The beautiful city of Split

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Split is a costal town, oddly reminiscent of Southern California. Palm trees, beautiful ocean, ancient architecture and cobblestone houses. No, wait, that last part isn’t at all like SoCal. Split has a lot of things to see, and most people spend the majority of their time in the old quarter. The old quarter has a market place, a small surrounding area of older streets and their apartments, and, in vast majority, Diocletian’s Palace.

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The palace is a beautiful, massive fortress, with multiple squares and dozens of tiny, squigly back alley style streets that are hard to navigate but full of interesting restaurants and shops.

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It was built around 300 AD as a retirement house for the Emperor Diocletian. Half retreat and half garrison, it was heavily fortified and at times housed over 9000 people. Today it stands as the world’s most complete Roman ruin. It really is magical to see – the majority of the palace is intact and its towers, plazas, and tunnels are endlessly interesting to explore.

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The majority of the palace is well preserved and is in active use today. Some portions – mostly along the seaside souther wall – have decayed into a state of not-quite-ruins. The structure amazingly holds itself together even there.

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The towers that watched over the sea and city are a focal point even today.

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Outside of the architectural beauty, there’s a lot of shopping in the old city. As with any good tourist location, businesses big and small have set up shop to sell clothes, souvenirs, and food.

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The plazas under the towers are a main gathering point – hundreds of people will sit at the cafes, smoke, sip, and talk. Here we got a taste of what Italy might be like – there are a lot of Italian visitors, and they and the locals love to sit for hours.

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The smaller segments of the palace, tucked away from the main square, have been turned into twisting mazes of restaurants and apartments. The food in these is very good, especially the hard-to-find ones. Locals mostly go there, hoping to enjoy the city without the crowds.

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The apartments are mostly for rent to tourists, but from the looks of it some of them are actually occupied by residents of the city.

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Seating at these alley cafes is pretty limited, but that’s ok! The atmosphere is quiet compared to the bustling plazas.

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Sometimes the path takes you through an architectural tunnel. The ‘ceiling’ is a connector between two buildings up above.

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There is always more to see in the palace. We walked through it every day, and every day we found yet another section we hadn’t explored.

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In some parts of the palace, you can’t even tell it’s a colossal Roman construction anymore. This looks like a tiny village, not part of a fortress.

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From some parts of the palace you can see the water. This is the view from a restaurant we ate at, and the food was just as fantastic. We’re not even sure how we got there!

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Next time : sights from outside the palace!

 

Roman Ruins

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Lela Stanka says there are Roman ruins on the hill beside Nikolaevo, the remnant of an old fort from millennia past. She says this matter-of-factly, like this isn’t a big deal, because this is Bulgaria and ancient ruins are everywhere. There are more ruins in this country than anyone knows what to do with and they all can’t be tourist destinations. This particular outpost sits mostly-forgotten, and Lela Stanka warns us that if we want to find it, we’ll likely be tromping in undergrowth instead of on a trail.

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An earth star on the hillside trail.

On our last day in Nikolaevo, we set out intent to find the ruins. Since we’ve pestered her for chores, Lela Stanka sends us out with a sack to collect kindling for the winter. We trudge uphill on a trail, picking up sticks and twigs and shoving them into the sack, looking for the turnoff point Lela Stanka suggested we take to find the ruins. It leads into a grove of planted trees, lined neatly in rows and identical in age. It’s almost impossible to tell which direction to head, save for uphill and downhill.

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Neatly planted trees make for mazelike conditions.

We make our way uphill until we reach the top, crowned with some rocky seats and scorched fire ring. There are no Roman ruins here. We return to the grove of trees and pick another direction, and still nothing. We spend an hour wandering in all directions. It seems like a man-made structure like a Roman fort would be impossible to miss, and yet we can find nothing.

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Is that…the trail?

We’re about to give up and begin walking back downhill when Stoytcho notices a small side path into another part of the woods. We follow its curve uphill again, around a bend and into a dry, grassy field filled with skittering grasshoppers and floating butterflies. To one side there appears to be a vertical rise in the hill, choked with vines.

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It’s not a rise in the hill. It’s a wall. We’ve found the ruins!

In this day and age, there’s not much left but the foundations, piles of rocks held together by crumbing Roman concrete.  We climb over the outside wall into the remnants of the fort’s rooms and corridors, picking our way through clinging vines and overgrown shrubs. Rumor has it that there’s a tunnel from this fort that leads down to the Radova River below, where the Ottomans hit Thracean gold during their retreat from Bulgaria centuries ago. But what little was here was probably plundered years ago, and nothing remains broken stones.

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What remains of the Roman fort, choked with vegetation.
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From a different angle, those same walls disappear into the overgrowth.

We follow a wall of the fort away from the field to a steep cliff at the hill’s edge. From here, we can see for miles across the countryside, over a patchwork of fields to the mountains in the distance. This view is why the Romans built a fort here, and where we stand now a millennia ago would have been occupied by Roman soldiers, watching, waiting, guarding, eating, drinking, thinking about their future lives, boasting about their past victories. Living.

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Following a wall to the edge of a cliff.
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The view.

We leave the ruins and return to the fork in the road, where we hid our sack of kindling for Lela Stanka. We start back downhill to Nikolaevo, its low mud walls and concrete buildings visible over the treeline. In two thousand years, I wonder whether there will be any remnants of Nikolaevo left, and if intrepid kids from a nearby settlement will explore and play here.

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Walking home to Nikolaevo with kindling.