A March 2005 trip
to Split by Owen Lipsett
Quote: Croatia’s second city and the gateway to the myriad delights of the Dalmatian Coast (and its innumerable islands), Split grew out of the world’s classiest squat – the palace to which the Roman Emperor Diocletian retired in the early 4th century. I certainly can’t fault his choice!
When Slavic raiders sacked Salona in 614, the terrified inhabitants turned the palace into a refugee camp of sorts, fortifying it into a citadel before accepting Byzantine sovereignty in return for autonomy. After developing strong trading links with the medieval Croatian state, Split likewise fell under the sway of the Hungarian Empire. By the time Venice took over in 1420, the city had spread beyond the palace and it became an important point for the Republic’s trade with the Ottoman Empire, although the erstwhile trading partners often fought.
Modest industrialization occurred under Austrian rule, although tensions between the Italian and Croatian communities escalated. Rijeka’s seizure by Mussolini led the Yugoslav Kingdom to develop Split as its largest port. Heavy industrialization after the Second World War brought numerous immigrants from inland Croatia (and the hideous concrete high-rises that surround the city.) Although Split was shelled by the Yugoslav Navy in 1991, the main effect of the war was to again turn Split into a refugee center, and consequently there’s far more visible poverty than in Zagreb. Through it all, the Splićani, the city’s often self-effacing and unbelievably kind inhabitants have endured. One could say without exaggeration that they’re Split’s greatest asset.
Although much of Diocletian’s Palace remains, it’s so integrated into the city that it’s by no means a traditional archaeological site, but that’s a great part of its charm. The most attractive example of this process is the Cathedral of St. Dominus, the world’s oldest, whose tower offers an excellent view over the city. The Papalić Palace houses the excellent City Museum which offers a comprehensive (if biased) view of the city’s past, while the Archaeological Museum further afield offers some tangible artifacts of Diocletian’s time. The wooded Marjan Peninsula, home to the gorgeous Meštrović Gallery and Kaštelet, serves as this industrial city’s lungs – its steep trails are a great way to challenge yours!
Standard accommodation (particularly at the budget level) is rather scarce in Split, which lacks a hostel, although private rooms (sobe) are plentiful. As many are located out in the suburbs, you may prefer to base yourself in the idyllic coastal town of Trogir, served every 30 minutes by the #37 local bus.
Split’s train station, bus station, and ferry terminal are all located close together along the waterfront, but unless you’re using them, don’t spend too long there as the area is quite seedy.
The Riva (the promenade directly in front of the Palace) and the Bačvice Bay (where the shingly town beach is located) are the best places to engage in Croatia’s favorite ritual – consuming coffee and watching the world go by.
If you have any interest in football (soccer) whatsoever and Hajduk Split, the fanatically supported local side, are playing, make a point of going. My only regret was that I visited on a weekend when they were playing away! (The tourist office generally has details.)
Getting Around Split: The sights within Split are concentrated in the Old Town (the remains of Diocletian’s Palace) and the Marjan Peninsula. To get between them take local bus #12. Local bus #1 runs to the Roman ruins at Salona, while bus #37 runs to Trogir, which is, 20 km to the northwest. Routes and prices vary so consult the tourist office regarding where to pick these services up and what they cost.
Ferries:Jadrolinija is Croatia’s largest ferry company.
Hotel | "Apartment in Split Centre"
In all my travels, I can say with certainty that this apartment is the nicest place I have ever stayed (and that’s a list that includes several luxury hotels.) Granted, it was also the most expensive place I stayed on my journey through Croatia and Slovenia, but in all honesty, even if the off-season price I paid was doubled, it would still be quite an exceptional bargain. The service provided by Jugana Perić (the extraordinarily kind and knowledgeable recent college graduate who rents out the apartment together with her elder sister Adriana) is a great part of its charm, as is the decor inspired by their mother’s native Colombia. But it’s the comfortable surroundings, little touches (I’ve never seen such an extensive choice of teas or soaps in any accommodation!), location, and sheer size that made this apartment unbeatable.
