San Vitale

Basilica of Sant' Appollinare in Classe
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Oh yes, the 4th to 6th Century austere churches with their magnificent mosaics are spectacular and are one of the great treasures of the Western world.  But, Ravenna itself turned out to be an unexpected delight.  One of our dear friends, Leslie, loves Ravenna and has always encouraged us to squeeze it in with the recommendation:  “When you tire of the Renaissance and need to flee it, go to Ravenna for the simple, clean, quite Byzantine architecture.”  Well, we understood what she was saying, but we really never tired of the Renaissance. Still, we did want to see the mosaics that reportedly constituted the greatest Byzantine art collection in the world.  

Ravenna, with its fine port, was important to ancient Rome, and later in the 4th Century it became the Western Empire’s main outpost in Italy.  The magnificent artistic decorations so famous in Constantinople at the time became commonplace in Ravenna.  Later in the 7th and 8th Century when the Iconoclasts destroyed all the images in the East, the churches of Ravenna escaped desecration and remarkably survive intact to this day.  We were excited to be finally seeing these treasures, but still, we were a bit dismayed; neither Leslie nor our other friends who had preceded us to Ravenna had told us what a delightful place it is to visit.

 Ravenna appears to be a fairly wealthy city.  Beautifully kept.  Very clean with elegant shops and caffés in the centro, although spared the designer boutiques of the more famous tourist centers .  A wonderful city for walking, almost all of the important sites can be seen while strolling the lovely and ancient center city.  I think two days is a minimum stay here – anything less will surely not give you a feeling for the place, and seeing the major sites will become a task, not the pleasure it should be.

The most lasting impressing we have of daily life in Ravenna is the bicycles.  Everywhere. Under everyone.  Young and old.  I guess because it is flat and compact, bicycles are particularly well adapted to the city.  The center city is very hostile to vehicles.  The extremely narrow streets wind between ancient buildings; many are completely off-limits to vehicles or are one-way and seem to go nowhere.  And of course, parking is maniacally difficult and expensive.   How fortunate for Ravenna that the insidious mopeds of Rome and Florence don’t flourish here.  It seems, too, that there is an organized city-sponsored use of bikes.  We noticed municipal racks all over town that had two built-in key locks.  People just take any one on the rack and go where they need, leaving it on another city rack.    We learned later from a resident that the bikes are in fact city owned and are free for residents and tourists alike!    We were impressed to see lots of elderly folks peddling about their chores with their baskets filled with groceries and the like.  The Green Movement needs to send representatives to Ravenna to learn a lesson, for it gives this city a wonderful atmosphere and serenity.

We arrived in Ravenna after driving down from Venice, having spent the afternoon at Chioggia where we had a wonderful lunch.  It started raining pretty hard as we left Chioggia so the drive through the Po River delta on the Strada Romea (Rt 309) was more intense that I like it on vacation.  It is a fine road, passing through the lovely preserves of the Grande Bonifica Ferrarese and the Valli di Comácchio, but there are a good number of commercial vehicles as this is the only North-South highway near the coast.   Rubber-necking the sights in the driving rain was not very enjoyable.  We passed right next to The Abby at Pomposa, not something I had been aware of.  But my newest installment of Bell’Italia Magazine has it on the cover, declaring it la regina della abbazi, the queen of the abbys!  Well. That’s what I love about Italy.  There is always a reason to go back, and Ravenna has much to go back to.

Albergo Cappello

The images of our arrival at the Albergo Cappello  remain intense.  We pulled-up in front of the hotel on the very narrow street where there is absolutely no parking.  I left Kris with the car and headed into the hotel.  There I met the lovely and ever-effervescent proprietress Francesca.  Young and beautiful, Francesca was alive with energy and ever-so eager to help.  She grabbed an umbrella and flew out to the car, grabbed our bags, and with her slight frame dragged them into the hotel.  The parking garage was down at the end of the street, she said, straight past the corner, on the dog-leg to the right. But, she cautioned, the cross street was one-way --- the wrong way.  “Don’t worry. Just wait until no one is coming.  OK.  Just follow me.”  She ran to the end of the street umbrella overhead, in front of the car, and held the traffic at bay while I negotiated the corner.  She assured me that had I followed the correct one-way, it would be too complicated. and I would be hopelessly lost.

When I returned and took a breath I was able to take in the hotel; I was stunned.  What a find!  I had read about this place in a very tiny article; it struck me as interesting. So I had taken a gamble, as I could find no other references to substantiate it.  The ground floor is taken up with a bar and quite a fancy restaurant not associated with the hotel.  The 7-room hotel is one flight up on the piano nobile.  The central large room, the traditional Venetia pòrtego, serves as a grand foyer, lounge and administrative area.  Off the foyer are four large rooms, and there are three additional rooms off an annex.  We had one of the four principal rooms of immense proportions.  Almost a cube, with the original painted beam ceiling’s height matching the length and width.  The beautiful original fresco frieze has been restored.  There are modern built-in closets, a dressing room, and a totally luxurious all-marble bath. 

