A day in Ravenna

Ravenna was the last, short-lived, capital of the western Roman Empire (from 402 to 476). Following that it was the home of the Ostrogothic kings of Italy, before a brief return to the Eastern  empire’s fold. It’s known for its mosaics heavily influenced by that empire in Constantinople. So when a chance of a day trip came up, I grabbed the opportunity.

The city stands near the Emilia Romagna coast, and is an easy hour long train ride from either Rimini or Bologna.


It’s also the home of Dante’s tomb – the author died here while in exile from his native Florence.

But mosaics  are what most people are here to see.

Our first stop was the Basilica of San Vitale. This is one of five sites which are accessed via a combined ticket (purchased across from the entrance to this particular basilica).  Its stern brick exterior fails to prepare for the wonders within.

The brick basilica was built in 548, and contains some of the best-preserved Christian mosaics of the era.  As well as stunningly vivid depictions of Biblical scenes, we get an insight into the court of (Eastern Roman) Emperor Justinian I, and his wife Theodora.

Back outside, and in the same complex stands the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, one of the most intriguing imperial women. She was the daughter of Theodosius (who’s depicted in the famous Obelisk of Theodosius in modern Istanbul), sister of western emperor Honorius, wife of Constantius III, and mother of Valentinian III. She was also married – willingly or not isn’t clear – to the brother of Alaric the Goth, who sacked Rome in 410. The two had a son and lived briefly in Barcelona.

It’s unlikely that she was buried here, despite some myths around a body visible in one of the coffins.  That met a grisly end thanks to a schoolboy and a match. Instead, it’s more likely that she’s buried in Rome under old St Peter’s Basilica. It’s an impressive little site, with its blue mosaics repressing the sky, and Egyptian alabaster ‘windows’ providing natural light from outside. It’s a small space so wait for the space between tour groups if you’d like to have it all to yourself!


We also took the opportunity to visit the National Museum of Ravenna right beside San Vitale. Its cool cloisters were a welcome retreat from the heat – and a reminder that this was once a medieval monastery attached to the basilica. It also housed an old pharmacy in situ, as well as artefacts from more ancient times

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After a lunch of local piadine, and a mooch around a modern day mosaic workshop/shop, we were back on the ancient mosaic trail again, and our next stop was the Neonian (or Orthodox) baptistery. The octagonal brick building was built by Bishop Neon in the early 5th Century. Its colours remain stunningly vivid.

It stands beside a more modern Duomo – while it started life at around the same time as the little baptistery, its present appearance dates from the 18th Century.

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Our final stop of the day – and getting closer to the station again – was the Basilica of St Apollinare Nuovo.  Devoted to the rather tenacious and long-suffering patron  saint of the city, this is another art history classic that was the heart of the city’s post Roman history. Founded by Ostrogothic (and Arian) King Theoderic, it would later be adapted by Byzantine ruler Justinian, who would try to remove all traces of the earlier court’s heretical beliefs. Could those ghostly hands on the pillars of the ‘palatium’ (palace) below be those of Arian courtiers?

A day wasn’t enough to see everything that this little city has to offer, but it was a great opportunity to get a flavour of some of the wonderful mosaics.

Have you been to Ravenna – what was your favourite site?

Finding Ancient Rome in Rimini

The Roman city of Ariminum isn’t hard to find in modern day Rimini.  I loved these  signs dotted around the city centre, allowing the visitor to see where they are in relation to the ancient sights.

“Here” on the map above is the still impressiv Arch of Augustus dating from 27 BC.  The Arch marked the entrance to the Via Flaminia, the main road between Rome and Milan (in what must have been quite a circuitous route).

It also represents the start of the city’s Decumanus Maximus. which corresponds to the present day Corso D’Augusto, the city’s main shopping street.  A few minutes away stands the more open area on the map representing the ancient Forum.  Nowadays it’s the beautiful Piazza Tre Martiri, lined with cafes and shops- keeping that ancient Forum’s spirit alive!

