topics: Parco del Delta, environment, Basilica di San Vitale, Emperor Flavius Honorius, Ravenna, Ostrogoths, history, Dante; jump to dispatch

BikeAbout Log


Rider Notes: May 6-7, 1998

Food of the Day: the "arrabbiata" sauce for pasta

Any kind of pasta "a l'arrabbiata" is one of our favorite ways of eating what has become a nightly dish. A spicy blend of tomatoes and chili peppers (and sometimes some sort of meat), an "arrabbiata" sauce reminds us of the spicier food we found in North Africa and the Middle East.

Person of the Day: our host families in Ferrara

Corinne and Padraic stayed with Giulio Rivaroli and Nancy De La Rosa. Giulio and Nancy did everything they could to make the BikeAbouters comfortable and welcome, even though Giulio was home from work with a painful injury to his eye, and neither Corinne nor Padraic can make themselves understood very well in Italian. Nancy is a native of Columbia. She moved here with her son many years ago and has settled in well. We would like to thank both her and her husband Giulio for their warmth and hospitality.

Anthony and Ethan, in turn, were at the home of Giuseppe and Anna and their young son Nicolo. Having arrived so late to Ferrara the night before, Giuseppe and Anna were still wonderfully generous to the weary duo. They not only prepared a delicious meal of assorted food for Ethan and Anthony to eat (they had all sat down earlier), they stayed up late talking with them about BikeAbout, travel, Italy and many other things. Anna (seen here with Nicolo click to view a photograph), a teacher of Italian at a local secondary school was very intrigued by BikeAbout and we all regretted not having been able to arrange earlier for a visit to her school. Giuseppe click to view a photograph, whom we learned would have to wake up at 5 a.m. despite the late hour, works in the covered market of Ferrara at an impressive natural food stand called Natural-Mente. click to view a photograph He has strong hopes of being able to move into his own space one day. We would like to thank Giuseppe, Anna, and Nicolo (for showing us the cardboard skeleton in the living room and other toys) for their generosity, their understanding, and the 0.9-kg (2-pound) bag of excellent cookies that kept us nourished all day.

Place of the Day: Basilica di San Vitale, and Mausoleo di Galla Placidia, Ravenna

As mosaic aficionados, we made a special point of visiting the Basilica di San Vitale click to view a photograph and the Mausoleo di Galla Placidia click to view a photograph, both located in the center of Ravenna.

The Mausoleo di Galla Placidia is a small mausoleum located just behind the Basilica di San Vitale. It dates from 5th century AD when, for a brief time, Emperor Flavius Honorius made Ravenna the capital of the Roman Empire. By the beginning of the 5th century, when Honorius came to power as Emperor of the Western Roman Empire, mismanagement, barbarian invasions, and economic collapse had all but destroyed the Western half of the Empire. The Emperor had lost control of most of the area outside Italy, and would soon lose control of most of Italy as well. With few means available to prevent attack, Emperor Honorius moved his capital to Ravenna because the insect-infested swamps (the Pineta, see the Tech Fact of the Day) that surround the town made it much easier to defend. The invading Visigoths (the latest barbarian tribe to arrive) agreed, but they simply bypassed Ravenna and sacked Rome anyway. Honorius could do little about it.

When the Emperor died in 423 AD, he had only nominal control of any part of the former Roman Empire. After his death the situation just got worse. Ravenna soon fell to the Ostrogoths, another barbarian tribe, who, under the leadership of a Christian king, Theodoric, managed to wade through the swamps and capture the city. However, Ravenna remained an important center. Remarkably civilized (read Romanized) for a barbarian, Theodoric established Ravenna as the capital of his united and peaceful Ostrogothic kingdom in Italy.

Where was I? Oh yes, the mausoleum is one of the lasting fringe benefits of Ravenna's short stint as imperial capital. Built to hold the tomb of Galla Placidia, half sister of Emperor Honorius, the mausoleum contains Ravenna's oldest mosaics. Though less spectacular than those in the Basilica, the mosaics benefited from a bit of showmanship. Besides the narrow door, which is usually blocked by a tourist or ten, the only light in the tiny mausoleum comes from small windows whose panes are made of alabaster instead of glass. click to view a photograph The mausoleum is so dim the mosaics are barely visible. That is, until the guard at the door has allowed as many people as can fit into the very small building, shut the door, and signaled for someone to turn on the halogen lamp in the center of the mausoleum. The switch from darkness to the glitter of beautiful mosaics draw appreciative "oohs" and "aahs" from the packed house. Of course, until the light was turned on, the experience was akin to being stuck on a crowded subway platform with all the lights turned off.

