Towns / Cities Visited: 147
Countries Visited: 26
Steps Taken Today: 10,098
Steps Taken Around the World: 3,769,216
We awoke to a dreary morning, but bad weather was yet to put a damper on our adventures, and today would be no different. A quick breakfast and with bags packed, we bundled ourselves into the car, bid farewell to Bologna, and headed south. With a little spare time today, we decided to take the back roads, to try and avoid the somewhat exorbitant toll roads, and to get a little more of a scenic view of the countryside. This decision would prove to be mildly terrifying with some of the rural roads barely wide enough for a car. It was like Ireland all over again except that we were in a bigger car and still adjusting to driving on the opposite side. When all was said and done though, we managed it, reaching out interim town without so much as a scratch.
Where were we spending our afternoon, I hear you ask. Why, we were visiting the town of Ravenna, on the east coast of Italy in the Emilia-Romagna region. Finding somewhere to park as the skies drizzled over all, and with our stomachs rumbling a little, we decided to find somewhere to dine before making our way to the attraction which drew us to this place. Ducking between shelter until we reached the heart of this historic town, we spotted a stunning old building which houses one of the most popular restaurants in town, Ca’ de Ven. So stunning is the 15th century building which holds it, that during the lunch rush they have to stop people coming in just to take photos of the vaulted ceilings. Settling in on one of the tightly packed communal tables we ordered from the local dish section of the menu, the sausages with roasted potatoes being a favourite. The food might not be the most appealing visually, but what it lacks in presentation it more than makes up for in freshness and flavour.
The rain didn’t look like it was going to disappear anytime soon, so with our meal complete we pulled up the hoods of out raincoats and pressed on. We were in town to see its most noteworthy attraction, the tomb of Dante Alighieri, the 13th century Italian poet who is most famed for his work ‘Divine Comedy’. Now, generally tombs have a fairly boring history; a body is placed there and that is where they stay, but Dante has had a far more eventful afterlife. During his life he was very much a part of the turbulent political situation in his home city of Florence. Long story short, the political faction he associated with came out second best, and their opponents accused him of corruption and financial wrongdoing resulting in a large fine. Dante refused to pay it and as a result was exiled indefinitely, threatened with death by burning at the stake if he returned without paying the fine. He spent his final years in Ravenna, and thus upon his death he was interred in an old Roman sarcophagus beside what is now the Basilica di San Francesco.
A few years later, I’m assuming purely due to his noteriety, Florence suddenly began requesting that his body be returned, seemingly forgetting that they exiled him until his death. The Franciscan monks who had buried him in Ravenna were having none if this, even when the Pope granted Florence’s request, and they managed to make a hole in the wall and remove the bones, hiding them before the Florentine delegates arrived to take the body. In 1677 the bones were moved to a new box and in 1692 the sarcophagus was restored under armed guard. It 1781, the bones were returned to the new monument constructed around the sarcophagus. It would seem they would finally be able to find peace here; however, in 1810 Dante’s remains were returned to the aforementioned box and hidden under an old doorway between the Basilica and the adjoining chapel to protect them from confiscation when the French occupied the town. The box was forgotten amidst the dramas and remained undiscovered until 1865 when, during restoration works, it was found and only prevented from being placed in a common grave by a student who noticed the engraving stating its contents. For a short time the bones were placed in a crystal coffin for public display, before it was reburied in the monument in which it now permanently lies. The bones were briefly removed once more during WWII to protect them from destruction by bombing, and were buried in the garden beside the monument. Finally, in 1945, after more than 600 years, the bones were moved back to their rightful position within the monument where they remain to this day. We all like to think that our final resting place will stay final, and if nothing else we can only hope that despite the constant disruptions to his bones, that Dante’s soul found a much less turbulent place to rest.
Reaching the tomb, we took our time to revel in the constant state of silence enforced here as a sign of respect for the author of what is arguably Italy’s most important piece of literature. Despite the centuries old plea for their return, the bones were never moved to Florence, but they are responsible for one of the most famous additions to the monument. Above the marble sarcophagus, hangs an eternal oil lamp which burns with olive oil donated in perpetuity by the city of Florence, as penance for exiling its son. The soft lamplight, coupled with the relief on the back wall depicting Dante standing at a lectern, makes for a calm and solemn visit.
Our stop was brief, as there were plenty of other visitors waiting to view the tomb, and so we stepped into the nearby garden, pausing to view the ivy covered mound which protected the remains during the war, surrounded by the strong brick walls of the basilica behind it. Along with a few other old sarcophagi, the garden also holds Dante’s original sarcophagus, and the fraction of old wall beside which it used to stand, and through which his bones were first smuggled into safekeeping.