That forum was also the location where Julius Caesar is reputed to have addressed his troops after crossing the Rubicon. He stands guard over the piazza (which used to bear his name). No-one seems to quite know that river’s current course, although there are villages in the area that have “Rubicone” in their name.  I like to think I crossed it on a train journey between Rimini and nearby Ravenna (where Caesar addressed those troops before crossing the river).

At the other end of the Corso stands the Bridge of Tiberius, like the original arch built in Istrian stone,. Remarkably, buses and cars still trundle along it daily.  

The bridge was begun during the time of Augustus, but was completed by his successor Tiberius.  It’s now over a canal – leading from the seafront and passing the lighthouse and port area shown in my previous post. But it origially stood over the river Ariminus (which gave the city its name). Nowadays that river is known as the River Marechhia, and its course bypasses the city.

Nearby, and also on the Corso d’Augusto was a great new addition to Rimini, Arimini Caput Viarum, a nod to the ancient city’s strategic road position. This was a fanstastic video depiction of hte city’s development, and its fate after the Fall of Rome.  As a free attraction, it was definitely a great way to while away part of an afternoon. 


We were also lucky enough to get free entry to the Museo della Citta which houses some great artefacts – including a model showing what the Arch of Augustus might have once looked like. While it’s impressive now, imagine that the imrpression that gleaming white stone would have had on weary travellers.

In the square outside stands a wonderful site, only uncovered in 1989 – the Domus del Chirugo (or surgeon’s house).  This is a beautifully presented and airy site protected by a modern building.  It was home to an ancient surgeon (his implants are on view in the museum), but the area suffered in the era following the decline of the western Empire.  Those beautiful mosaic floors were integrated into other buildings, and even a medieval cemetery.

Have you explored Roman Rimini and what was your favourite site?

Rimini

Rimini sits in the province of Emilia Romagna on Italy’s north western Adriatic coast. For those of us coming from the UK, it’s an hour and a half away from Bologna Airport. It’s  a seaside city based around the ancient  city of Ariminum, so it has a historic centre.complete with ancient, medieval and more recent buildings.

The town’s administrative centre from medieval times, Piazza Cavour is dominated by the medieval Palazzo Dell’Aregno and a statue of Pope Paul V, reflecting the city’s place in the Papal States.

And ancient heritage (the subject of a future blog) isn’t hard to find either, including the impressive Arch of Augustus.

The town’s railway station divides that historic centre from the seaside area. At the latter,  there are miles and miles of golden beaches. The ‘Bagni’ system makes this a little different from British beaches. While access to the seafront is free, the area further back from the sea has sub-divided into handily-numbered organized spaces, with ombrellini for hire, changing cabins, cafes, playgrounds and all kinds of sports activities.



Meanwhile, an 18th Century lighthouse stands guard over the canal port area,  with its boats, panoramic wheel and fishermen enjoying the view over the city’s marina.

So, much more than a seaside city and lots to explore.

The Basilica Di Superga: more royal Turin

The Basilica of Superga stands on one of the hills that surround the city of Turin.  It’s a strategic viewing point, used by Duke Vittorio Amadeo of Savoy to give the best view of the field of play during the 1706 siege of Turin.   A promise made at an existing small shrine led to the building of what would later become an impressive basilica, complete with royal apartments and royal tombs.

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The basilica’s hill top location can be reached via a 20 minute tram ride from the suburb of Sassi up the steep slopes.  Top tip, get there early for the hourly departure, as the tram can only carry 40 people at a time.  I felt for the poor horses pictured in the station previously performing what must have been an arduous task.

Once up the hill, you can see as far as the distant Alps, and get a feel for the type of viewpoint that helped Vittorio Amadeo break that siege.  The site was full of local Sunday day trippers, picnicking and taking advantage of the great Spring weather.

