I’m currently enjoying a few days in Split, Croatia. I turned up here knowing next-to-nothing about the place. Ok, actually nothing. Except that it was on the Journey Through Europe game board, shares its name with a tasty dessert, and happens to be on the way to where I’m going next. Hardly extensive travel research I know.
But as often seems to happen when travelling, sometimes the best stuff isn’t necessarily what you’ve planned for months but the bits you just happen upon along the way. And I think Split is one of those places.
The UNESCO World Heritage listed Old town has grown out of what’s called the Diocletian Palace – a modest* abode built in about 10 years or so around 300AD as the retirement house for the roman emperor Diocletian. (He actually had a lot more names than that, including some quite grand titles, but we’ll stick with Diocletian because that’s what the palace is called. And could you tell me all of the Queen’s names and titles if I asked you? No, me neither).
* Not modest. It’s enormous. Don’t picture a building – picture a whole town inside walls, with particularly impressive bits set aside for the emperor’s private use – like the long gallery with 47 arched windows open to the Adriatic sea on the southern side. Good for promenading and watching who might be coming to visit, or invade. These days you visit the slightly other-worldly basement vaults to get an idea of what the palace above would have been like as they exactly mimic the footprint of the rooms – built as their foundations.
It’s interesting because (a) emperors didn’t tend to retire – in fact, he was apparently the only one ever to do so – he abdicated once he’d had enough of the whole ruling the empire and persecuting Christians caper; (b) there was absolutely nothing here before he built his summer house – Split wouldn’t even exist as a geographical location if a 3rd century Roman emperor hadn’t picked it as his equivalent of the NSW Central Coast; and (c) to build something on such a scale in only 10 years is, frankly, astonishing, and gives you some idea of the extraordinary resources at the disposal of the emperor. Slaves. Money. Material. Especially when you consider that the bell tower added some centuries later took 300 years to build. Three hundred. For one bell tower. Versus ten. For the whole palace.
But pick up your jaw and stay with me, because there’s 1700 more years or so of interesting history, under successive empires & regimes including the all-conquering seafaring Venetians, Napoleon’s French, the Austro-Hungarian Hapsburgs, then the complicated 20th century… But really, this isn’t a history blog, so I’ll spare you the last 1700 years and fast forward to now.
These days Split has seaside, sunshine, and a great green market featuring moreish local strawberries. It has impressive ice cream, and a lot of mediterranean-inspired foodie goodness including amazing seafood. It has red-tile roofs, white stone walls, green-shuttered windows, cascading colourful window boxes, intriguing labyrinthine alleys and mercifully few stairs. It has heritage listed ruins inside the town bank (which kindly put in floor-to-ceiling windows so passing tourists could see how wide the roman road used to be (wide enough for 10 soldiers) before people built their houses over the edge of it during a refugee influx hundreds of years back). It has local designer shopping, some very funky local craftsmanship and claims the highest number of shoe shops per head of population in the world! Truly a happy place.
Split also has a lot of tourists (including many Australians – apparently we’re their biggest market), and visiting cruise ships (but fortunately for me, at this stage of the season they’re not completely overwhelming the place). I’m learning that tourism, for Croatia, is a Very Good Thing. The unemployment rate here is apparently around 25%. Many of the ‘fully employed’ only work half the year, if that, in the tourist high season. Whole towns exist with no other industry except tourism. And in my lifetime, this country was at war. I can’t begin to fathom the economic and psychological impact that would have on a place like this, quite apart from the obvious physical damage. If the tourists don’t come, people earn nothing… And so the precarious balance of trying to attract more and more tourists without completely compromising the character of these beautiful small places is constantly tested. For now, Split seems to be coping admirably with the challenge.
Other highlights include staying in a great apartment with a washing machine and reliable wifi (it’s the little things…), satellite television including NCIS reruns and Giro highlights, and watching the Eurovision final live (not quite as good without the acerbic english commentary, but still enjoyably kitsch). And today I took a lazy local ferry to Trogir – another world heritage listed town about an hour down the impossibly picturesque coast.
I met a few other Aussies on a walking tour yesterday – they were just off a cruise ship for the day and had to be gone by 4pm. They were quite envious that I had 3 whole days to spend exploring the hidden corners of this lovely place. I’m very glad I did.
Wow Anna, sounds like a really fabulous spot and I’m so glad you’ve finally found the sun and the beach at the same time.
Love the pics too, maybe you could enter some of your photos in the travel photos of the year, there’s bound to be a competition for that somewhere!
Might have to add Split to the list of places to see before we’re too old!
Me again Anna – just looked up the Dio Palace – jaw-dropping indeed!! just how did these serfs/servants build these palaces such a long time ago and how many people died on the job I wonder????
You had me at “shoe shops per capita”! What a truly joyful place! And spectacular to boot! Hahaha To boot…another shoe analogy! Winning this morning!
Enjoy Croatia and it only seems fair you support the local economy by stocking up on hand made shoes! You need to add another “S” word to your photo caption, SHOES!
Be safe and we look forward to reading the next installment.
Lots of Love