Walking through the ancient Roman city of Salona, a swathe of land dotted with 2,000-year-old stone ruins near seaside Split, Croatia, we felt a bit like Indiana Jones. We playfully feigned jubilation that we had just chanced upon an undiscovered ancient place, as we explored the remnants of the city, which was once home to more than 40,000 inhabitants.
Salona is undoubtedly an archaeological gem, deserving of such praise, however, on this February day, there were only a handful of local residents at the site. We were likely the only travelers there.
One pair of locals enjoyed a picnic on the lawn, surrounded by the old city walls; a woman hung laundry in her backyard which overlooks the ancient amphitheater; and another couple tended to their olive trees, on a plot of land overlooked by the mighty Klis Fortress (a site that has recently gained notoriety as a Game of Thrones filming location). When the gardening couple heard that we fancied Croatia’s delicious wild asparagus, which was in season at the time, they hunted for some in their garden. Plucking a few stalks out of the earth, they generously insisted that we take them as a souvenir to be enjoyed at dinner.
Astonished by the intimate degree of access that we had to the remains of the once-prominent city, we had a picnic lunch on the seats of the old amphitheater. Afterward, we strolled through the thermal baths, and past the old aqueducts and city walls. We then walked among the ornately-carved marble sarcophagi, which are scattered throughout Salona’s cemetery. Many of the ancient tombs had cracked or were missing lids, reminding us of a conversation we had with Split locals who said their friends had found ancient trinkets at Salona decades earlier. Having also recently visited the Split Archaeological Museum, which contains many of the portable relics unearthed at Salona, we were better able to piece together what the community must have once looked like.
My most memorable moment of the excursion occurred as we walked through the Porta Caesarea, a once-monumental gate that led to the heart of ancient Salona. Ruts had long before been etched onto the stone road on which we were walking, evoking images of Roman wagons and carts, and the thousands of people who literally left their mark there. The sun’s last beams of the day cast a warm glow on the tracks, and the silhouette of a female figure and her dog appeared. Slowly, the duo came into focus. When I saw the woman’s modern clothes and the dog’s leash, I shifted forward a few millennia, back to the present.
The area around Salona is now surrounded by highways and industrial buildings. Even though these symbols of modern times are encroaching on the ancient relics, it’s possible to block them out while you ponder the area’s history.
Salona was settled by the Greeks and Illyrians, but most aggressively developed by the Romans. During the reign of Emperor Augustus, Salona became the center of the Roman Empire’s province of Dalmatia. Over the course of several centuries, it underwent destruction by the Avars, Slavs, and Venetians. In the 6th century, Salona’s inhabitants fled the city, seeking shelter in the retirement Palace of Roman Emperor Diocletian, which today comprises the heart of Split’s Old Town. After Salona was abandoned, it fell into further disrepair. Even today, it has not been extensively excavated.
Salona enlivened my exploratory spirit, satisfied my hunger for history, and left me wanting to learn more about the Roman Empire. It’s my hope that it will soon be preserved so future generations can savor it, too.
From the most obscure spots to those that are already tourist hot spots, what Ancient Roman sites would you recommend?
Where in the World?
- Ancient Salona is located near the modern city of Solin, roughly 5 km. (3 miles) from Split, Croatia’s second-largest city. To get to Salona, we took the bus from Split’s Old Town. We purchased tickets from the agent inside the ticket booth, but it was also possible to buy tickets directly from the driver. The bus driver knew we wanted to stop at Salona and alerted us when we had reached the right stop. Here is a link to Split’s Bus System (in Croatian), as well as an overview of how to use it (in English).
- In February 2014, there was a billboard at Salona’s main entrance indicating opening hours and ticket prices (Monday – Friday: 0900-1500; Saturday-Sunday: 0900-1400 and Adults: 20 kunas; Children: 10 kunas). There were no employees on site, however, to dispense tickets or collect money. We assume that the entry was free because we visited outside of the tourist season. Informational signs, written in Croatian and English, identified the major sites. However, we often had to use our own detective skills to imagine the functions the structures once had. Many spots remained a mystery, but that was much of the fun! Between strolling, picnicking and pondering, we easily whiled away a few hours at Salona. See the City of Solin Tourist Board site for more information, including this pdf version of Solin’s informational brochure.
- If you’ll be staying in Split for a few days, you might be interested in the Split Card, which gives you free entry to certain museums and galleries, and reduced rates to others. Back in 2014, people staying in Split for 3 days or more could pick up the Split Card for free, but as of 2016, there is a fee to purchase the card. The link above details the current cost, as well as the participating museums and businesses.
- If you’re interested in old Roman routes and history, be sure to explore the following websites, which allow you to plot out a route and glimpse what Roman sites are along the way: OmnesViae: Roman Routeplanner and Vici
- Are you looking for accommodation in the Split / Trogir area? Shawn and I have spent a total of three winters there, using it as a base to explore Croatia’s popular Dalmatia region:
- The first time, we rented a studio apartment at the Apartments Mirkec (affiliate link) in Trogir. We enjoyed our 7 weeks immensely! The apartment had good Wifi, and a kitchen with all the basics. It was also perfectly situated in the heart of Trogir’s gorgeous Old Town, just a minute’s walk from the seaside walkway (the Riva). Trogir’s bus station was about a 5-minute walk from the Apartments Mirkec, making day trips using mass transportation easy.
- We also spent two winters in holiday apartments in the nearby city of Split. These apartments were in prime locations and would have been in high demand if it was summertime. Our first 2.5 months in Split, we stayed at the lovely Kaleta Apartments (affiliate link), which are located within Diocletian’s Palace. Our elegant studio apartment (called the ‘Diocletian’s Suite’) had lots of character, including Roman brickwork embedded into the wall. We had overhead views of life on Split’s Old Town streets, and we enjoyed chatting with the friendly owners, Novica and Negri. Two years later, we returned to Split, but stayed in the Varoš neighborhood at the Guesthouse F (affiliate link). We especially enjoyed the studio apartments’ central location, plus our tiny terrace, and the kindness of our hosts, Anja and Miro. (One of Guesthouse F’s apartments was originally a horseshoe maker’s workshop, owned by Anja’s grandfather. Shawn and I dubbed it the ‘horseshoe cottage’.) Varoš is just a few minutes’ walk from Diocletian’s Palace. With its quirky narrow streets and stone homes decorated with hunter-green shutters and flower boxes, Varoš is charming.
- Visit my Croatia guide for more trip tips, plus a round-up of all my posts about Croatia.
Photography & text © Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.