Filippo Juvarra, architect of many of the sights in royal Turin itself designed this breathtaking basilica, which was eventually completed in 1731.  Apparently, it may have been influenced by Rome’s Pantheon, with more than a dash of baroque grandeur thrown in.  Entry to the basilica itself is free (although we didn’t get much of a chance to look round as there was a mass in progress).  We were able to use our Turin & Piedmont card for a 45 minute tour of the royal tombs.  We could also have chosen a tour of the royal apartments.  The tours themselves are in Italian, and I was able to understand just enough of the fascinating stories of dukes and duchesses, kings and queens.

Royal Turin 

Turin was the home of the Savoy Dukes who would later become kings of Sardinia before becoming Kings of a united Italy in the 1860s.  Naturally then royal palaces such as the Palazzo Carignano (now home to the Risorgimento Museum) above abound!

The Palazzo Reale below dominates one end of the Piazza Castello. It’s home to not one but five museums, as well as being attached to the Duomo and the Chapel of the Holy Shroud. Its origins lie in the 1500s, but owes its current appearance to the work of Sicilian architect Filipo Juvarra.   Its grand staircases lead to a succession of grandly-decorated rooms, and eventually the Armeria Reale, or royal armoury.


Across the square lies the Palazzo Madama, the first home of the Italian Senate, but originally a medieval castle housing the Dukes of Acaja. It’s medieval austerity at the back, but more baroque grandeur at the front, with yet another spectacular Juvarra staircase.

The Duomo of Turin

Torino is known for its Duomo which periodically hosts the Sacra Sindone or Holy Shroud.  This rather austere building is one of the city’s only Renaissance era buildings. Dedicated to St John the Baptist, it was built in the 1490s, while the accompanying campanile tower is a few years older. Like the Duomo in Milan, that frontage is pure marble. 


Inside, most make for the display case that holds the Shroud when it’s on show. It was brought here by the Dukes of. Savoysso naturally enough there’s more than a passing nod to their heraldry in the golden chapel. 

Finding Ancient Rome in Turin

Modern day Torino is built on the site of the Roman colony, Julia Augusta Taurinorum. Originally home to the Taurini, a people of Celtic origin at the gateway to the Alps, the area would have been first in the firing line of Hannibal’s incursions.  The Roman colony was formed as Augusta Trurinorum in the early days of Augustus’s rule in the first Century BC as a castrum or military camp.  Even today, flying over the city, the city’s grid-like Roman structure is still visible, and long straight streets predominate.  The city hasn’t forgotten its Roman heritage, as the Quadrilatero Romano area continues to be a popular part of town.

Augustus continues to look out over his city: here he is at the so-called Palatine Gate, the northern exit to the city (today a taxi trip to the airport goes right past), looking over the city, with the Duomo (home to the Turin Shroud) and its medieval campanile looming large.




The gate itself isn’t original, but has seen reuse throughout the centuries, including as a prison and a music school.  A painting at the Museo del Risorgimento shows how those buildings could have looked in the 18th or 19th Centuries.

The Archaeological park which houses the Gate connects directly to the Musei Reali complex of museums, specifically the palace housing the Museo Archaeologico and the Galleria Sabauda.  From here, the remains of the city’s Roman-era theatre can also be viewed.

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Inside the Archaeological Museum, the city’s antique past is atmospherically presented in a partly underground setting.

   

The spectacular Marengo Treasure, found in the 1920’s in a field outside the village of Marengo, is also displayed.  A selection of silver treasures, it includes this bust of Lucius Verus.


Other treasures include spectacular mosaics such as that of Orpheus below.

  

Palazzo Madama, just outside the Musei Reali complex, was the first home of the Italian senate and marks the site of yet another gate into the city. This one connected directly to the city’s main streets.

And inside, descending the landmark medieval towers of the original building, one can see the Roman era tower’s earlier structure.

And the Roman influence doesn’t end there. The city’s Egyptian Museum was playing host to the ‘Il Nilo A Pompei’ exhibition, tracing the relationship of Greece and Rome with Egyptian imagery and religion – with some spectacular finds from Pompeii (normally exhibited in Naples), including frescoes from the House of the Golden Bracelet.





