Now that tourism to Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast is heating up again for the summer, it’s a good time to cast a glance even beyond top dog Dubrovnik to other magical spots along these shores – and at the top of the list is a city with perhaps one of the world’s most unusual historic quarters: Split. It’s fair to say the mix of history, dining, beaches and more here is a mix unlike any on the planet.
Founded in the 6th century BC against a backdrop of high, rocky hills as the Greek colony Aspálatos, several centuries later it had not only become Aspalatum as part of the Roman Empire, but also was the place where the locally-born emperor Diocletian chose to have his massive retirement palace built in 305 AD. After the area invaded by the proverbial barbarians in the 7th century (among them the Slavs who ended up dominating the Balkans ever since), many locals took refuge in the abandoned Diocletian’s Palace (top), and their successors still live there, among the marble and columns and temples, to this day.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site that is the nucleus of Split’s compact Old Town, the palace is not only the world’s most complete, best preserved Roman palace ruin, but also was an important inspiration for the neoclassical architecture movement that took hold in Europe beginning in the 18th century. No new construction has been allowed within this three-hectare (seven-acre) rectangle (though some additions were made in the past, such as the Baroque Cindro Palace), and it is a truly extraordinary experience to stroll amid its architecture – alternately monumental and intimate – shoulder to shoulder with the locals who make it more than a mere museum. It’s no wonder this was one of the various locations along this coast that appear in the hit TV series Game of Thrones (including Daenarys Targayen’s throne room and the streets of Meereen).
Highlights in here include the main plaza, the colonnade-flanked Peristil (check out the original Egyptian sphinx statue); the Temple of Jupiter; and the octagonal Cathedral of St. Domnius, built in the 7th century adapting the mausoleum of Diocletian (many of the mausoleum’s details remain, but the sarcophagus of the Christian-persecuting emperor was destroyed). The world’s oldest cathedral structure is a delightful mix of well-preserved classical Roman and later Romanesque; you can also climb the belltower for an inspiring view out over the old city as well as some of the newer city beyond.
There’s a fair bit more to discover in this city of 178,000, as well, including traces of its subsequent history as a city of Byzantium, then under the Republic of Venice (under which it was known as Spalato) and the Austria-Hungarian Empire. For people-watching and local vibe, don’t miss the Riva, the palm-lined pedestrian promenade running along the palace’s south side and the waterfront, where locals come to stroll, shop and avail themselves of the many restaurants and outdoor cafés.
On the museums front, check out Croatia’s oldest, the Archaeological Museum, bursting with sculptures, bas reliefs, and artifacts especially of the Roman and early Christian eras, and the Gallery of Fine Arts, where you can get schooled in some of the remarkable art produced by Croatians from the 14th century to the present day, as well as a few other European masters such as Albrecht Dürer, Paolo Veneziano, and Egon Schiele. Speaking of Croatian master artists, you might want to also consider checking out the Meštrović Gallery’s collection of 20th-century sculpture by Ivan Meštrović. And to learn a bit more about the traditional local culture, see some interesting vintage photos of the city, and check out another sweeping panorama from the upper-floor terrace, do also pop into the Ethnographic Museum, housed in an early medieval palace.
Nature, Beaches, Islands
Split’s coastal setting is of course another huge part of its appeal, and if you like the great outdoors, join the locals in heading to pine-forested Marjan Forest Park (above), on a hill just north of the city. Here you can find a variety of activities both outdoorsy and cultural, starting with beaches such as Bene and the pristine (and partly nude!) Kašjuni, where you can splash around in azure waters, as well as hiking trails; restaurants; swimming pools; the 16th-century St. Jere rock church; a natural history museum; a tiny zoo; and a historic Jewish cemetery.
For more lively beach action, head south of the historic centre to Blue-Flag Bačvice, which in warm weather is lively day and night (when it becomes one of the top Split nightlife hubs); five minutes along the coast, Ovčice is another popular and enjoyable beach.
The port of Split is also a great spot to grab a sailing cruise up and down the coast to picturesque islands and towns such as Brač, Hvar, and the Palenki Islands (more about them and other spots in an upcoming post).
Finally, if you can time a visit for August, the Days of Diocletian are quite an experience: three nights of costumed processions, gladiator fights, concerts, shows, contests – even ancient Roman repasts (garum, anyone?); this year it’s August 16-19. Toga…toga…toga…!
More information: VisitSplit.com.