Feast your senses in Ravenna and Bologna

On our recent trip to Italy we boarded the MSC Meraviglia for a Med cruise and explored some of the wonderful surprises greeting travelers who explore Italy’s so-called “second tier” cities. In Ravenna, amazingly beautiful mosaic art dazzled our eyes with extraordinarily vivid colors. The delicious food and wines of Bologna brought our taste buds to new levels of delight.

Ravenna

What seems like every square inch of the historical buildings in Ravenna are filled with remarkable mosaics. You don’t have to be a history queen or art and architecture buff to be captivated by these works of art. Amazingly well-preserved, they sparkle with gold and vivid colors. The deep blue reminded us of Gothic stained glass.

The awe these mosaics inspire can be almost comical to observe. We saw several travelers enter a site only to stop dead in their tracks, eyes widening and mouths gaping. We’re sure we provided an equally entertaining spectacle as we took in the beauty of these ancient artworks.

Natually, San Vitale is a must-see. But our favorite mosaics were three smaller-scale attractions. The Archiepiscopal Chapel, built about 500 AD, is a tiny private room for the personal use of the Archbishop in his own palace. Within this small space, the beauty of the starry vaulted ceiling feels both intimate and impressive.

The tiny Mausoleum of Galla Placida lets you get close to the mosaics rather than squinting at high domes and walls. The translucent alabaster windows create an enchantingly mysterious light. The birds and animals depicted in the mosaic seem to pulse with life. The magical feeling of the mosaic’s starry skies are said to have inspired Cole Porter to write “Night and Day.” Seeing close-up the detail of the workmanship did not inspire either Mark or I to write a song, but we did feel a sense of awe at  the skill and talent of the artists who created such beauty centuries ago.

The House of the Stone Carpets boasts remarkable mosaic flooring resembling carpets. Although the mosaics here date from the 6th century A.D., this site is a relatively new attraction, uncovered during construction in 1993. As we gazed at the beautiful craftsmanship, we wondered what marvels of the ancient world may still lay buried, yet to be rediscovered.

Getting to Ravenna
Located south of Venice on the Adriatic, Ravenna is a cruise port. Our partner Azamara Club Cruises will dock in Ravenna on a 7 night Adriatic Wonders Voyage in September as well as a 9 night Redentore Festival Cruise in July.  The city is also easily accessible from Venice, Bologna and Milan via train.  A 20-minute bus or taxi ride from the port brings you to Ravenna’s city center.  All the attractions here sit within a few block radius of one another.
Bologna

When we mentioned our upcoming visit to Bologna to Italians in other cities, they often replied “Ah…Bologna!  The food there!” Coming from citizens of an entire country renowned for its cuisine, high praise indeed!

The first suggestion our wonderful AirBnB hosts, Franca and Mario, was what to eat! They were entirely correct! It’s fortunate that we make a habit of walking when we travel, because we sampled the city’s gustatory delights with abandon.

Food

Every meal we ate here was superb. There’s no such thing as mediocre food in Bologna, so rather than recommending specific restaurants, here are a few not-to-be-missed Bolognese dishes:

Tagliatelle with Ragu. What the Bolognese call “ragu,” we call “red sauce with meat.” Simmered for hours with beef and fatty pork, this hearty, slightly sweet sauce is exceptionally satisfying.

Tortellini in Broda (broth). Simple, but with the highest quality, very flavorful broth, this really lets the tortellini shine.  We’re partial to the cheese filling, but spinach is wonderful as well. With the tortellini, we especially loved the local Pignoletto wine. The dry version of this wine is crisp and tart with an unusual golden color and provides the perfect accompaniment to Bolognese cuisine. Deliziozo!

Lasagne. Don’t expect a multi-layered, ricotta-laden dish when you order lasagne here. The Bolognese version has fewer layers and is made either with the wonderful local ragu or a white sauce flavored with sausage. Gooey with fragrant, salty cheese, the pasta is thin but still al dente, standing up well to the sauce.

Art and Towers
Don’t miss one spectacular piece of art in Bologna, “The Lamentation” in the church of Santa Maria della Vita. You don’t have to be religious to understand Mary Magdalene’s expression of grief and horror.

A detail showing Mary Magdalene running into Christ’s tomb and her reaction to his death.

Bologna is also famous as a city of leaning towers. Note the plural. Each of these two wonders puts Pisa on the defensive. The 12th century towers sit so close together it seems downright spooky. They look as if hurled into place by some angry mythological god. We declined the offer to climb. (In fact, we even felt a bit like we were already cheating death merely standing near edifices which appear so precariously perched.)

Everywhere we went, the locals were friendly and eager to help us with directions or suggestions on where to go for the best food, and what to order. Go to Bologna for the food, stay for the people, their signature Pignoletto white wine, and more food!

Getting to Bologna

You can Bologna via a quick and convenient train ride from Venice, making it an ideal pre-or post-cruise destination.  The Italians refer to Bologna as “Fat City,” both for the quality of the food and the city’s economic prosperity.

MMOB TIP:  For high speed train service between major cities, there is a relatively new competitor to TrenItalia, called Italo. We found their high speed trains  comfortable and dependable, at times at a lower price. Italo whisked us from Bologna to Milan with minimal stops at speeds up to 300 km/hour (about 185/mph.)