Not many cities can boast of a 1,700 year old UNESCO World Heritage palace as their centre, but then again there really is no city quite like Split. Croatia’s largest port is uniquely fashioned around Diocletian’s Palace, an extravagant retirement home fit for an emperor - literally. Split was conjured up for Roman Emperor Diocletian as his majestic retirement palace. Today the palace is at the heart of the most thrilling, dynamic and exotic city on Croatia’s glittering Adriatic coast.
The citizens of Split are justifiably proud of their home. Even its setting is jaw-dropping. Fronted by the Adriatic Sea on one flank, the backdrop is the rugged Dinaric Mountains, a towering limestone curtain that swirls up towards 1,000m above the city. This creates a deeply impressive natural amphitheatre for the city to thrive in.
For centuries the palace had fallen into disarray. Its hulking great walls, some as wide as two metres thick in places and over twenty metres high, were breached in the 7th century by local Slavs fleeing the sacking of Diocletian’s old stomping ground of Salona. They flocked into the palace complex to seek refuge and brought new life into its dormant stone.
Ever since the Slav settlers arrived, who have became known as the Splicani, they have woven in their own architectural touches, followed by elements of Austrian and Venetian architecture that arrived over the centuries too.
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. This is no staid museum piece, instead a living and breathing urban oasis awash with a myriad of sights, sounds and smells. All this thrives inside the two millennia old walls.
The focus, though, is still firmly on the original palace. It 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.
Today Split’s long palm fringed waterfront, the Riva (which was totally revamped a few years ago), 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. It also plays host to an increasing number of super yachts. Bill Gates, Bernie Eccelstone and Benetton are all said to be amongst the glitterati now cruising some of the cleanest and least spoiled waters in Europe.
From the Riva the Bronze Gate leads right into Diocletian’s former retreat or as locals call it - the Old Town. 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 Fabulous Locals
Split’s spectacular backdrop is matched by the Splicani themselves who always like to put on a show. They exude glamour, whether it be striving to look cool over their cappuccinos, scooting around on a moped or strutting their stuff on the Riva promenade. This is one seriously glamorous, swaggering Mediterranean city.
Roman heritage still forms the backdrop to everyday life, with old ladies hanging up their washing in former staterooms and chic boutiques selling designer gear in the barracks of Roman legionnaires.
Split even has its own sport (picigin) which fittingly seems to the casual observer to not really be about points or rules. It seems merely an excuse for the local guys to show off their physiques as they palm around a ball in the sea. So striking are the Splicani that a number of top European model agencies now regularly send scouts out to the city looking for new male female model talent.
A New Split Is Dawning
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.
Split, as the busiest ferry port on the Croatian coast, is a real gateway to the country's Adriatic islands. Brac lies just offshore with its beaches and hikes. Longer ferry trips bring the glitzy isle of Hvar into the mix and the rugged escape of Vis.
Nightlife In Split
After the shopping frenzy 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 more mature crowd moves on to the sprinkling of cafes in the packed Mihovilova Sirina, while younger revellers head straight for the loud bass booms of the Bacviče 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 fact that Diocletian’s Palace even has a second floor is not known to many visitors so the bars here tend to attract a local crowd even at the height of the summer. From up here you can enjoy the sweeping views down on the Riva too.
Whether it is sifting through the layers of the historical palace, relaxing on the Riva or enjoying a drink before a seafood feast in one of the excellent local restaurants, Split is an oasis that offers so many different things to so many people. It is easy to see why Diocletian chose it to retire here.
Written by Robin Mckelvie
Photography by André Graver