Split is the second largest city of Croatia, the gateway to island-hopping, the seat of the retirement palace of Diocletian, the cruel Roman emperor who denounced Christianity. But for me, it was the city that fascinated me the most in all the blogs that I had read. Maybe, because I had such great expectations, did I get let down. Certainly, the old town, the palace with it’s different parts, the riva or waterfront, the harbor and the pretty local hill were very charming and attractive. However, Split was very touristy and not that easy to get about. And there was something missing, though I can’t put a finger on it. It just didn’t have the absolute small-town charm of Zadar, nor the allure of Dubrovnik. So for me at least, it was second to both of these.
Enroute from Zadar to Split, we stopped briefly at Solin. Solin was the ancient city of birth of Diocletian. Now, however, the main attraction was the remains of a great amphitheater, that somehow I had thought the hubby would be interested in, as he had so totally loved the Colosseum at Rome. Turns out he hadn’t loved it, nor did he like ruins. And the Solin ruins turned out to be piddu ruins too. Barely recognisable as an amphitheater to me, we just walked about without even seeing the whole place and rushed onto Split.
Split is a huge city extending right from the waterfront upto the hills. The waterfront is actually the site of the old retirement palace of Diocletian. This area constitutes the old town and the main attraction. All around this palace, is a tremendous amount of development and the creation of a bustling city quite like a small Indian town. Medium sized and tall buildings cover the landscape all around and tall chimneys of factories jut out into the sky. The city has wide arterial roads and narrow, tree-lined, smaller roads crossing them.
After a quick lunch, we set off to explore the old town armed with an ineffective map. It was tough to even reach there. Getting lost is always part of the fun and the ambience was wonderful too, cloudy skies, cold breeze, happy looking people everywhere. We finally reached the end of the Riva, far from the Diocletian palace, but through a nice street with amazing brands and even more amazing gelato.
Hubby bought strawberry and I got chocolate gelato and promptly exchanged. It was a perfect strawberry, not too sweet and perfectly sour. Finally, I had to finish both, not really complaining about anything but the cold cold breeze blowing from the Riva.
The Riva of split has to be the best of all the towns we visited, with the Diocletian palace on one side, and the blue waters on the other. The two are separated by a long strip with coconut trees and charming cafeterias with pretty red, brown and maroon umbrellas all along. It was only 5pm and all the tables were full. There was a buzz of activity that was really enjoyable.
Even this Riva was similar to that of Zadar in that you could step off the parapet straight into the water, but unlike Zadar, Marjan hill obscured the sunset, and the Riva was far more crowded and happening. The Zadar Riva was devoid of restaurants at the waterfront, this one was studded. Both had a different look and appeal and I liked Zadar more.
Finally we found the entry to the Diocletian palace and started the Rick Steves tour. We got into the basement cellars but were quite disappointed. Certainly they were old, dark, gloomy and wet, but were also not marked in any way. Even with the RS guide, it wasn’t really enjoyable to tour it. The only thing I liked was a pictorial representation of the palace in its heyday.
The biggest use was the free loo, accessing which was a scary walk through narrow, low and dimly lit passages. Kiddo and I were so relieved to find a proper commode and not a hole in the ground as per the ancient times! The exit from the cellars was a very beautiful walk through a brightly lit passage with little shops selling all sorts of souvenirs. If the hubby hadn’t pulled us out, we could have spent hours there (XX genes after all).
Out in the sunshine, we found ourselves at the peristyle or central courtyard of the palace. This is the truly magical part of Split. Columns of different colours of marble and granite, old stone buildings, intricate carvings occupy this ancient Roman ruin, with the cathedral, and the temple of Jupiter.
You could close your eyes and lose yourself in an older world. You could be standing there, bowing to the grand emperor, clad in his velvet robes with a jewel encrusted crown, standing high up on the upper level, addressing his subjects. You could be on a ship, sailing directly from the sea into the palace, as Diocletian used to enter his palace long back. Or you could open your eyes and look straight into those of toga-clad, tall and handsome Roman warriors. Yep, people clad in Roman clothes of yore, sauntering about to be photographed with. Just an amazing sight! And also the place where my smart daughter showed her Gujju roots. She stood in front of them and took a selfie!
Architecturally, this place was amazing. The carvings on the columns and pillars were so intricate that I could take pictures forever and ever. Resting peacefully on a pillar was a sight totally unexpected in Croatia, a black sphinx. Apparently Diocletian had gotten 13 sphinxes back from Egypt and placed them all over his kingdom.
Right above the mausoleum converted to a cathedral is the famed bell tower of Split. This seems to be a trend in all of Croatia, to have a bell tower added on in times of Venetian rule, with a steep staircase and a great view at the top.
The one at Split though is famous, not just for the great views, but the dangerous climb to the top, supposedly not for the fainthearted or those with height fright like yours truly. But hubby and kid were determined to go, so poor me, clutching with white knuckles onto the stair railings, followed.
The climb started innocuously enough with simply very tall stone stairs that I struggled with, but managed, as it was all enclosed. By the time we reached the level of the second storey, there was a look out over the tops of all the orange tiled sloping roofs of the houses below and a view out to the sea. This was the prettiest point of the view from the entire bell tower, mainly because it was low down for me to have less fear and also there was a broad ledge where you could enjoy the view.