This building had been lovingly restored with very expensive materials.  The polished stucco stone walls were colored in the most amazing subtle hue, taken from the restored original fresco freezes surrounding the ceilings.  The floors are wood – very unusual in Italy, especially this area, where terrazzo and other stones are almost exclusively used.  An unusual wood – very wide planked – and dyed the same subtle tone – a warm green/blue – as the walls.  The modern stone stairway coming up to the piano nobile was of such magnificent quality that you couldn’t help finger the carved banister.  The interior decoration is completely unified with eccentric modern fixtures and built-in furniture.  Very modern.  Very minimalist.  Very Italian.  So what gives here, we thought? Something is not right.  It is not possible that this kind of effort and expense went into restoring a palazzo for such a modest hotel.

Francesca held the answer, and it is a wonderful and mysterious story.  The building is a Venetian gothic palazzo, 14th C.  Its location is impeccable, on the tiny Piazza A. Costa opposite the large indoor market at the end of Via Cavour, the main shopping-passeggiata street.  You can’t get more central and convenient for a walking tour of Ravenna.  The building was in the hands of a famous and very rich industrialist, whose chemical business forms one of the economic backbones of the Ravenna area.  The industrialist went about restoring the building together with an architect friend, Valerio Evangelisti.  It was to be their home.  They hired the amazingly famous Gae Aulenti to do the interior design.   So, nothing was spared.  Everything was lavished on the creation.  The top floor, an attic under the eves (now a small conference center) was designed as a studio.  The new roof was constructed in the inverted ship keel fashion, so that the ribs would be visible from beneath – with no pillars to support.  Evangelisti designed this because the industrialist was an avid boatman.  (This room is beautiful).  The wood floor we had admired is an exotic soft wood from Canada that was milled specially for Aulenti and dyed and treated with an experimental solution from the industrialist’s laboratory.  And so much more. 

Then a tragedy.  The industrialist committed suicide.   No one knows why.  It threw the entire Ravenna area into economic chaos for several years, and the totally completed building into limbo for seven years.  Just sitting there empty.  It was then that Francesca made a proposition to a small local hotel chain to operate the building as a hotel and conference center, using much of the chain’s infrastructure.  Voila!  There it is.  This beautiful, energetic lady tending a drop-dead gorgeous hotel, in the perfect location ------ with a rack rate of $95!  I just couldn’t believe that I was staying in a place designed by Gae Aulenti, the same woman who designed the highly famous Musée d' Orsay in Paris and is now doing our own San Francisco Museum of Oriental Art.  Much of the intrigue remains.  I am sure I got the story jumbled from Francesca who’s English is not perfect.  What was the relationship between the industrialist and Evangesisti?  Why did he commit suicide?  To add to the atmosphere, while we stayed at Albergo Cappello, the news was brimming with the story that the son of Italy’s most famous and richest industrialist, Giovanni Agnelli, had committed suicide.  The cycle continued when we arrived at our next hotel in Urbino, there was a framed letter on the wall from Signora Agnelli thanking them for a warm and comfortable stay in the mini-suite we occupied.  We could only think of her grief at the loss of her only son, and the suicide of an industrialist in Ravenna whose name we did not even know.

The Cappella makes arrangements with a café across the street to serve you breakfast, included in your room rate.  It was a blessing, because we got up and out early, not tempted to lounge around in the luxury of our room.  Breakfast was lovely, and we enjoyed watching the locals come by for their morning coffee, reading the paper, and sharing some gossip.  The evening before, we had traipsed through the rain to a Francesca-recommended restaurant, the Bistro.  It was a lovely dinner in a modern restaurant tucked into an ancient building and filled with beautiful people.  While the meal was excellent, it didn’t match our desires.  It was international cuisine with a very French flair.  When traveling, we almost always prefer to eat local cuisine so that we can immerse ourselves in the culture. 

There seems to be a very strong economic connection between Ravenna and France.  There are a lot of French people about.  I am interested in understanding the historic roots of this.  The wet evening stroll served a good purpose, however.  It oriented us to the major monuments and the shopping street, so in the morning we knew just where we were heading, and it was what should be the first stop on any trip to Ravenna, San Vitale.

On to San Vitale
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San Vitale

Battistero Neoniao

Ca’ de’ Vén

Dante's Tomb
San Francisco
Appollinare Nuovo
Teatro Alighieri

S. Apppolliare in Classe