City of God/Stairway to Heaven
By Dwip June 24, 2004, 9:56 am Comments Off on City of God/Stairway to Heaven RSS Feed for this post

Ravenna, 6/22/04-6/23/04

So I ended up going to Ravenna after all. I’m really glad I did. I haven’t quite figured out what pissed me off so much about Venice, but Ravenna’s pretty much the opposite. Instead of the hustle and bustle of Venice, Ravenna’s a small, quiet sort of place. It’s sort of like taking Corvallis, adding tons of really awesome architecture, and tossing it in the middle of Italy. It’s even got legions of mad bicyclists, and these bastards on scooters just itching to run you down. That having been said, I love the place.

Getting there took a while, though. For one, lugging one’s luggage through Venice is pretty interesting, for pretty Chinese values of interesting, since the walkways are very narrow, very crowded, and there were three bridges between my hotel and the train station, all stairs instead of ramps, and one of them was the Ponte di Scalzi, one of the three main bridges in Venice crossing the Grand Canal (which is to say that there are three bridges across said canal, period). I was pretty much exhausted by the time I got to the station. On the other hand, I had about an hour and a half to rest, being the early riser that I am, and having some need to check on train schedules. Because, while they run pretty much on time and are pretty clean and nice, Italian rail service is a mess. For one, no times on the tickets, though in my case that’s a good thing, and what let me get to Ravenna early. For two, the Italians have this bizzare obsession with stamping tickets at these little machines. The conductor still comes by and checks the things, but you have to get a stamp anyway. So far as I can tell, the only purpose of doing or not doing it is that it gives them a chance to yell at you if you don’t have it. *shrug* Also, unless you’re paying VERY close attention as you pull into stations, you pretty much get to guess which station you’re at, which is sort of fun. In any case, I made it from Venice to Ferrara and then to Ravenna with little event, except that it took like 4 hours, during which time I read the better half of Guns of the South for the second time. Whcih means I’m down to like three books to finish off the trip with. Ruh-roh.

Anyway. So I stepped off the train in Ravenna, and for all that small town goodness I mentioned earlier, immediately loved it. This was immediately reinforced by the 40 euro room I got at a very convenient hotel, which beats all hell out of the 150 euro going rate in Venice. Small thing, but what the hell. It gets even better, in that half the sights don’t close until 7. So, after a quick stop at the tourist info building for a better map than the sort of asstastic one in Rick Steeves’ book (more on this later), I set off.

Rather conveniently, two of the sights are pretty much right next to each other: The Basilica of San Vitale and the Tomb of Galla Placidia. These two buildings, the first more than the second, are pretty much the whole reason why I’m in Ravenna. You may have heard of them. Both are justifiably famous for the quality of their 5th-6th century Roman/Byzantine mosaics, including a much-reproduced pair of Justinian and Theodora. If you’ve read pretty much any book on Byzantine history with pictures in it, such as John Julius Norwich’s, you’ve seen those two. I’ve seen them too, in the flesh. And it’s awe-inspiring, even in the sort of dimly-lit church of San Vitale. I can only imagine what it must look like all lit up in its full splendor, because the panels depicting the two Byzantine rulers are only a small part of a vast display of marble and mosaics covering the area around the altar. I have pictures. It rocks. In fact, I have postcards, too, and a poster. If they’d stuck the damn thing on a t-shirt, I’d have one of those, too.

The Tomb is along the same lines, except that it’s lit only by light from the enterance, is very small, and the mosaics aren’t as famous. But they’re just as well-done, which since I’m the biggest fan of mosaic since like Justinian, all the other tourists pretty much got floated out of the place by the drool puddle I left. When I become world dictator, my flunkies are going to build me a big palace, and there’s going to be mosaics. Lots of mosaics. Legions of mosaics, in much the same way that Heroes of Might and Magic II’s legions of peasants pretty much got us saying legions of stuff in the first place (slight trivia fact, for those of you who weren’t playing that obsessively like some of us were). In any case, that having been done, and my hands being full, I got myself a bit lost on purpose getting back just to wander around, and then I collapsed under a particularly handy fan in my room, because damn, Italy’s hot.

Which I think, before we talk about day 2, belatedly brings us to the subject of guidebooks. I’ve had several over the course of this trip: A DK guide to London, a Rick Steves’ guide to London, a Rick Steves’ guide to Italy, and several Lonely Planet guides – England, Stockholm, and the condensed versions of Rome, Venice, and Brussels.