Location:The Perić sisters, their parents, and grandmother all live in the building (despite owning property elsewhere in Split), which speaks highly of the location. The apartment building is located just down the street from the Archaeological Museum, about 5 to 10 minutes from the Old Town. There’s also a grocery store (in a somewhat less attractive area) nearby and a more salubriously situated bakery. The apartment is also relatively close to the suburban bus station, from which the buses run to Salona, Trogir, and the medieval fortress of Klis, although I’d suggest you get directions from Adriana or Jugana, as Split is full of winding streets!
The Apartment:The apartment consisted of a spacious kitchen (with a breakfast bar), a very large living room (with satellite TV, DVD player, and hi-fi), a well-stocked bathroom (with a washing machine!), one bedroom with a very comfortable double bed, and another with a single bed. My first response on arriving was to ask Jugana which room was mine – she explained that it all was. Needless to say, it could comfortably sleep three people. Unlike most apartment rentals geared toward tourists, the decor is quite tasteful and unique.
Service:Even among Croatians (who are justly legendary for their hospitality), both Jugana and her father, Josip (a retired international economist), stand out in my mind for their warmth and helpfulness. (Adrian was very helpful via email; she was away on business during my stay.) Jugana both picked me up from the early-morning ferry from Hvar and drove me to the bus station for the 6.20 bus to Rijeka and very kindly dropped by several times to chat. Josip let me use his oven when I couldn’t figure out how to work the one in the apartment. As my chicken cooked, he explained his preference for Croatia to the numerous places he was previously posted - in Spanish.
Quite simply, I could not possibly recommend this accommodation any more highly. Writing this review has made me quite nostalgic for staying there!
More information is available at http://www.apartment-split.com/ and by email. The Perić family also rents out another apartment in Split and apartments on the island of Vis
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on June 25, 2005
Split Centre Apartments
The Marjan’s most challenging trail begins at its eastern edge (itself a tough uphill walk from the Old Town along Senjska). There’s a small café to catch your breath here, which (along with a free lookout) offers the Peninsula’s best view of the Old Town. Beyond this point, the trail bifurcates. The path to the left offers more attractive views but is completely exposed to the sun (making it unpleasant, even in mid-March!), while the path to the right (which cuts across the spine of the rugged peninsula) is cooler but less scenic and steeper. Personally, I’d recommend walking along the left path as far as the 13th-century St. Nicholas’ Church, beyond which is the last point at which you can cross between the two before heading uphill.
The reward for this climb is the panoramic view from the 175m-high Telegrin, encompassing Split and several offshore islands. The gigantic Croatian flag atop it hints at its historical significance. Despite its status as the highest point near Split, the city’s Venetian rulers left it undefended at their own peril in 1657, allowing the Ottoman Turks to take it and threaten the city itself (hastily improvised reinforcements from nearby islands saved Split). It’s interesting to consider how different Balkan history might have been had this skirmish turned out differently (Especially considering the Turks ruled Bosnia and Hercegovina)!
As if to emphasize Catholic Venice’s victory, continuing farther along either path (the two join about a kilometer beyond Telegrin) presents you with the ramshackle medieval St. Hieronymus’ Chapel, as well as several amazingly well-preserved hermit caves along the sheer rock face. Ironically, the recreation area at Bene Bay, which contains a beach, picnic tables, and some enjoyable woodland trails, is the primary draw for most people passing these ascetic abodes! This area is also served by local bus no. 12, which runs along the road that circles the island close to sea.
The bus passes the Meštrović Gallery en route. Although not well-known abroad, Meštrović (1883-1962) was regarded both during his life (and posthumously) as Yugoslavia’ greatest sculptor. Fittingly, the finest work in this intermittently interesting collection of his work is the stunning "Job," which the deeply religious sculptor also intended to symbolize the country’s suffering (and division) during World War II, which would lay the seeds for its dissolution half a century later. Politics and art aside, the gallery’s greatest charm is its stunningly beautiful location and the view of the sea from its balcony.
