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Published on Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Take the sleeper train back 15 centuries

Could be platform 9 3/4?

A byzantine action-packed food & culture weekend by train to Ravenna and the heart of Romagna

There I was enjoying Lyon pistachio sausage, mashed potatoes in chives, with mustard dressing followed by a selection of delicious macarons at the amazing Fin de Siecle Train Bleu restaurant  admiring the view of the trains in Paris's Gare du Lyon.  And the disappointing email arrived. What no sleeping car on tonight's train to Bologna? I'll have to sleep in a 6-berth couchette cabin! How terrible, particularly as I'd been looking forward to first class comfort on a romantic night journey.

I'd left London St Pancras on Eurostar  to Paris Nord had a superb journey this far, everything had been comfortable in the extreme, so the email was unwelcome to say the least. But, as it happened, all was to be well - the comfort-level was to continue thanks to a superb train manager called Clothilde who hailed from from the Ivory Coast - I was to travel all the way to Bologna overnight in a six berth couchette cabin - all to myself on the Thello night train.

And what a relaxing journey,- through France, the Alps into snow-covered northern Italy, watching the landscape changing constantly was a delight.

So, what was I up to, travelling to Italy for a very short Byzantine weekend in February? Well, I'd been reporting on the International Day of the Tourist Guide  and all of the events surrounding it - free guided excursions, people being let into places that they couldn't usually see, and a variety of special options dreamed up by local tourism people. So I thought that I'd try one of these experiences out and chose Ravenna - by train for a bit of fun and to see how comfortable it could be. So far so comfortable.

And as the train drew in to a very cold 6am Bologna - I needed an extra breakfast. Wonderful custard-filled rolls and perfect espresso at the station buffet certainly filled a gap in my stomach.

Now for the Trenitalia train to Ravenna and, within a couple of hours, I was stomping about in the snow behind the majestic 1.500 year old Basilica of San Vitale!  with a little crowd waiting to enjoy a tour around the superb but little-visited treasure-chest National Museum of Ravenna in the cloisters of its former Benedictine monastery. All to be fully explained by a great guide  What hidden treasure is there here? Pretty much everything from collections of precious ivories, an armoury, glorious Coptic fabrics, vast displays of coins, even a whole apothecary shop.

But the undisputed star of the show is the delicate and amazing cycle of frescoes by Pietro da Rimini, one of the most important painters of the XIV Century, removed from the ancient church of Santa Chiara at Ravenna and all explained in detail, meticulously, panel by panel, by our very knowledgeable local tour guide Cinzia.

After this there was more, much more - around the cloisters are set out various funeral stelae, works of art in themselves, but brought to life taking us all back to 500ad when Ravenna ruled Italy, as Cinzia patiently interpreted the meanings of the stone masons' pictures - with the help of our fascinated younger tour guests. Finally we came to her personal favourite, a  sculpture of a romantic dead knight - Guidarello Guidarelli -  a man "devoted to the arts and the counsel" killed tragically as a soldier of Cesare Borgia  near Imola in 1501 and immortalized by Venetian sculptor Tullio Lombardo.

Phew - a great deal to take in so lunch must be on the menu! It had to be a filling family affair of salad and just one of the delicious local specialities - Cappeletti (little hats) pasta - superb.

But no time to lose, more of Ravenna awaited and the afternoon was spent exploring another fabulous Ravenna Byzantine building - it would be a rave anywhere in the world, but in Ravenna, such is its surfeit of riches it doesn't even get into the UNESCO list - the historic, atmospheric, eerie and utterly beautiful Basilica of San Francisco  - sensational crypt, below sea level as always with a few inches of water in it but no noticeable goldfish today!

And across the road, another of Ravenna's claims to fame - the tomb of the much-adored Dante Alighieri,  the writer of the Divine Comedy and still Italy's Shakespeare and Chaucer combined!

