of Saint Mark was placed on top of the column next to the palace, while on the other stood the statue of Saint Apollinaris, patron saint of the city

In 1509, when Pope Julius II defeated the Venetians at Ghiaia d’Adda & conquered the city, all emblems of the Serenissima disappeared. The lion of San Marco was replaced by the statue of Apollinaris, while a statue of Saint Vitalis was placed on the second column

After the proclamation of the Kingdom of Italy, the square was first dedicated to King Vittorio Emanuele II. It owes its present name, Piazza del Popolo, to the constitutional referendum of 1946, when more than 88% of Ravenna voters (the highest percentage in Italy) chose republic over monarchy

18. Exit the Piazza along Via Diaz…

…turning right down Via di Roma towards the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo

19. The Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo was erected as a palace chapel during the first quarter of the 6th century & was originally dedicated in 504 AD to “Christ the Redeemer”

It was reconsecrated in 561 AD under the new name “Sanctus Martinus in Coelo Aureo” (“Saint Martin in Golden Heaven”) & was then renamed again in 856 AD when relics of Saint Apollinaris were transferred from the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe because of the threat posed by frequent raids of pirates from the Adriatic Sea

Go inside to see more amazing mosaics…

20. The map of Ravenna & tickets suggested that this place was the last one we should visit, but we’d seen another place…the first one after getting off the train from Bologna. So walk back down Via di Roma & turn right onto Via Giosue Carducci…

After roughly 100 yards turn left down the narrow alley to arrive at the archway leading into San Giovanni Evangelista

21. The church was built in the fifth century AD by the Roman imperial princess Galla Placida

In the Middle Ages the Benedictines annexed to it an important monastery. In the 14th century both the church & the monastery were renovated & in 1747 it was almost entirely stripped of its mosaics, the only remaining are two fragments of the original 5th century floor, with the first recorded Christian use of hooked crosses. We loved its simplicity…

Heavily bombed during World War II, the building was later restored

Coming out of the church, turn right along Viale Fanni to return to the train station. So that’s our brief look at the wonderful mosaics of Ravenna. If ever you are in that part of Italy, we must urge you to visit the town & marvel at this piece of history

Go Walk!