West of the Old Town
The old walls of the palace are still visible (and impressive) in many places. The best way to get some sense of what must have been an impressive structure is to walk along the Riva, and then duck down through the relatively anonymous Bronze Gate and walk down a flight of stairs. In Diocletian’s time, the sea came up to the edge of the palace, so boats would have docked here. The vaulted subterranean halls, which today are mostly given over to knick-knack stands (although you can visit some empty ones for a fee) are impressive largely for their size, but they’re of interest because their floor plans are believed to present a mirror image of the imperial living quarters that were directly them. At their end you emerge up another flight of stairs into the Peristyle, and this was the central courtyard of the palace (and remains its best-preserved area). Today it’s a much photographed square and popular meeting place.
The small domed building directly above these stairs is the Vestibule – which gives a good sense of how the complex’s minor structures must have looked. To the right, a pair of amazingly well-preserved black sphinxes guard what was originally Diocletian’s Mausoleum. Ironically, as the Campanile attests, it’s now the world’s oldest Christian Cathedral, dedicated to St. Dominus. Although a choir was added to the original tomb, the building is quite shallow and still feels more like a mausoleum than a church. In a further affront to the legacy of Diocletian, who particularly loathed Christians, the former Temple of Jupiter, located down an alley opposite the Cathedral, is now its attractive Baptistery.
The view from the Campanile offers an excellent insight both into the former size of the Palace and the extent of its decay. It’s no substitute, however, for exploring the Old Town’s streets, which contain a fascinating jumble of buildings, many of which make use of or build upon the original Roman structure. Unlike most archaeological sites, which are literally and figuratively roped off, Diocletian’s Palace lives on as the heart of this compelling city.
Palace of Diocletian
Old Town Split
Sedate, quiet, and understated, Trogir is a perfect counterpoint to Split. Indeed, it’s amazing that only Kaštela, the collective name given the former rural fortresses of local nobility (and the towns that have superseded them) divides the two. While Venetian rule left a relatively small imprint on Split, you could be forgiven for thinking you’re in 16th-century Italy rather than 21st-century Croatia navigating Trogir’s almost exclusively pedestrianized streets. Although apparently overrun by tour groups in summer, I found it tranquil in March and it apparently is also relatively undisturbed on summer nights.
Trogir’s timelessness comes from its layout, essentially unchanged since its foundation by Greek settlers from Vis in the 3rd century BC, and the near-perfect preservation of its buildings, on account of which it is a UNESCO World Heritage sight. Although it takes barely ten minutes to cross on foot, it’s easy to get pleasantly lost in its narrow lanes, whose combination of preservation and almost manicured decay seems somehow fitting. Besides the garish tourist sign at restaurants along the town’s fringes and near the main square, a very attractively positioned football pitch at the town’s edge seemed to me to be the only thing out of place.
Sights, rather than sensuousness, are what draws the crowds, and if you’re in a hurry, there are several buildings you shouldn’t miss. The most famous is the Cathedral, which dominates the main square. Its renown owes to its West Portal, intricately carved with allegorical scenes by the Slav mastermason Radovan in 1240 and cruelly covered by scaffolding at the time of my visit in 2005. Directly opposite the Portal is the Čipiko Palace, the prettiest of the town’s noble residences and the former seat of one of the most powerful families in provincial Dalmatia. The beautiful 15th-century Town Loggia and its clock tower are on the south side of the square. The Lion of St. Mark (symbolizing Venice), which once adorned it, was blown off by anti-Italian activists 1932 in a relatively pointless gesture: they’re ubiquitous throughout Dalmatia. It’s the only thing amiss in the assemblage.
The attractive Riva is rather touristic by day, but at its west end stands the delightful octagonal Kamarlengo Fortress, where the eponymous Venetian official spent his year’s term. Nearby is Marmont’s Gloriette, a small gazebo built during Austrian by locals to honor Marshal Marmont – the much-beloved Napoleonic governor of the Illyrian provinces. It’s perhaps the world’s only monument honoring a wartime occupier!
Trogir (town 20 km west of Split)
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