Travel/Croatia: Splendid Split

Travel/Croatia: Splendid Split


The palace city of Split in Croatia has a split personality — but in the best possible way.

The crown jewel of Split is the 1,700-year-old Palace of Diocletian, now a UNESCO site — partly because of the condition of the palace as a whole, partly because some of the original parts still reflect the glory of one of the most important works of late Roman architecture and partly because there is still the nucleus of the old town, making it a modern palace city.

Life in the huge and splendid palace evolved slowly over 17 centuries as new inhabitants kept pouring in. In the process, the palace became a real city and nowadays is an interesting model for urban living in the eastern Adriatic. Its facades, squeezed in a small area, reflect the styles of Late Antiquity, Early Middle Ages, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and the 19th and 20th centuries.

Those keepsakes of history and art co-exist with the realities of everyday life today, such as laundry hung out to dry, strung out across narrow alleyways; houses, hotels and apartments incorporated into the palace walls; cafe and restaurant tables spilling out into squares and sidewalks, right next to Roman ruins. It's vivid, somewhat crowded, a rather restricted way of living within the monumental palace building that has changed its shape and purpose so many times. But it is just this that makes it unique and interesting.

The old palace is roughly square, with gates in the center of each walled side. We first entered through the Brass Gate, on the Riva (south or sea side). In the days of Emperor Diocletian, the walls on this side fronted directly onto the sea, and the emperor would arrive by boat.

Nowadays, the sea has receded and there's a palm-tree-lined waterfront promenade (the Riva) between the sea and the walls. The Riva has a number of great outdoor cafes and restaurants. The Brass Gate leads into a long, vaulted passageway that connects, via the Vestibule, to the central square of the old complex, called Peristyle.

On the edge of Peristyle is the Cathedral of St. Dominius, originally the Mausoleum of Diocletian. The passageway is now home to many tourist and souvenir shops/stalls. Also leading off the passageway are the entrances to the cellars of the old palace — well worth a visit.

On the north is the lovely Golden Gate, which was the main entrance to the palace and so was more elaborately decorated with statues of Emperor Diocletian and his co-regents. Built into the walls in the 5th century above the gate is a tiny church, St. Martin's Chapel. St. Martin was the patron saint of soldiers, and this chapel was for the troops who guarded the gate. Just outside the gate is a huge statue of Bishop Gregory of Nin, a 10th-century Croatian priest who wanted the Vatican to allow sermons to be said in Croatian.

On the west is the Iron Gate, leading to the People's Square (Narodni Trg), the center of the Roman village that popped up just outside the palace walls. As you face the gate, notice the beautiful 24-hour clock tower.

On the east side is the Silver Gate, which opens up to the Green Market just outside the walls and an alley of souvenir stalls along the outside edge of the walls. The Silver Gate was dedicated to St. Apollinaire, a saint worshipped all over the Mediterranean in the early Christian period.

The sentry corridor above the gate was transformed into a church around the 6th century, so the saint could protect the entrance to the city. It's around this gate that we can clearly see how the wall structure of the old palace and the gates were incorporated into the structure of other buildings over the centuries.

The gates are connected by very narrow north-south and east-west streets (more like passageways actually) and leading off these are a maze of other smaller streets and courtyards, all lined with lovely old buildings.

It's fun just to wander and wonder at the lovely old Medieval buildings with ornate carvings and facades that sprang up within the old palace, walking past bits of Roman ruins and Roman columns. In fact, it's extraordinary to see the juxtaposition of the Roman, the medieval and the modern, all happily co-existing.

On the wider street/plaza leading to the Silver Gate, just next to the Cathedral and Peristyle, are a number of outdoor cafes, and it's quite an experience to sit and have a cool lemonade or a beer or coffee right next to old Roman columns — you could easily imagine yourself in Rome.

Just on the outside of the Iron Gate is the large cobbled Narodni Trg (People's Square), which is also a happening place in Old Town. When Diocletian lived in his palace, a Roman village popped up here, just outside the wall. By the 14th century, a Medieval town had developed.

The square has the City Hall (housing temporary exhibitions now) on one side, and on the far side is an early 20th-century building in the Viennese Secession style. The square has many cafes and restaurants where we sat to watch the world go by and see how business is conducted in these narrow streets.

In the Old Town, no cars are allowed. So, goods are delivered on little electric carts, and we also saw a small electric "taxi" cart with seating for two and a place for luggage at the back. Young men on pedicabs move people around too.

Just wandering in the Old City is definitely the main activity in Split. But, Split also has excellent places to eat — fantastic seafood and local Dalmatian specialities (like black risotto) — that we happily sampled.

Vivienne Mackie, an Urbana resident, ESL teacher and travel writer, has enjoyed two visits recently to Eastern Europe, which is wonderfully historic and photogenic, with great national cuisines. See her blog on one trip there at

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