My love for Croatia’s Istrian peninsula is well documented, so I thought I’d mix it up a bit this week and introduce you to the other coast – the Dalmatian coast and its most prominent city, Split.
Split is the largest city in the region, and is the country’s busiest port. And though it tends to be more of a stop-over town, Split has much to offer. You can spend the day lounging on the beaches or soak in history; Split is home to one of the best preserved Roman remains in the world – the Diocletian Palace.
If, like me, you are a history buff, Split’s Old Town can keep you engaged for hours. The most prominent landmark here is the Diocletian Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Since it was built, the palace complex has housed many; at first these were the palatial staff quarters, today they house local citizens.
This intriguing combination of history and everyday routine adds to the mystery of the complex.
The palace was built by the Roman Emperor Diocletian as a retirement home. He wanted to spend his remaining days closer to his birthplace, Salona, the then capital of Roman Dalmatia. Split being just four miles away proved to be an ideal location; the topography ensured he’d always enjoy a strategic advantage in case of any hostile approach, and he had more than enough room to build a luxurious palace that reflected his position and housed his staff. Split’s development as a prominent city was a result of this move.
At the heart of the palace is the monumental courtyard known as the Perystile. The Emperor used to entertain visitors in this lavish courtyard. And though the Emperor is long gone, the flow of visitors to his court has only increased: you’ll find tourists gathered around the massive columns and arches with guidebooks and cameras all year round.
The Perystile leads to two fascinating parts of the complex. Stairs take you to an elaborate network of underground vaults; these were used as prisons and torture chambers where Christian saints were persecuted on the Emperor’s command. Today you can buy a selection of local crafts here. The Perystile also leads up to the Cathedral of St. Dominus. Call it irony or call it karma, the cathedral stands over what was originally built as Diocletian’s tomb. Inside, the cathedral offers a rich collection of art and sculptures from the 14th century.
Along with centuries of history, the palace complex and walls are dotted with several local and cultural landmarks. Right outside the palace gate stands a towering statue of 10th century Croatian leader, Gregory of Nin. They say if you rub his big toe and make a wish, it comes true. I’m waiting for the results on that one.
The Split Old Town is full of charming nooks. Tiny lanes take you past make-shift stalls full of local crafts and cheap souvenirs. They weave in and out of meeting spots like the People’s Square with the Clock Tower and City Hall, Veli Varos (a quiet medieval fishing settlement), and the busy fish market. Along the way you’ll also bump into several impressive museums, like the City Museum of Split, the Ethnographic Museum, the Archaeological Museum (founded in 1820, this is one of the oldest museums in Split, Croatia), and the Ivan Mestrovic Gallery, all within walking distance of the palace.
Along the outer side of the palace walls, you can find a number of cosy cafes and restaurants. These are packed during the summer months, as is every place on the Split promenade. If you find yourself a free seat, be sure to grab it and not let go. There’s nothing more relaxing than unwinding at one of these cafes after a day of sightseeing. Watch the ferries float in and out of the harbour, the seagulls swoop in and fly off, and the crowds surge around you, while enjoying a cup of coffee and the blazing sunset.