Robin McKelvie explains the appeal of the city packed with beauty and interest.
Dubrovnik may be the most popular destination in Dalmatia for both tourists and holiday homeowners, but the region's largest city of Split is catching up fast. This stylish Adriatic port city has always boasted a stunning setting and one of the most impressive old towns in Europe, but these days its bountiful scenic charms are backed up by glitzy millionaire yachts, a flurry of trendy new cafes and bars, as well as rapidly expanding transport routes that are helping make glamorous Split more popular than ever.
Croatia's second most populous city was originally founded on a whim by the Roman emperor Diocletian, who was born into a modest family in the nearby town of Salona before progressing through the ranks to become Europe's most powerful ruler. Diocletian decided to build his elaborate retirement palace by the Adriatic Sea here, but his plans of a restful seaside retirement cooled by refreshing Adriatic breezes ended in tragedy as infighting soon engulfed his former empire and he ended up poisoning himself within the grounds of the palace.
For centuries the ill fated palace, a colossal structure that was used to house the emperor, his family and all of his staff, as well as a powerful Roman garrison, fell into disarray. Its hulking great walls, some as wide as two metres thick in places and over twenty metres high, though remained strong and in the 7th century local Slavs fleeing the sacking of Diocletian's old stomping ground of Salona flocked into the palace complex to seek refuge and breathed new life into its dormant stone.
Ever since they arrived as Slav squatters the citizens of the city, known as the Splicani, have woven in their own architectural touches, with elements of Austrian and Venetian architecture arriving over the centuries, but the focus is still firmly on the original palace that still proudly strides along the waterfront, welcoming the increasing number of travellers who pass through Split on their way up and down one of Europe's most spectacular coastlines. Over the last few years direct flights to Split have also brought in more visitors, including a last year launched BA flights from London Gatwick. In addition the high-speed rail link with Zagreb and a brand new motorway that feeds into the European road network look set to open things up even further for the city.
Today Split's long palm fringed waterfront, the Riva, not only buzzes with the swarm of Jadrolinija ferries that take tourists out to all of the Dalmatian islands and on as far as Italy, but it also plays host to the kind of super yacht that has any self respecting bank manager in a spin. Bill Gates, Bernie Eccelstone and Benetton are all said to be amongst the luminaries now cruising some of the cleanest and least spoiled waters in Europe and Split has emerged as a fashionable port of call for everything from small yachts through to top end cruise liners. Marina facilities have been upgraded in Split with the option to moor up at one of the main marinas, or for a really ostentatious arrival, cruise right up to the fringes of Diocletian's Palace itself.
It is easy to see what is attracting a rapidly increasing number of Europe's movers and shakers. Split's setting is stunning with a hulking shadow of limestone mountains rising up to the rear and on the other flank milky blue bays spilling out into the Adriatic. The spectacular backdrop is matched by the Splicani themselves who always
like to put on a show, whether it be striving to look cool over their cappuccinos, scooting around on a moped or strutting their stuff on the Riva promenade. Split even has its own sport (picigin) which fittingly seems to the casual observer to not really be about points or rules, but merely an excuse for the local men to show off their lean physiques as they palm around a ball in the sea while the local women look on. So striking are the Splicani that a number of top European model agencies now regularly send scouts out to the city looking for both men and women.
Whether you are visiting to search for the next big model talent or not the old town is easy to navigate on foot and the good news is that it is mercifully traffic free. From the waterfront bus, train and ferry terminals the old town is only a five-minute stroll west. Split's nucleus may still be the two thousand year old Diocletian's Palace, but the charming 14th century Narodni Trg (People's Square) and Marmontova, Split's main shopping street, also impress directly to the west. Rising above Diocletian's Palace around the bay is the leafy hill of Marjan, with its sweeping views of the city, lush vegetation and walking trails, while to the east is one of the city's most popular beaches at Bacvice.
Locals and visitors alike find themselves inexorably drawn into spending most of their free time within Diocletian's Palace, which was originally built between AD295 and 305. Now recognised on UNESCO's World Heritage list the palace complex is both a stunning Roman remnant and also a testimony to the resourcefulness of the local people with real homes moulded into the old walls and old ladies stringing out their washing where once the affairs of state of the entire Roman empire were once discussed. This is no staid museum piece, instead a living and breathing urban oasis awash with a myriad of sights, sounds and smells; all thriving inside the two millennia old walls.
The most direct route into the palace is from the Riva, but the best plan is to first slip into the local lotus eating pace of life and take a moment to enjoy a fortifying macchiato (the shot of expresso and dash of milk so beloved of the Splicani) in one of the waterfront cafés on the Riva and just savour the scene as the strutting locals sweep along the palm tree strewn promenade with the Adriatic behind. From the Riva the Bronze Gate leads right into Diocletian's former retreat. Over 200 buildings remain tucked within the original dimensions with the emperor's old chambers and garrisons converted over the centuries into shops, bars, cafes, hotels and houses. Remarkably 3,000 people still live where the refugees from the nearby Roman city of Salona first moved in and savvy foreigners are joining in by snapping up property as prices start to rise.
