As destinations go, Split, Croatia is one of the more extraordinary I’ve come across. In fact, the Old City as we know it today shouldn’t even exist! At the beginning of the 4th century, Roman Emperor Diocletian built a retirement palace on the shore of the Adriatic Sea near his hometown in what is now Croatia. I’ve read conflicting reports on the fate of the palace after his death. Some say it continued to host vacationing Roman rulers, while others claim it was abandoned. Either way, the opulent residence got a new lease on life in the 7th century when residents from the sacked city of Salona, capital of the Roman province of Dalmatia, took refuge within its fortified walls. Amazingly, ancestors of those Salonans continue to live inside the palace to this day.
Visitors will be hard-pressed to make out the details of what is considered the world’s most intact Roman palace. At least, I was. This is because a town sprang up within, walls added and removed, Diocletian’s living quarters and army garrison morphing into individual family homes connected by a latticework of courtyards and alleyways. In the Middle Ages, Diocletian’s mausoleum was converted into a Christian church, which surely had the steadfast pagan rolling over in his grave. At least he’s still surrounded by the marble columns and sphinxes he imported from Egypt.
The interior of the Cathedral of St. Domnius is magnificent, with 13th century carved wooden doors and choir stalls, a green porphyry pulpit, and a large gilded Gothic altar. The cathedral’s bell tower soars 57 meters into the sky, providing unbeatable views of Split and the stunning Adriatic coast – that is, if you can handle the rickety climb up!
Those with acrophobia might do better with the terrace of the Ethnographic Museum, which is reached via a much sturdier staircase. The view might not be as sweeping, but you’ll be standing on the roof of Diocletian’s Palace. The museum also boasts an impressive collection of traditional Croatian costumes, jewelry, and handicrafts, which I thoroughly enjoyed.
For a different look at the palace, head below ground to the Basement Halls. Cool and empty, these substructures were built to support the weight of the rooms above and give an idea as to the layout of the imperial living quarters. They also offer a refreshing respite from the unrelenting Southern European sunshine.
Split’s true charm lies in its tangle of alleyways, with shops and cafes tucked into every available nook and cranny. Every morning as I lingered over coffee, I watched locals come and go, greeting one another like old friends. My wanderings took me past their apartment doors and below their hanging laundry, providing an intimate glimpse of life within the palace walls.
The palace walls are more visible from outside, as are the modifications that have been made over the centuries. Shops and market stalls now flank the entrance gates, though you might still run into a Roman guard or two. The space between the palace and the sea is occupied by the Riva, a palm tree- and cafe-studded promenade. I liked to sit there on a bench, cup of fig gelato in hand, gazing at the boats bobbing in impossibly blue water as the setting sun turned the sky a dramatic shade of pink.
What would YOU do with two days in Split, Croatia?