Stray a few blocks from its diminutive train station and Ravenna feels immediately different, even by multilayered Italian standards. Historically it fills a little-known void between the fall of the Roman Empire and the advent of the High Middle Ages, an era when the Ravennese were enjoying a protracted golden age while the rest of the Italian peninsula flailed in the wake of Barbarian invasions. Between 402 and 476 Ravenna was briefly capital of the Western Roman Empire and a fertile art studio for skilled Byzantine craftsmen, who left their blindingly colourful mosaics all over the terracotta-bricked Christian churches.
No matter how impervious you might have become to zealous religious art, Ravenna's brilliant 4th- to 6th-century gold, emerald and sapphire masterpieces will leave you struggling for adjectives. A suitably impressed Dante once described them as a 'symphony of colour' and spent the last few years of his life admiring them. Romantic toff Lord Byron added further weight to Ravenna's literary credentials when he spent a couple of years here before decamping to Greece. In 1996 the mosaics were listed as Unesco World Heritage Sites.