Ante, born and bred in Split, a Dalmatian city and second largest in Croatia, after Zagreb, the capital, looks forward to another sunny weekend spent in his home town. As usually, he takes his and his wife’s little dog for a morning walk along the coastal promenade towards Marjan, the landmark promontory hill that’s sacred to every Splićanin as residents of Split are called.
They climb several flights of stairs before they reach a walking trail winding through an airy Mediterranean forest all the way to the top. He stops for a minute to take in the view of Split, its harbour and marina below and of the islands out in the blue Adriatic. More times than not he walks the perimeter of the hill but sometimes he turns back when he reaches the westernmost point. Anyway, Ante’s back on the waterfront soon enough to enjoy a cup of coffee on the terrace of one of the many cafes along the beloved Riva, the wide paved promenade lined with tall palm that stretches in front of the Old Town.
He sits there, enjoying the views of people passing by and of the outgoing and incoming ships until his wife, Ana, joins him. By then, she’d have finished her shopping at Zelena tržnica, or the green market, the extensive farmers’ market, just outside the Diocletian’s Palace’s walls on the eastern side of the Old Town. She’d show him what she’s got, comment on the prices, whom she’d met shopping and what everybody is going to cook.
Gradually, several of their friends would drop by for a drink and a chat. They may discuss politics or football, the two of the most popular topics (Hajduk football club has been the city’s pride and joy for over 100 years). They might take lunch together or maybe they’ve already made plans to go see a new play in the city’s theatre in the evening. Ante believes it’s just a perfect start to a weekend.
Ante and Ana are just two of many residents of Split who enjoy their city’s outdoor social life. You can hear them talking vigorously everywhere: in cafes, restaurants, during afternoon passeggiata, on the beach; the Slavic tongue accentuated by an Italian-resembling melody.
For a beach and sun seeking tourist Split is normally just a mandatory stop before boarding a ferry or a passenger boat bound for the most popular Dalmatian islands of Brac, Hvar, Korcula or Vis.
But it needn’t be so, mind you. Split harbour is conveniently located a stone’s throw away from the Old Town making it very easy to explore this ancient town, once a Roman Emperor’s retirement home.
Nor can I think of a reason not to make Split itself a destination. For a few days, say a weekend, as we did just recently. It’s beautifully transformed into a shiny historical town, well maintained and peopled from a drab port town I remember from my childhood. There’s much to see, eat and drink; just a few examples below.
The main and most central attraction of Split is Diocletian’s Palace. Confusingly, not a palace as a single edifice but a walled-in grid of several villas and gardens, it is an example of a typical Roman construction: 90 degrees angles, several portas, massive wall. It was built in the 4th century AD for a Roman Emperor Diocletian who was born in near-by Salona (today Solin) as his retirement residence. He actually lived in the palace for the last 6 years of his life.
Today, the basement part of the original structure can be seen, along with Katedrala Svetog Duje or St Domnius Cathedral (apparently the oldest Catholic cathedral that remains in use in its original structure) and the glorious Temple of Jupiter. The entrance to the temple is guarded by a black granite sphynx purposely imported from Egypt by Diocletian.
In the following centuries the “interior” of the Palace has obviously changed a lot. Within the original walls there are nowadays houses crammed one over the other in narrow, narrow alleys (imagine Venice) and several squares.
Riva and squares
Riva, a lovely pedestrianised lungomare, provides a nice walk from the Old Town all the way to marina (approximately 1,5 kms or some 20 minutes on foot). The walk continues beyond marina always along the sea. Wonderful views of the Adriatic and islands beyond!
Zelena tržnica or locally Pazar is an outdoor market space outside the eastern wall of the Diocletian’s Palace where farmers from Split’s hinterland but also from the islands bring in daily their fantastic produce. I was happy as a child to have spotted lemons and oranges from the island of Vis. Bouquets of wild grown asparagus reminded us it is spring after all (end of March as warm as early summer).
To locals known by the name of Prokurative, the officially named Trg republike (Republic Sq) is a neo-Renaissance square resembling the St Mark’s Square of Venice. It’s a classy square open towards the sea.
There are plenty of cafes, restaurants and shops in the alleys within Diocletian’s Palace and all of the Old Town. What to buy? Croatian olive oil, kvasina (sharp acidic wine vinegar), wine. Some cheese and charcuterie are good too. Candied orange and lemon peel (all locally produced). Dried Mediterranean herbs, preferably from the islands.
Ivan Meštrović (1883, Vrpolje, Croatia, Austria-Hungary – 1962, South Bend, USA) is probably the most known Croatian artist (sculptor, architect) outside his home country. His sculptures are lyrically strong, dramatic, sharp and majestic.
The artist acquired some land in the leafy neighbourhood of Split at the southern foothills of Marjan and built himself and his family a wonderful modernist villa, almost a palace. The views from the villa extend over the lovely formal garden to the sea and the islands.
Today, only the dining room is preserved as it used to be during Meštrović family residence, the rest has been turned into gallery space. Meštrović fled Croatia during WWII and settled himself in Indiana in the USA where he lived until his death. His artwork has been displayed all over the world (notably at V&A in London and the Met in NYC) and the gallery in Split houses some of his most remarkable sculptures both indoors and in the garden.
Meštrović Gallery is easily accessed on foot from Split city centre (2 kms; 30 min walk) and was one of the highlights of our recent trip.
In the Old Town, just outside the Roman walls to the north stands his giant sculpture of Grgur Ninski, or Gregory of Nin, who fought the Church to introduce the Croatian language in the religious services.
The evergreen lungs of town, Marjan is what Central Park is to New York, save it’s a hill not a flat park. It’s an apparent leisure time location for strolling, jogging, or simply enjoying the views and vegetation: wild-growing fragrant Mediterranean shrubs, trees, herbs and flowers.
Several lanes, some of them beginning with multiple stairs, lead up directly from the streets of Split and ascend gradually to the summit offering 360 degrees views. Even view from Vidilica, a cafe at the ankle of the hill, is spectacular.
We chose Marjan as our morning run route and thanks to the great views during the exercise I forgot all about the steep ascent (well, honestly, it’s only 178m high but I’m more of a flatland runner).