With our respects paid, we decided to keep up tradition and find gelato to round out our visit. Although the streets were quiet, we stumbled upon an artisanal gelateria, and wandered in to pick from their fancy flavours. Settling on dark chocolate, so rich with cocoa it was almost black, we collapsed down into the comfy couches they had there to enjoy our treat out of the rain and cold.
Weaving through the streets, admiring the architecture, we reached our car once more, and trundled off towards our destination for the night, the mountainous microstate and one of the world’s oldest republics, San Marino. Taking a more direct route, we soon found ourselves within the boundaries of our twenty-sixth country and began the winding road up to the mountaintop which is home to the country’s capital of the same name. The rain may have eased, but as we neared the top, we found ourselves shrouded in thick fog. Now, if you’ve never driven up treacherous mountainside roads in a foreign country with only a few metres of visibility, I would not suggest it, unless of course you enjoy living on the edge, in which case go for it. Eventually, we arrived and headed into the city, only to discover that the streets in the old town are not really designed for vehicular traversing. Finding our hotel, we sent my mum in to find out what the car situation is here, but were relieved to spot a car coming towards us, slowly parting the sea of tourists, and forcing us to back up to the nearest intersection to allow it to pass. My mum returned soon after, and we followed the directions out to the car park we had passed on our way in, managing to snag the very last spot.
With the stress of driving over for the day, we checked into our accommodation, and, after a short rest and cup of tea, we headed out to explore. If you’ve ever been here, you will know what a surreal and extraordinary place San Marino is. All around you is beautiful old stone buildings, the whole city surrounded in similarly old stone walls and towers which once offered protection to the residents here, and yet as you walk up and down the main streets, the ground level is a string of shops which feel more like the duty free section of an airport than a quaint historic city. Every second shop spruiks trinkets, postcards, rubber ducks (seriously there is an entire shop dedicated to collectable ducks, something we ourselves were buying and posting home), or a huge array of nerdy paraphernalia, from replica Game of Thrones swords to replica Lord of the Rings jewellery. It is, admittedly, a little cringeworthy, but I will say that I crumbled a little and bought myself a few bits and bobs. Where it isn’t souvenirs, its cheap alcohol and perfume, and, rather bizarrely, every other shop which wasn’t a cafe or restaurant, was selling guns, knives, bows, and ammunition. I’m sure this is likely due to different laws when it comes to the sale of arms, but it just seems strange that you can buy a bag of touristy fridge magnets in one store, then pop next door and buy a pistol, especially given that gun shops in Australia are few and far between.
Aside from its long and unique history, San Marino is famous for its stunning view down over the countryside below, but there was no chance we would be getting a peek at it today. Still, there was something equally eerie and romantic about the way the historic lanterns which illuminate the streets glow their warm halo of light in the fog as dusk falls. From certain angles it feels as though you have gone back through time, as though as any moment a horse drawn carriage would appear from the fog, its top hatted and cloaked driver ferrying some noble aristocrat to join the frivolities of some high society ball. It was the kind of sight that inspires art and imagination, and I could have revelled in it for hours, if only hunger didn’t call us back.
Returning to our hotel, having found its restaurant bearing offerings and prices to rival those throughout town, we peeled off our jackets and settled in for a meal. Deciding to make a night of it, we lingered long over our shared dishes of rabbit, venison, and veal, indulging in surprisingly cheap top shelf spirits, and even splurging and having dessert. It was a nice change to spend the evening enjoying each other’s company while someone else looked after the cooking, but then this is what this part of our journey was for, to spend less money on visiting things and more money on wining and dining.
As I crawled into bed that night, seeking sleep while it did its nightly ritual of eluding me, I thought about Dante and the actions of Florence after his death. It would seem, as it has done so often throughout history, that once people die, a once unearnable forgiveness is suddenly granted, especially when that person harbours a level of notoriety, fame, and success. It led me to ponder the fact that we too often manage to say ‘they were only human’, and yet lack the ability to say ‘they are only human’. We hold grudges and refuse amnesty while there is time for reconciliation, and yet we find regret in having not offered it when it is too late. We urge our fellows to not speak ill of the dead, and yet we are happy to openly speak ill of the living. We offer the full extent of our respect and humanity but only posthumously. If we could find it within us to hold living in peace as sacredly as we hold resting in peace, there would be far less regret and tension in the world. The eternal flame which hangs above Dante’s tomb should stand as a reminder to all of us that life is finite, but forgiveness doesn’t have to be.