Mosaics, enjoying aperitivi, and the unforgettable piadina.
Ravenna is so small that it’s difficult to find any research about it. It’s the capital city of the Province of Ravenna and frankly, looks just like any other Italian city with its cobblestoned streets and lively piazzas (squares).
This is the Piazza del Popolo, which was built in about 1500 when the city was ruled by Venice, thus the Venetian influence in the architecture. Most sights are within a short walk of this square.
The city in itself is truly charming and I spend hours wending my way in and out of the stores. True to the nature of small cities however, the stores open at 9:30am, have their long lunch break starting at 12:15pm and then resume from about 5pm ‘til 8!
Most visitors to Ravenna come for the city’s stunning mosaics. Regarded the best in the world after Istanbul, they are marvelous vestiges of a time when Ravenna was part of the Byzantine empire. Truly a sight to see, these wonders have been designated as World Heritage sites.
There are two churches that are the most famous for the mosaics they contain. The first is the Basilica of San Vitale. It’s designed like an octagon, its eight sides symbolizing the number “8” and its relation to Christ’s resurrection. This place of worship focuses completely on its mosaics: there is no nave and there are no aisles – everything is directed at the central frescoed dome.
These mosaics are so exquisitely done that I get a neck ache peering up at them. It’s incredible to think about the handiwork that went into creating them.
The concentric circles on the floor apparently pose an enigma. Purported to be a labyrinth it’s said to symbolize the path of salvation. Many have written that there’s a way to get out of the labyrinth if one begins at the center, but for the life of me, I try and fail. I hope that doesn’t preclude my chance at salvation!
What a wonder it is to me that such small, unassuming structures (going back as far as 430 AD) house such magnificent creations! Adjacent to the Basilica of San Vitale is the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia. It’s so terribly tiny that visitors have to enter in groups but so mesmerizing is the sight that greets them that nobody wants to leave.
In a space measuring only 40 x 30 feet, my eye is instantly drawn upwards to this glittering mosaic of a star-filled sky. More than 800 of these five-pointed figures are placed in concentric circles around a glowing Latin cross. The various arches and panels of the room display similar patterns and are equally spellbinding.
The Art of the Aperitivo
It’s in Ravenna where I learn to enjoy an aperitivo, a pre-prandial beverage with free snacks. Starting at 6pm, bars and restaurants, mid-range to high-range, present platters of finger food, and happy hour begins. Nibbles can be as simple as tomato sandwiches, croquettes, cold pasta, etc. It’s SOP (standard operating procedure) to order a drink at the bar then forage at will.
A favorite at many cocktail tables is this scintillatingly orange cocktail called a spritz. It’s a heady and sweet mix of Prosecco, soda water, and Aperol, an Italian brand of low alcohol bitter beverage. This spritz is addicting but oh, how the hit sneaks up on me!
A specialty in the Emilia-Romagna region but of particular pride in Ravenna is the piadina. This is a flatbread made with flour, salt, and water and either lard or olive oil. Created in 1371, the piadina from Ravenna is often thicker and chewier than others served in the region. Found on the street and in cafés, it’s always cooked to order and heated on a grill. The perfect carrier for any fillings one wishes, I choose Parma ham, rucola (arugula), and squacquerone. My first encounter with this soft curd cheese, it spreads easily but becomes pleasantly rubbery when embraced in the warmth of the piadina. I enjoy this regional treat for lunch today with a glass of the local wine, a Sangiovese. I share a small table outside the café with an Italian couple. “Buon apetito,” they greet me.