The Bronze Gate leads up through a dark tunnel, past a section of the palace that is now open as a museum and a sprinkling of art shops that offer an orgy of souvenirs, to the city's great Roman-era setpiece, the Peristyle. This sunken square now houses a cafe, while to the right are a line of Roman columns and Diocletian's tomb itself. In a somewhat ironic twist the last resting place of a man with a supposed penchant for having Christians thrown to the lions is now the Cathedral of St. Domnius. The intricately beautiful reliefs of scenes from the life of Christ at the entrance to the octagonal cathedral arestriking. Also inside other highlights include the portrait of Emperor
Diocletian with his wife, Prisca, which somehow survived the post-Roman makeover.
As the city expanded in the 14th century beyond the confines of Diocletian's Palace Narodni Trg became the heart of civic life and the legacy is a sprinkling of gorgeous Venetian-era buildings, with the most visually appealing the town hall, which dominates the square's northern flank. Like almost every public space in Split Narodni Trg these days also boasts a liberal sprinkling of chic pavement cafes. Around the corner is Trg Brace Radica home to one of Croatian sculptor Ivan Mestrovic's most renowned works, a sculpture of Marko Marulic, one of Split's greatest literary sons.
Break west from Narodni Trg to Marmontova and the shiny, modern face of Split emerges. The locals descend on this polished and recently revamped promenade every evening to flit and flirt through the myriad of designer shops. They lick gelati (sladoled in Croatian) as they stroll in the orange hues of the early evening. With a number of big name designers and some small domestic outlets this street shows just how seriously the Splicani take their fashion. Prices are reasonable compared to London throughout Split and in an hour of shopping here you can have picked up a pair of Camper shoes, Armani jeans and a few accessories without having to cross a busy road, take a bus or endure a tube ride as everything you need is centrally located.
As Marmontova approaches the sea to the right is the curiously ignored Trg Republike. After the chaos and vibrancy of Diocletian's Palace this elegant Hapsburg imperial square is a marked contrast. As the crowds throng past on Marmontova a few metres away this long expanse with its charming colonnades and graceful buildings on three sides and view towards the Adriatic on the other lies largely forgotten, one of the corners of Split that is just waiting to reborn. It does come to life once a year with the popular Split Summer Festival, an arts extravaganza that helps breathes life into some of the lesser-known parts of the city.
Split is something of a cultural hub year round with its most famous adopted artistic son the seminal sculptor Ivan Mestrovic. Although he was actually born in Slavonia to the north he spent a lot of time in his beloved Split and intended to retire to the city before he emigrated to the USA. Housed in his former summer home this is the largest collection of his world-class work. Standout sculptures include Distant Accords and Vestal, while the marble statues of TheMadonna and Child and the bronze depiction of Job are equally compelling.
Mestrovic may have left Croatia behind, but these days many Splicani and other émigré Croats are coming back to enjoy the rejuvenated city. Perhaps the most impressive homecoming in Split's recent history was that of Goran Ivanisevic in 2001 when he returned to the Riva to a triumphant ovation when 100,000 Splicani lined the
waterfront to celebrate his famous win at Wimbledon. Today visitors can take in or even play at the club where Goran hit his first tennis ball, and no doubt soon after tempestuously threw his first racket, at the local tennis club which is housed near the sea to the east of the centre.
Mix with the locals
Like Goran the Splicani love nothing better than posing their way around town and the city's numerous watering holes centre on seeing and being seen as the sun starts to slip down for yet another memorable Adriatic sunset. Evenings tend to start off early with the catwalk-style promenade past the Riva's bars as Split's bright young things show off their latest fashions. Around 10pm the action for the twenty and thirty something crowd moves on to the sprinkling of cafes in the packed Mihovilova Sirina, while clubbers head straight for the loud bass booms of the Bacvice beachfront. If both of these are too crowded head up the steps to the second level of Diocletian's Palace where a few more laidback bars await. That Diocletian's Palace even has a second floor is not even known to many visitors and the bars here tend to attract a mainly local crowd even at the height of the summer. In Split no matter how busy the city is there is always somewhere quieter to get escape from it all.
Whether it is sifting through the layers of history of a two millennia old Roman palace as you follow in the intriguing footsteps of one of the most notorious Roman emperors, or maybe just relaxing on the Riva enjoying a few cooling drinks before a top notch seafood feast in one of the excellent local restaurants, Split is a city that offers so many different things to so many people. It is easy to see why Diocletian wanted to retire here and it may not be long before Split is being mentioned in the same breath as Dubrovnik as a true 'Pearl of the Adriatic'.