As wonderful as the art and architecture of Rome may be, it was nice to get a change of scenery for a day to see something outside the purview of the Roman Republic and Empire. Of course, the epic trip I’m about to relate to you was not without its fair share of...misadventures, but in the end I’m happy to have spent a whirlwind tour in—
Our Ravennadventure began on Friday afternoon, when the Centro loaded up onto our charter bus for the 5–hour trip north to the former western outpost of the Byzantine Empire. Somewhere around the 3–hour mark, on the verge of staging a coup lest we fail to get the bathroom break we were promised, we stopped at Autogrill, the Italian equivalent of a Sheetz (or Wawa, or whatever you have in your part of the country). Aside from the restrooms, Autogrill’s wondrous accouterments included a fine selection of pastas, Lindt chocolates (including a “Hello My Name is Cookies and Cream” bar which was destined to become my travelling companion for the next 24 hours), and a mishmash of the finest hits of American radio pop from the early 2000s on CD.
Bladders now empty, we continued on to Ravenna, arriving at the Hotel Italia where we would spend the night and dine together at the hotel restaurant. After dinner—and an “It’s-Your-Birthday-So-We-Get-to-Embarrass-You-with-Public-Singing” moment sponsored by our very own Anoush—several of us went out for a preliminary stroll around town. There isn’t much to do in Ravenna after 10 o’clock unless you’re an Italian youth with a bike, a cohort of Italian friends, and/or a couple packs of cigarettes, so our walk was an abbreviated one.
A 7:30 wake up call heralded the beginning of what would prove to be one very looooooong day. Following breakfast of mixed croissants, yogurt, and lunch meat (are they called breakfast meats if you eat them before noon?), we took off in earnest for the first of many visits 1500 years into the past.
The Arian Baptistery
In the shadow of a church from which I may or may not have heard Byzantine chanting emanating—they never let me go look—lies the Baptistery of Theodoric, an Arian Christian building modeled after the Orthodox Baptistery down the road. The only thing left to see here is the unquestionably wonderful ceiling mosaic depicting the baptism of Christ. Encircled by the apostles and flanked by John the Baptist and the embodiment of the River Jordan (a lingering touch from earlier antiquity), it’s a pretty darn cool ceiling...but only the first of many to come!
Basilica di San Vitale & Mausoleum of Galla Placidia
***Spoiler Alert: This was the most incredible thing in the history of incredible things I’ve ever seen.***
After a roundabout trip around the block, passing by several of the previous night’s sights (including, of all things, the LEGO store!), we ended up outside the Basilica di San Vitale. Though we were initially supposed to start at the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, it turns out you can only get to that site by going through the Basilica. So after our professors spent a moment joking about how we weren’t going to see it, we ended up going in anyway.
I...can’t tell you anything about this place other than that it was spectacular and the pictures don’t do it nearly enough justice, because I spent most of our time here with my mind directed into my camera. It’s not every day that you get to chill with the Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora now is it?
The Mausoleum of GP behind the Basilica was partially obstructed because of interior dome renovations, but we still got to see ¾ of the apse mosaics.
Following this showstopper of a site visit, we took a brief detour to the Archiepiscopal Museum for a visit to the ivory throne of Maximian and the ivory thrones of the museum water closet. Subsequently, we took a trip to the Orthodox Baptistery out back.
The clouds were starting to creep in as we headed off to Dante’s tomb, the last stop on our itinerary before lunch. After a brief biographical lesson in Dante Alighieri and a bilingual dramatic reading of a relevant passage from the Inferno, we broke for lunch just as it started to rain.
Food for Thought: if you ever happen to duck into a restaurant to get out of the rain and discover that they’re selling € 5 tortellini, don’t be surprised if you get served a microwaved meal. Just putting that out there.
(The jig was up pretty quickly. Yes, even before we heard the ding of the electric ovens in the ‘kitchen’ behind the bead curtains in back.) (I can't decide if the Hansel and Gretel metaphor or the Venus flytrap metaphor is more apt here.)
Some Other Stuff I Couldn’t Pay Entirely Enough Attention to because I Couldn’t Stomach My ‘Lunch’
Our Ravennadventure concluded with a series of brief stops to two more mosaic-adorned basilicas and the Mausoleum of Theodoric. The latter building currently resides on the outskirts of a playground and for some reason or other contains a work of modern art known to all as the INFINITE COLUMN. No, not because it’s a column that stretches out to infinity, but because it apparently took the artist 40 years to complete. Don’t ask; I don’t have answers.
S. Apollinaire in Classe marked the end of our trip, though a sizeable group of us parted ways at the Ravenna train station to continue on to Venice for Carnevale. The bus ride back proved no easier than the bus ride going, this time including no fewer than 3 stops and one very uncooperative air conditioning unit. It’s been an exhausting journey, and in a week we’ll have to do it all again when we take off for our 8-day excursion to Sicily. But despite all that (and the hilarious-yet-appetite-sapping lunch snafu), I'm happy to have seen Ravenna and all of its Byzantine glory—that's probably the only taste of Byzantium I'll be getting this entire trip.