Of them all, I’m the biggest fan of the Lonely Planet guides. This comes with some caveats – the condensed ones kind of suck as opposed to the full country guides, and because they’re written by different people, they can vary in quality some. Nevertheless, for sheer encyclopedic depth and map quality, they’re really good to have. On that same note, my DK London guide had awesome maps, but I didn’t use it for much else. The Rick Steves’ guides are kind of funny. I didn’t use my London one at all, and the Italy one is sort of a supplement to my Venice and Rome guides. Steves gives pretty good practical advice on a lot of things, including where the hotels are and how to catch a train (though none of them are very good at telling you how to get to and away from budget airline airports like Skavsta or Treviso). Less so on sights, because he only includes some of them, and they’re the ones HE likes, which are not necessarily the ones I like. And his maps are teh suck. Horrendously teh suck, in fact. Which means I’m generally wandering with his guide and some suppliment. In Venice, I mostly used my LP guide. Here in Ravenna, I’m using it and the tourist info map, because I didn’t get the LP Italy guide (oops). So I think the moral of the story is, pretty much, buy Lonely Planet country guides. Don’t get city guides, and maybe pick up a Steves’ guide just for the good hotel advice. And somewhere in the middle of things, you’ll realize there’s something the guide doesn’t cover. But as the Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy tells us, don’t panic.


And here we are on day 2. It’s actually only like 3:00, but I’m taking a break, because it’s freaking hot outside, and retreating to our nice cool rooms is the Italian thing to do. That and smoking, because as I was walking down the street, pretty much everyone simultaneously pulled out a smoke of some sort, which is sort of strange because I haven’t really seen a lot of Italians smoke. But whatever.

I start by quoting myself: “…but Ravenna isn’t exactly worth two days EITHER.” I said that originally based on Rick Steves’ descriptions of Ravenna, in which he lists like 4 places and then leaves. Let me be the first to tell you he’s a liar. I mean that in the nicest possible way, but still. There’s something more like 30 places listed on the tourist map, and a lot of them are really cool – I’ve been to a decent chunk of them now.

I started the day by walking up to the Mausoleum of Theodoric, which is another one of those places you’ve heard about if you know anything about late Roman history. Ostrogothic fellow. Ruled here for a while. Built a big white place for his body to camp out. Impressive sort of place, really, even though there’s essentially nothing in it anymore. Still. Still.

I’m actually ahead of myself, because the very first place I went was the Rocca Brancaleone, the old Venetian castle, from back in 1450 or so when they ruled the place. It’s a park now, and you can wander around and camp out under trees and do fun things like that. Just another one of those European sorts of things to do.

From there, I headed over to the tourist info booth to figure out how to get to the Basilica of S. Apollinare in Classe, which it turns out requires a short bus ride. That having been figured out, and me not wanting to take the bus just yet (probably will later), I popped over to the Basilica of S. Apollinare Nuovo a bit down the street (confused yet?), which is a pretty small church that just sort of sits there saying “Yeah. Northern Europe? You know those cathedrals you’re so proud of? Yeah. We have little crappy churches here cooler than that. We’re just that cool.” And really, it’s just one of those places, but then I’m this enormous mosaic fan, so I’m biased. But really, I ask you, what’s wrong with covering your entire church in lavish mosaics? Not to mention the assorted Rennaisance stuff that got added later. In its own special way, it’s even more fantastic than San Vitale.

That having been done, and me feeling like going to church some more, I walked on down the Via Dante Allighieri to the tomb of the man himself, which is pretty small, but nifty nonetheless. That having been done, I walked into the Franciscan church to check out the flooded crypt with mosaics and goldfish. Not much there, but it was free, so.

You’d think I’d be done with going to church for the day, but no. Ravenna’s all about going to church. I went over to the cathedral, where I checked out the baptistry, which is pretty much floor to ceiling hella cool mosaic, with the odd marble relief thrown in some contrast. Then I went over to the Archepiscopal Museum, which is small and dinky, but has a few mosaic fragments and an awesome ivory chair nonetheless.