So, a lot was packed in to one day - much food for the heart, the soul and the brain. The stomach was crying out for its turn again, but one thing that you are absolutely sure about in Ravenna is that you will not hunger for amazing food and drink. Compliments of the wonderfully fecund Po Valley - literally everything is here.

Dinner was a splendid fish banquet - Smeriglio (local edible shark) and breadcrumbed Calamaretti (baby squid) were all on the menu, plus delightful little cakes from a corner-shop café and patisserie.

Then off for the night to what is, in my view, probably the most stylishly aristocratic B&B in the world - the Casa Masoli  . Is it possible to beat a massive four-poster, frescoed ceiling, state-of-the art panelled art-deco bathroom, dressing room AND library plus free wifi for 70 Euros a night. I certainly slept well!

And in the morning, included in the price a full breakfast spread of local delicacies, cheese, ham carved off the bone, boiled eggs, all sorts of coffees - too much? No, it was to be a bracing day.

And after a superb breakfast of local goodies what else would you want to do in Ravenna other than to see the sights in an easy, lazy Sunday way?  As they say "Taste the Real Ravenna - the stories, the myths, the legends and the food - on a guided walking tour. Yes guided again - it added so much value yesterday, how much more can it add today?

So all the morning was spent, actually 1500 years ago when Ravenna was Italy's capital. With the help of my guide - we delved into the relationship between the Emperor Justinian and his exotic wife Theodora, we talked about the tough Empress Gallia Placidia, we saw some heart-breakingly stunning mosaics and walked around churches, basilicas, baptistries, and mauseleums of this long-gone age - listening to gripping, romantic, bloodthirsty real stories and myths of the past.

A coffee (and gelato!) break to recuperate before lunch, and… a drive into the country, into a scene that has not changed since I have been visiting Italy. - just a few short decades ago!

A massive room, opulent fabrics, comfortable chairs, big families dining, authoritative waiters all presided over by a powerful lady. As soon as you open the door, smell the smell, see the sight, you know that the food and wine will be extraordinarily good.

So it was - as it happens the Agriturismo Artemisia  is not only very good indeed, it is also totally organic. Just reading the menu is a total delight.

Lunch was a big plate of delightful little deep-fried mouthfuls, followed by large and perfectly-cooked cod with Bacala, followed by a wonderfully-organised dessert.

Astonishingly good so far but still the highlight of the weekend is to come - after lunch we visited the Basilica of Sant Apollinare in Classe  possibly the simplest, most elegant, most stunningly beautiful example of early Christian architecture in Europe. Full of light, with high wooden-vaulted ceilings and an atmosphere that seems to raise your soul high and mosaics that fascinate your eye. All I can say is that it is by far the most clear and most beautiful and most affecting spiritual site I have ever visited - anywhere. Perfection - even with the buffaloes outside!

And the weekend is not yet over - next on the agenda is a visit to yet another monastery-conversion - the City Museum  First a look at the current internationally-rated exhibition - Borderline - with pictures by Dali, Bosch, Recalcati, Moreni, Fabbri, Perez, De Pisis, Zinelli and so many more - examining in heart-breaking colours and gripping detail the often very fine line between sanity and insanity.

Downstairs, quick, to less confrontational works in the museum's main collection and some superbly-executed works of art by marginally less well-known painters and sculptors. A glorious and colourful  display in a well-curated, superb space - even our old friend - Guidarello Guidarelli was there to greet us!

Finally a serene interlude before the inevitably sad departure- a visit to the 16c basilica of Santa Maria in Porto and a sight of the Greek Madonna brought to Ravenna from Constantinople and still evoking mysterious majesty.

Time to say goodbye and offer a prayer of thanks to Ravenna here and take the overnight train journey via Bologna and Paris home (yes a sleeper was available).

Walking around Paris taking in the sights before the final leg of the journey - you realize that this particular Byzantine weekend is an experience that you'll never forget. Just how does Ravenna do it?

Further information about weekends and other trips to Romagna by train, coach and air from

See amazing new 2012 sustainable tourism report 93% off offer HERE

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