So now followed this crazy, terrifying, high-speed climb up a narrow, unstable, aluminium staircase with gaps between the stairs and open balustrades. You could slip and fall to a very painful outcome either through the stairs or through the sides. And it was a fall to a long way down. The brat, who completely lacks height fright or even insight, ran up the stairs, terrifying me even more. Now I was more worried about her falling than me. In a way, that ended up a blessing in disguise. Terrified Beejal who never once looked out, rushed up the steps much faster than she normally would have.
Finally, the top and stable land. It took 15 minutes for my heart rate to come to normal from the supra ventricular tachycardia. I was so scared that I didn’t even want to look out. It took me a while to settle down and actually start looking out and then the next shock I got was all the people sitting on the open ledges. Honestly, the world is filled with people who are constantly tempting fate. Next I see the hubby and kid getting onto one! It’s only because I don’t have the fainting gene that I was upright that day.
Needless to say, the sight from the top was worth it. The edge of the ruins of the palace, the Riva, the boats in the harbor (yes, I love those) and the glistening blue sea reflecting the bright rays of the sun were a treat to the eyes.
Turn a few gaps away and the entire old town of Split, the larger buildings of new Split and then the mountains in the distance could be seen as far as the eye could see.
Turn ahead and there is the Marjan hill with its tall dark green trees meeting the edge of the water. On the other side of the hill is a large waterfront with many beaches. Yes, the view was certainly worth the imminent threat of death.
But what goes up has to come down and that included me. There was no far-away-tree type slippery slip or basket to be lowered down from. That vertiginous staircase had to be taken on the way down too and that thought was even more scary. I put it off for as long as I could and considered all sorts of crazy ideas like climbing down backwards or even climbing down while sitting! But all my fears were unfounded. Since you couldn’t see any of the gaps in the stairs, it was less scary on the way down. Of course till hubby said, “whatever you do, don’t look down, ” and then naturally, I looked down and saw those narrow stairs one below the other and the world almost swam about me. But I lived to tell the tale so…………..
Back down in the peristyle, we explored all the narrow roads leading out of it. Like Jaiselmer fort, the Diocletian palace had become a living palace. There were hotels, apartments or sobes , fancy upmarket designer stores and small cozy shops, cafes, and restaurants. This was without a doubt, the most charming part of split. The old stone houses with small stone steps on the outside leading upto the apartments made me regret tremendously that we weren’t living there. The vibe here was amazing. It was actually much more vibrant than even the Riva.
We turned and walked up the steps to the vestibule or the entry to Diocletian’s main quarters, a narrow but very tall circular stone building, open at the top, from where you could see the beautiful blue sky. We were about to leave when a group of old men, dressed in black suits and red bow ties began to sing in harmony, so melodiously that we had to stop to listen. These were the famed klapa singers of Split who used the acoustics of the vestibule to the best advantage.
We moved on to see more ruins on the other side and then exited the palace looking for the green market. We were too late, it was almost wrapping up, yet we could buy cherries, peaches and some dry fruits. We looked about for souvenirs but nothing appealed so we moved away, planning to climb Marjan hill. But no hill can be climbed on an empty stomach, so we proceeded to have pizza slices, which were absolutely the best pizza of the entire trip. Had I known that this would be the best, then I certainly would have had them for dinner too.
Tummies full and happy, we climbed up Marjan hill. Again I reiterate that Split is not easy to navigate. Despite some markings, we ended up on an internal road up the hill, up loads and loads of staircases. This route, though devoid of views of the sea and the harbor, was through a pretty residential area. On both sides were small bungalows, most of which doubled up as sobes, with wooden shutters, green, blue or white in color. Some had little gardens with roses and other flowers growing in them and over the doorway, some had swings, yet others had children’s cycles. It was like a sneak peak into the life of locals.
Huffing and puffing, we reached our designated peak point, the look out near a little cafeteria. The cafe itself was so charming that I longed to plonk my tired self there and treat myself to a warm coffee and kiddo to a nice hot chocolate. It was strung with gorgeous flowers all over the roof and trailing down the sides.
Picturesque pots with tall stemmed roses at each corner, love seats with floral upholstery and white wrought iron tables completed the most beautiful café I’d seen on the whole trip.
But before I could sit, a very excited hubby called out to us, to see the view. From the look out, we could see the whole seaside approach to split (split is a very important gateway to the islands of Croatia and is most famous as the starting point for island hopping ). It was a view better than that from the bell tower (lot less scary too).
We so excitedly took pics that we didn’t realise how bitterly cold it was and that the kid was simply shivering and was so scared of the wind howling through the trees. She was too cold and too scared and just wanted to get away. So no coffee with a view. Instead, we rushed down a series of stairs that were much shorter than the route up (Murphy law always) and got back to the Riva.
The kid just wanted to get home, so I agreed, but it was a big mistake. I thought we’d come back in the night to see split by night which is very gorgeous, but of course we didn’t. The others flatly refused and the hotel was a long deserted way away, plus it was very cold. Some other time maybe. Some other time to see split by night, stay in the Diocletian palace, bike down Marjan hill and then island hop and see the blue cave.
P.S. Many thanks again to Yogesh Shenoy for editing these and many of the earlier blogs’ pictures and making them look as beautiful as Split was.