And then I needed a break from church, so I went on back to San Vitale and ducked into the National Museum. It’s a pretty confused sort of place, stuffed into various corners around the San Vitale cloisters, and it’s really hard to navigate. But it’s full of nifty old stuff. Unfortunately, and you get this a lot in Italy (less so in Stockholm, but moreso in Brussels), most of the signs were in Italian, so I got to nod my head a lot and say “Yup, that there thingy sure is purty, yessir.” Ah well. Worse is the language barrier between me and the staff, wherein they talk at me very rapidly in Italian, and I smile, nod, and ask them if they know English. It works something like this:

Random English Knowledge Table (1d6):
1 – They speak English. You have some clue what they were saying.
2 – Broken English. Lots of gesturing and pointing with random sentences thrown in.
3 – Broken English. Whatever it is you say, they think is something totally opposite from what you meant. Increase time spent talking by 1d4 minutes.
4 – No English. Lots of gesturing and pointing and random Italian words.
5 – No English. Lots of gesturing and pointing and random Italian words.
6 – No English. Lots of gesturing and pointing and random Italian words.

In a place like the National Museum, you get a lot of that. But I eventually got through, with the help of one of the guards who DID speak English, and was very intent that I saw everything – so much so that he came through half the museum and directed me when I looked lost at one point. Was also very polite, shook my hand, and generally went out of his way to make me feel pretty good about life and Italy. Whereupon, roasting and dying of thirst, I went to McDonald’s (hella handy in the central piazza), wherein ordering a coke is easy enough, but the ordering of fries involves efforts not unlike the proverbial monkeys with typewriters producing Shakespeare. But I finally got my food, and life was good. And then I came back here. I still have a few hours to do stuff, because everything’s open until 7ish these days, but it already feels like a full day. Went all over town. Saw a bunch of awesome stuff. Took like 50 pictures. I can definitely say I went there and bought the t-shirt. Not the t-shirt I wanted, with Justinian or Theodora on the front, but a t-shirt nonetheless. I also bought the poster, as it happens, which actually IS Justinian. I also discovered the handy zipper on my suitcase which gives me like a whole two inches more depth. Bonus.

Rather later, after my break, I went back out with the goal of going over to Basilica of S. Apollinare in Classe finally. As it happens, I almost immediately got sidetracked by the Arian Baptistry (“Wait. This is right next to my hotel. How did I possibly miss it?”), which so happens to be almost completely bare except for this hella cool mosaic dome (you may at this point have noticed something of a trend in the sights here). Distracted by the pretty pictures, I then ran up to the Domus of the Stone Floors or something to that effect, which has…crap mosaics. Well, not so much crap mosaics as Roman mosaics, which are nice, but unlike some other Robin Hoo…mosaics, Byzantine mosaics use gold and shiny stuff, and look cooler than plain old Roman stone. Still, this one house basically makes the Fishbourne mosaics look like a bunch of amateurs did them (which in some cases isn’t too far from the truth, but still). In amongst assorted other parenthetical digressions, me and my domus combo ticket then went over to the Domus of the Triclinium, which is pretty small and has REALLY bad mosaics, but has the unique feature of being smack in the middle of an old medieval church, the decoration of which partially survives. So you get mosaics and Rennaisance frescos, which doesn’t clash nearly as bad as you might think. Still, black and white mosaics are kind of teh suck after you’ve seen San Vitale or S. Apollinare.

That having been done, I desperately needed a drink, and guess what was the handiest place? Yup. McDonalds’ again. Not its fault it’s in the central piazza, is it? Well, I guess it is, but still. So I got some Coke and a McFlurry, which was so cold it made my teeth hurt, but that just makes it better when you’ve been a human BBQ all day. And I should at this point mention the McDonalds’ radio station playing in there (who knew there was one?), which varied between Bruce Springsteen, random Italian rock music, and what sounded for all the world like an Italian cover of Total Eclipse of the Heart, which struck me as so bizzare that I got the hell out of there, came back here, and started listening to Californication, which is much much more not strange.

Though, unfortunately, it makes me want to play Sim City. While you all sit at your computers saying “What the hell?” I’ll explain that at one point while playing SC2k or 3k, I started playing that song on repeat over and over. So now I associate the song with the game. *shrug* Lot of songs like that, really, that you associate with games, other songs, whatever. In fact, I’m listening to what’s essentially a remake of one of my mix tapes, because I remembered all the songs on it. *shrug*

In any case, there’s Ravenna. It’s been fun, and I wish I had a bit more time and energy, but tomorrow it’s on to Rome. Ciao.


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