Travel: Croatia’s Split personality

Croatia's Split harbour

Croatia's Split harbour

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Croatia, the EU’s latest addition, hasn’t been top of my travel list for a while, but now that the Cold War is a distant memory and the scars of the 10-year Yugoslav war are almost healed, it’s time to explore this Adriatic gem again.

In the mid 18th century, Split became well known in this country thanks to the efforts of a rising young Scottish architect called Robert Adam. Impressed with the great Baths of Diocletian which he had visited in Rome while on his Grand Tour, he sought permission from the Venetian authorities to visit Split on his way home. Impatient to get on with his research, he hired a felucca and together with his small team of draughtsmen he set sail for Dalmatia, confident that permission would soon follow. On his arrival he was shaken to find it was a military base, and that the garrison stationed there were far from welcoming. Fortunately he was able to pull a few strings which allowed him to complete his research, but his time there remained fraught as the army suspected him of being a British spy. Seven years later Adam’s Ruins of Spalatro (as Split was then known) was published in London to great acclaim. For the next century it became the guide to Diocletian’s Palace in Split.

Split can pinpoint its early history to Roman Emperor Diocletian (243-312AD), who was a native of Dalmatia and born in nearby Salona. His palace, built on nine acres of virgin land and still surrounded by its original walls has been at the heart of the city’s story ever since.

Walk around Diocletian’s Palace and you can see this history for yourself. The most impressive remaining monument is the mausoleum. It is an eight-sided building, austere and very simple externally, but inside it is a magnificent Roman building with two rows of columns, each with its own beautifully carved entablature above which is a frieze and two roundels depicting the Emperor and his wife Prisca. Even the vault is still intact, with the original local bricks, some of which are inscribed with the word ‘dalmatia’ pinpointing their local origin. These bricks are laid in a series of half-moons which gradually curve inwards to form the dome. Today the mausoleum walls are bare but once they would have been covered in sheets of marble and decorated in mosaics like the ones in St Mark’s Basilica in Venice today.

Croatia is now largely Roman Catholic, but this has not always been so and the palace gives us a clue to the history of the country. Diocletian is best known for his persecution of the Christians at the end of his reign. So it is somewhat ironic that some 300 years later the Slavs, by now long converted to Christianity, decided to relocate the tomb of their founding Bishop Domnius (himself a victim of Diocletian) and bury him in a fine new tomb in this very building, thereby creating one of the smallest cathedrals in Europe. Wonderful treasures have been donated to the cathedral ever since. To complete the transformation of mausoleum into Christian church, Diocletian’s original entrance was destroyed to make way for the Romanesque campanile from which there are fine views of the city and harbour.

On either side of historic Split, you will find two of the oldest suburbs. Veli Varoš has a real village feel to it, with its traditional Dalmatian rural stone houses, narrow lanes and scattered churches. Radunica, across the street from the vegetable market, is built in a medieval urban style. There are three main squares in Split which are definitely worth a visit. Trg Brace Radi, unofficially called Vocni Trg (meaning Fruit Square), is full of shops, cafés and street performers, with the main historical landmarks situated around it. The second is Republic Square (Trg Republike) with its elaborate red neo-Renaissance structure, also known as Prokurative. The southern side is open, providing breath-taking views of the harbour front. The People’s Square ( Narodni Trj), the last “must see” square, is located just past the western walls of Diocletian’s Palace at the exit of the Iron Gate. As the population grew, the palace became too small and Pjaca was the first area to be developed beyond the walls in the 14th century. As you walk through the Iron Gate, there is a tower-like house topped with a gothic bell-tower where the clock is divided into 24 parts instead of 12 (www.croatia-split.com/culture/historical-sites.html).

Outside the palace’s Golden Gate is the imposing figure of the 10th century bishop Grgur Ninski cast in bronze by Ivan Meštrovic in 1928. Meštrovic was a prolific craftsman, an international figure in his lifetime, and his works can be seen all over the country. He built a large gallery, intended to be both his retirement home and a museum in which to house his works, in the western suburb of Split. It is in a beautiful setting and well worth a visit (www.croatia-split.com/blog/tourist-sites/museums-in-split-the-mestrovic-gallery.html).

Split, with its yacht-filled harbour, is surrounded by islands and the best way to see this coast of Dalmatia is from the sea, though you can enjoy a good view of the Dalmatian islands from the Sustipan peninsula, a green oasis with pine trees on a cliff face. Bacvice beach is a 15 minute walk from Diocletian’s Palace. Alternatively, why not hop on a ferry and visit one of the beautiful islands? Hvar, for example, is only a 75-minute ferry journey and offers sandy beaches, vineyards and picturesque villages as well as a magnificent fortress and the oldest public theatre in the region. There’s no better way to experience this side of Split’s personality.

Alicia Salter is the author of Four Emperors and an Architect (www.fouremperorsandanarchitect.co.uk). For more information on Split, see www.croatia-split.com

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