Of Roads Less Traveled and Castles in the Sand

Krista Westerlund is our spiritual + historical correspondent. This, her first dispatch, arrives from the former Roman capital of Dalmatia.

Zagreb ruins

Road through the ruins of Solin, Croatia.

I was really excited to learn about this blog and to have the prospect to write for it. The idea of hungry travel not to mention hungry living, embracing the world with eyes, mouths, minds and hearts opened as widely as possible is one that I generally try to put into practice whenever I can. I’d like to say that like Robert Frost, I’m taking the road less traveled. The truth though is that in this world, the roads heavily traveled are as fascinating as those yet to be fully explored. I am not the most well-traveled person, I have not been to the most places. I do not speak the most languages in the most fluent fashion. There are many other people who have seen larger swathes of the world than I have.

Travel is not a competition. It’s not just about statistics, miles flown, continents covered, bucket lists achieved … though all of those things are certainly worth commending. Travel is about the way in which we as human beings come to terms with the fact that our time as living organisms on this planet is limited. There is far more to see and do than any one person can, and when you think that you’ve seen it all, the world has already changed into something new, something beyond your recognition. That’s why even though the idea of finding yourself on an odyssey of self-discovery is one of the oldest cliches around, it is still among the most profound, the most captivating, the most resonant for many people. For every possible journey, there are thousands of different paths to get there, detours to take, and observations to notice. It is my hope that the path I take is an interesting one and that I can help others who want to do the same.

Salona, no more.

As you are now, so once was I.

So, enough of the philosophical musings about roads traveled and untraveled, because I would like to take the opportunity to talk literally about my experience on a road that has generally not been traveled much in recent millennia. Last summer, I was in a city called Split, Croatia, which was a place that I had never really heard of before then. Split is a shipping depot for the ferries of Dalmatia. While the Adriatic waters glitter like jeweled bathwater, Split is a gritty ex-Yugoslav industrial town. Factory smoke stacks intersperse with palm trees. Diocletian’s Roman villa crumbles far more slowly than its more recently built communist counterparts. It’s a hazy Mediterranean port with a very thin veneer of glamour (but some excellent dining and cafes).

It was in this place on a hot afternoon that I boarded a city bus and went to the outskirts of town and found a long, dusty, sunbaked dirt road. This road was like a pathway to another time, to the ancient Roman city of Salona (Solin). Archeology aficionados may quibble about its significance. It’s not Pompeii, no major natural disasters happened there. It’s not a great ancient capital of a lost empire. Countless slaves were not sacrificed to create a marvel of the ancient world there. All of those things are impressive, but it is rather just an ordinary town that has disappeared in the sands of time.

I found the site to be far more moving than the grand aloof ampitheatres, temples and palaces that encircle the Mediterranean region. This was a place where ordinary Roman citizens lived, worked, loved and died. Walking around the foundations of houses, plumbing systems, an ampitheatre, a cemetery and many functional buildings, you really got the sense of how most people lived. The city was destroyed by invading Slavic tribes in the 7th century, an ancient Main Street whose obliteration was probably barely noticed by the prevailing powers of the day.

There is a tourist information area but it is not conspicuous. There is no admission fee to the site beyond the public bus ticket. There are no concession stands or ostentatiously sold souvenirs. The closest we got to one was an old lady nearby who offered us homegrown tomatoes out of her garden. I haven’t really been to any other large collection of ruins that are more understated or less extolled. And yet, there was something so utterly haunting and mesmerizing about this place. A green field with some scattered stone structures where locals now exercise their dogs, an expanse of ancient ruins with a skyline of tower blocks on the horizon. This secret garden was a time capsule into the past but also a mirror into the present. We, the ordinary people of the modern era are members of an advanced civilization that has created all kinds of achievements and progress, and yet most of the places that we live in and the daily routines that we practice are insignificant as far as the history books are concerned. That doesn’t mean that we are insignificant as people but our personal struggles are merely water droplets in the oceans of the globe. To the residents of Salona, their little city was the center of their world and the tribal raids that overran it were the most critical worry. Such things don’t concern us today but I am grateful that the inhabitants, raiders and various city planners over the centuries, left enough of the ruins intact for tourists like me to appreciate on a hot summer’s day. meandering down the dirt tracks of history and mortality gives us some perspective before we go back to the restaurants, hotels, beaches, and momentary cares of modern life.

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