Have you explored Roman Torino? What was on your must-see list?

Five days in Turin

Earlier this month, I got the chance to spend a short break in Turin/Torino.  There tend to be two reactions when one says they’re going here – either “oh, the Shroud”, or “what’s there, and why are you going?”  It’s not easy to find an up-to-date guidebook in English, but we knew from our visit to Milan when we had contemplated a side trip, there were things that we wanted to see here – including the National Automobile Museum, and the royal palaces.  This was, after all, the first capital of a united Italy, and home city of the Dukes of Savoy/Kings of Sardinia who would go on to lead Italy before it became a republic.  Royal palaces aren’t hard to find.


  

So much more than 5 days could be filled here, and upcoming posts will explore a few of the sites that we had the chance to visit, armed with the great value 72-hour Torino & Piemonte card.

The city is known for its baroque splendour, long covered streets (with a grid plan nodding to the city’s Roman era heritage), and the spectacular Mole Antonelliana, home to the National Cinema museum.


  
  

Have you been to Torino – what was your favourite place to visit there?

Riverside Rome

A short walk between three of Rome’s bridges in January provided plenty of time to explore some beautiful settings.

Ponte Vittorio Emanuele II was our first stop en route to the La Befana Parade. As it was a public holiday, the lack of traffic and brilliant blue skies both made for perfect photo opportunities.

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From the bridge, the Castel Sant’Angelo stood out magnificently.

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As did the dome of St Peter’s, and the Church/complex of Santa Spirito in Sassia. The latter was founded by Saxon King Ine of Wessex, who abdicated from his throne to be nearer to the tomb of St Peter and the Vatican.

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Moving along the river to Ponte Sant’Angelo, dominated by Castel Sant’Angelo…

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A bridge dominated by Bernini’s magnificent angels

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And from there along Lungotevere Tor di Nona to Ponte Umberto I, where sights include the Palazzo di Giustizia.

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A year and a half later and a different season saw us back at Castel Sant Angelo in time for sunset over St Peter’s and the Ponte Sant Angelo…

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Titanic Belfast

IMG_1220In the summer, I visited Belfast’s stunning Titanic Exhibition. It’s housed in a spectacular building that references the White Star Line logo (and the iceberg which destroyed this vessel). A trip here opens up the social and economic history of Belfast, as well as exploring how the Titanic has entered popular culture. The city’s industrial heritage is never far away, with the iconic Samson and Goliath cranes from the Harland and Woolf  shipyard standing guard.

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It’s located in a part of Belfast which has seen many changes since I lived not that far away in the 1990s. This whole area has seen much regeneration, with the Titanic studios being the Northern Ireland home for Game of Thrones filming (the yellow and grey building below).

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Back to the stunning exhibition building, which opened in 2012, in time to commemorate Titanic’s 100th anniversary.


  

It’s set right at the head of the slipway from where the Titanic and its Harland and Woolf sister ships were launched.

  

Inside, it’s a cavernous creation that recreates the early 20th Century Belfast of the Titanic’s construction.

 
  

Then it’s in through the (real) gates of Harland and Woolf to learn more about how ships were built. A replica of the gigantic Arrol gantry takes the visitor to a dark ride through the shipyard, where there’s a sense of the conditions in which the shipyard workers toiled. 
  

The difference between first and third class accommodation on the ship is vividly bought to life with replica cabins, while the ship’s eventual sinking is handled with sensitivity.


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Titanic’s role in popular culture and the aftermath of its demise are also explored. There’s an atmospheric double height cinema experience that showcases the resting place of the vessel and the exploration still going on there. Very poignant.  The site also looks forward, exploring how the city’s shipbuilding industry has evolved, and to the future of marine exploration.

All in all a fantastic visit with one ship’s construction used as a jumping off point to learn more about Belfast and much more.

It’s also possible to have a walking tour of the area, including the drawing office where Titanic and its sister ships were designed, and the tender ship for Titanic, SS Nomadic.  We decided to leave those for our next visit!

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