The Wonders of Split
Split, on the Dalmatian coast, is Croatia's second-largest city. It grew up because the Roman emperor Diocletian decided that Split would be the ideal place to spend his retirement. It's not hard to see why. The setting on a peninsula is fantastic and so is the weather. Even at the height of summer cool breezes from the Adriatic help to keep the temperatures comfortable. There are plenty of hotels and you are sure to find something to suit your pocketbook.
In 295 A.D. Diocletian ordered work to begin on a vast palace. It was designed as part luxury villa, part military camp, with towers projecting from the heavily fortified western, northern, and eastern walls. To the south the palace overlooks the sparkling waters of the magnificent natural harbor. The work took 10 years to complete and Dioceletian lived there until his death in 316 A.D.. Eighteen hundred years later the palace is still an amazing place to visit.The ground plan of the palace is set out in an irregular rectangle (approximately 160 meters x 190 meters and covering 7½ acres). Huge gates and watchtowers add to the sense of military might of Diocletian's Palace. The name is a tad misleading for the palace feels more like a small walled city. At times it has housed over 9,000 people.
With its international airport, good road links, and a labyrinthine system of ferries that link many of Croatia's more than 1,000 outlying islands, Split is a great place to be based for visiting all parts of Croatia. But the main attraction has to be the city itself. In 1979 UNSECO decided that Split should be added to the list of the World Heritage Sites. It's one of those destinations that just demand to be explored on foot.
Quirky doesn't begin to describe this dizzying patchwork quilt of narrow alleyways and large, airy squares. Galleries, jewelry designers, and fashion stores nestle alongside the usual array of souvenir shops, but there is also a thriving business community, whilst beneath the palace, hewn out of the rock, is a subterranean market that will take your breath away. Because of its compact size the city is accessible to visitors of all ages. Nothing is very far from anywhere else and there is always something remarkable to see around every corner. Be sure to take your camera because this is one of the most photogenic venues you'll find anywhere.
Don't miss the octagonal, domed which stands at the eastern end of the palace. This building originally housed Diocletian's mausoleum, but Rome never forgave the emperor for his savage persecution of Christians and in the 7th century exacted its revenge by converting the mausoleum to a church. One thousand years later a lofty bell tower was added. A climb to the top via some rickety stairs – you need to be careful – costs 10 kuna ($2/£1.20) and affords fantastic views in all directions. (Open from 8 a.m.-8 p.m.)
Just north of the palace, outside the Golden Gate, stands the monumental statue of Gregory of Nin, one of Croatia's great national heroes. Gregory was a medieval bishop who, in 926 A.D, stood up to the Catholic church by insisting that religious services should be conducted in the Croatian language. Before everything had been in Latin, which very few locals understood. Initial reluctance from the church to embrace this change was soon overwhelmed by a surge in the numbers of people attending services. Croatian gratitude to Gregory is evidenced by the numbers of people who come to see his statue, which was cast in bronze in 1929 by the noted the Croatian sculptor, Ivan Meštrović.
Originally the statue was erected inside the palace but during the Second World War occupying Italian forces decided, for some reason, to move the statue to its present location. It is now one of Split's most popular tourist destinations. Mostly this is due to an old tradition that says rubbing Gregory's big toe will bring good fortune. Judging from its smooth and shiny surface, this toe has acted as a good luck charm to millions.
Wander back through the walled city and you eventually come to the waterfront. At the time it was built the southern wall of Diocletian's palace acted as a breakwater, but nowadays a sweeping café-lined esplanade called the Riva separates the palace from the sea. This is where the local glitterati come to see and be seen. Why not do likewise, and maybe watch the cruise liners as they dock just outside the main bay?
Because Split is now a well established destination on the cruise ship schedule it does mean that when two or more ships are in port the city can become very crowded with tourists. At times like this it's best to find yourself a shady table, order a cool drink and watch the world go by. There's plenty to see, including the wonderfully eccentric 'Pigeon Man', who sits and plays an accordion while acting as a perch for any passing pigeon. Extraordinary.
At the far western end of the Riva lies Trg Republic, a vast, airy square built in neo-Renaissance style. Work began on Trg Republic in the second half of the 19th century and was completed in 1928. The square itself looks as if it has been plucked from the center of Venice, so striking is the Italian influence.
Just beyond Trg Republic I came across this striking mural – it's too good to be tarnished by the slur of 'graffiti' – and couldn't resist getting some shots. This is the great thing about Split, its diversity. It's a vibrant city where the old and the new jell beautifully. If you do visit Croatia, be sure to put Split on your 'must see' list.