Exploring the Roman Ruins of Salona: A Day Trip from Split, Croatia
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, but on this February day, there were only a handful of local residents there, and perhaps no visitors except us. 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 this couple heard that we fancied Croatia’s delicious wild asparagus that was in season at the time, they hunted for a few stalks in their garden, generously insisting 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, then strolled through the thermal baths, and past the old aqueducts and city walls. We walked among 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 were 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 a mark there thousands of years ago. The sun’s last beams of the day cast a warm glow on the tracks, as 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 moment.
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 someday soon be preserved for future generations to savor, as we were so lucky to do.
From the most obscure ancient Roman sites to those that are already popular with visitors, what destinations do you find remarkable?
An ancient decorative element lays in the lawn near the Manastirine, a former necropolis and basilica. Many such fragments and sarcophagi (stone coffins) were scattered throughout this area of Salona, creating a flea market-like atmosphere.
Salona’s amphitheater dates back to the 2nd century AD and was designed to house 17,000 spectators. Fights with animals and gladiators took place inside, and some Christian martyrs were killed here. In the 17th century, during battles with the Ottoman Turks, the Venetians made a strategic decision to deliberately destroy portions of the amphitheater.
The ancient city is surrounded by residential areas, as evidenced by this laundry of locals, drying in the breeze.
We picnicked on the ‘bleachers’ of the ancient amphitheater. A few locals paraded through, including a resident French Bulldog, but otherwise we had the ruins all to ourselves.
The detail of a weathered capital atop a column, and an inscribed stone. Inscriptions in both Latin and Greek have been found in Salona.
A cracked sarcophagus sits beside a walkway still used by locals today for commutes or leisurely walks.
The ruins of the Manastirine necropolis and basilica are visible through this former entryway. The cemetery was situated outside the city walls, as Roman convention forbade burials inside the city.
Remains of the basilica and a sarcophagus. Nearly one thousand sarcophagi were discovered in this ancient cemetery.
A richly-carved sarcophagus, and remains of a mosaic-tiled floor.
A sarcophagus decorated with cherubs. Behind it is the Tusculum, a building commissioned by Croatian archaeologist Frane Bulić. Built in the late 19th century, it features a hodgepodge of archaeological fragments from Split’s cathedral and Salona. It once served as a place to lodge archaeologists; today it is a museum.
A pair enjoys a picnic on an emerald-green carpet of grass.
The gardens and detail of the Tusculum building.
Shawn explores, with the Dinaric Alps in the background. On the right is the Klis Fortress (Kliška Tvrđava) which sits atop land that has been contested throughout the millennia. It appeared in season 4 of the HBO television series, Game of Thrones, and is visible from ancient Salona.
The functional and decorative remains of Salona’s thermal baths
We devoted several minutes to trying to determine what this structure was once was. We left without solving this, and many other mysteries, but this sort of exercise was much of the fun of exploring Salona!
On the left, an original road is devoured by greenery. On the right, remains of columns near Salona’s ancient theater, contrasted with a yellow car.
Ruts carved into the road by centuries of wagon wheels and carts.
A family walks an ancient road, just before sunset.
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 high-tourist season. Informational signs throughout the grounds, written in Croatian and English, identify the major sites, though we often had to use our detective skills to determine what function 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 several 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
- We’ve spent two winters in Split, finding accommodation in apartments that would be packed during the summer months, but are practically empty during winter. During our first 2.5 months there, we stayed at the lovely Kaleta Apartments (affiliate link) which are located within Diocletian’s Palace. Our studio apartment (called the ‘Diocletian’s Suite’) featured much character, including Roman brickwork, and views of Old Town Split below. Owners Novica and Negri were thoughtful citizen ambassadors too. Two years later, we returned to Split, staying in the charming Varoš neighborhood, characterized by stone homes with hunter-green shutters. For those 2 months, we stayed in quaint studio apartments at the Guesthouse F (affiliate link). We especially enjoyed 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, which previously belonged to Anja’s grandfather. Shawn and I dubbed it the ‘horseshoe cottage’.
- Need more inspiration? This link contains an index of all my posts from Croatia.
Photography & text © Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.