The Basilica di San Vitale is a much bigger, and boasts much more impressive mosaic work. Indeed, this church, built between 521 and 548, contains some of the most beautiful mosaics we have seen on the whole journey. To understand why, we must take up our history lesson from where we left off.

For much of his long and impressive reign, the Ostrogoth King Theodoric enjoyed the support of the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine Empire. However, shortly after the death of the great Ostrogothic King, a new Emperor came to power in Constantinople - Justinian I. You may recall Justinian as the man responsible for building some of Constantinople's most important and enduring buildings, such as the Hagia Sophia. You may also remember that Justinian had grand dreams of reconstructing the Roman Empire by conquering all the Western territory that belonged to the Empire at its height. Although he never succeeded in entirely restoring the Empire to its former glory, his armies did conquer most of Italy, including Ravenna.

Which brings us back to the Basilica di San Vitale and its beautiful mosaics. As luck would have it, Theodoric had begun the construction of the Basilica in 521, but the church was not completed until after the Byzantine army had conquered the city in 541. Thus, the most important mosaics in the Basilica are products of the Byzantine presence.

Some of the mosaics depict biblical scenes, such as Abraham about to sacrifice his son Isaac while three angels sit at a table nearby. click to view a photograph Another depicts the Old Testament tale of Melchizedek's gift to Abraham. Just to the right in the photo, are mosaic portraits of all twelve apostles, adorning an archway over the chancel. click to view a photograph Mosaics in the dome show the adoration of the lamb of god. click to view a photograph Unfortunately our photos can only give an idea of the size of the mosaics, but they barely begin to suggest the dazzling use of color. click to view a photograph

The most famous and most stunning mosaics are those on the walls flanking the apse of the Basilica. Many consider Byzantine mosaics some of the finest ever produced; those in the Basilica di San Vitale certainly support this assertion. The mosaics depict the Byzantine court at the time of the church's construction. One wall shows the Empress Theodora (partially obscured behind scaffolding in this picture click to view a photograph), her husband the Emperor Justinian, along with Archbishop (Saint) Maximinian, who just happened to have consecrated the basilica in 547. Not only do these mosaics show what sort of clothes the members of the Byzantine court wore, but because of the remarkably details of the faces of the characters depicted, we also get a good idea of what Justinian and Theodora looked like. In some ways the mosaics seem more like paintings.

Tech Fact of the Day: Parco del Delta

The Parco del Delta, as the Natural Park of the Po River Delta is called, comprises one of the last undeveloped stretches of coast on the entire Italian side of the Adriatic. The swampy lowland parts of the coast used to be covered with pine forests, but today the Pineto (pine forest) di Classe - through which we rode - combined with the Pineto San Vitale is practically the last remaining forests. Much of the rest of the land along the coast is used for farming, industry, and tourism.

Group Dispatch, May 6-7
photograph of Padraic

In the morning, we all took our leave of our host families and met at Gianni Stefanati's office to talk some shop and learn about Ferrara. (See more about this in yesterday's Person of the Day.)

While Ethan and Corinne tried, among other things, to get connected to the Internet, Anthony and Padraic made a round of some of Ferrara's bicycle shops. They ended up visiting three, gawking at the beautiful Italian bikes on sale, picking up some much needed supplies, and (after one shop owner heard about our trip) some neat gifts. They returned to find Corinne and Ethan watching a video, which featured Ferrara as one of the premier cycling cities in Europe.

Between the visit with Gianni Stefanati, the bike shops, and the video, we did not end up leaving Ferrara until after 1 p.m. Figuring that the ride to Ravenna was a flat 75 km (47 mi), we had assumed that it would take only a few hours. However, we did not calculate that by taking a circuitous route along lightly trafficked and beautiful small roads, we would increase the distance by over 20 km (12 mi). And we did not expect the ferocious headwind. With gusts blowing relentlessly off the sea, the ride became increasingly grim, particularly since we had to get into Ravenna before the Wednesday night chat 'n' debate began.

After a long hard ride we finally arrived, and were met at the train station by, Andrea Novacchia, one of the FIAB representatives in Ravenna. This was just twenty minutes before the scheduled beginning of the chat and we were concerned... even more so after Andrea informed us that the nearest Internet café was 5 km (3 mi) aware. However, to our great relief, the youth hostel to which he led us actually had a computer set up that supposedly had Internet access; we would not have to race off. Unfortunately, despite our considerable expertise and best efforts, we could not successfully connect. And by the time we had figured out that it would not work, the chat was already half over. We called in our apologies and promised to make sure about the chat the next time.

After we had exhausted our efforts to get online, we showered and took off for dinner with Andrea. Andrea took us to Ravenna's nearby seaside port/beach area for pizza and pasta, and told us a little about Ravenna. Evidently, the citizens of Ravenna feel a bit isolated from the rest of Italy. Despite its economic importance, as a major producer of natural gas and as an important agricultural center, no major highway connects Ravenna to other cities, nor is it a major rail hub. Andrea felt that there were also historical reasons for the isolation dating back to the time when Ravenna was purposefully chosen as the capital of the Western Roman Empire for its isolation (see more about this in the Place of the Day). However, we saw no signs of such isolation the next day, as we waded through swarms of school groups in the city center the next morning. Italian schools are in the process of taking field trips and Ravenna appears to be a favored location. Mixed in with huge busloads of German tourists, they produced a "people-jam" of great magnitude at the Basilica di San Vitale and the Mausoleo di Galla Placidia (our Place of the Day).

After digging through and then finally escaping the crowds at the Basilica (for more about our visit here and the magnificent mosaics, see our Place of the Day) and picking our way through the heavy bike traffic in the center of town, we made one last touristic visit - to the tomb of Dante Alighieri, perhaps the greatest writer ever to use the Italian language. His allegorical poem, The Divine Comedy, which recounts Dante's imaginary journey through Inferno (Hell), Purgatory and Paradise (Heaven), is a classic of western literature. Though BikeAbout's voyage has (so far) been confined to earthly realms, we appreciate Dante's work as one of the worthiest efforts of a fellow traveler. His "tour" minutely describes all that he saw and experienced so that others could travel along with him. To give you a taste of his work (and its possible relevance to our own), here is a passage from the beginning of the first part, "The Inferno."

In the middle of the journey of our life,
I came to myself within a dark wood
where the straight way was lost.
Ah how hard a thing it is to tell of that wood,
savage and harsh and dense.
The thought of which renews my fear.
So bitter is it that death is hardly more.
But to give account of the good, which I found there
I will tell of the other things I noted there.

Though Dante was Florentine by birth and identity, political difficulties forced him into exile from his city. He spent has last years in Ravenna, and, despite pleas for his remains from many other Italian cities, his tomb is still here, tucked away in a quiet spot just next to the Chiesa San Francisco. We stopped only long enough to take pictures of his mausoleum click to view a photograph click to view a photograph click to view a photograph and the earthen mound click to view a photograph constructed to protect Dante's remains from bombing raids during World War II. click to view a photograph

We rushed our visit to Dante's tomb because it was already after 1 p.m. and we had to push on to our next destination, Rimini. Although only a short 50 km (31 mi) by the main road, we knew our ride would be longer since we had no intention of taking the main road. We followed the bike path suggested in an itinerary given us in the tourist information office. Much of the first 20 km (12 mi) of our ride was on narrow dirt paths through a Pineta, or thick pine forest ("dark wood where the straight way was lost" - see the Tech Fact of the Day), or along the gravel roads alongside canals strewn with fishing nets click to view a photograph. We enjoyed the scenery, but the rough surfaces slowed us down considerably.

When we finally returned to paved roads, we found other things to slow us down: urban development. We seemed never to escape the traffic lights, stop signs, and cars. This part of Italy's Adriatic coast has practically become one big resort. The towns have become so developed that they now blend into one another leaving no gap between. Our only condolence was that the streets, lined with souvenir shops, pizza restaurants, and hotels, were not as snarled with traffic as they would be in a couple of weeks when the summer season begins.

We finally ended our trip through the strip of resort towns at Rimini, the granddaddy of Italian Adriatic resorts. Though its beaches are often polluted, Rimini has become famous, or rather infamous, for its discos and crazy nightlife. It has a reputation (reinforced by condemnation from the pope himself) for being sort of a "sin city." Given this, it is not surprising that Rimini is one of Italy's most popular resorts. Fortunately there was no danger of the BikeAbouters being sucked into such iniquity. Indeed, the pretty main square and our quiet little hotel gave no indication of a descent into the Inferno. Besides, tired, and anticipating a longer ride the next day, none of the BikeAbouters expressed any interest in anything other than sleeping. After dinner we returned directly to our hotel (well, with a short stop for gelato), and collapsed into our beds. The rumor that Anthony and Padraic snuck out and boogied till dawn is simply not true. Avid readers of these pages know that the two innocents in question, unlike rave-royalty Corinne and disco-daddy Ethan, are virtually incapable of boogie.

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