Why is Split the most enticing Mediterranean destination?

You can live in a Roman Emperor’s palace…

Work-life balance is not a new concept. Even rulers yearned for ‘me-time’. For proof, look no further than Croatia. 1700 years ago Roman emperor Diocletian pre-planned his retirement and invested 10 years in creating a humungous 7-acre villa in Split (the Latin word spalatum means palace). Prime real estate by all standards…warm glow of the Mediterranean sun, Adriatic waves lapping at the backdoor, open terraces and ornate balconies to take in the fresh sea air. It is said that there used to be a three-week quarantine for anyone who entered Split…there was no place for disease or infection in this idyllic abode. Respect!

Diocletian’s ancient walled city, is now a UNESCO-protected World Heritage Site, and an enticing Mediterranean destination. Go live inside the Palace complex and bask in the false pretence of being a royal guest. Just 220 buildings and 3,000 residents now, where 9000 lived in Diocletian’s time…elbow room aplenty. Be privy to the harmony of the limestone buildings, cozy squares, quiet cafes, delightful shops and understated boutique hotels scattered around. Beaming at the prospect of walking those shiny-smooth stone streets, aren’t you?

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But first, peel your eyes away from Riva, Europe’s most stunning promenade. That white stone-paved, horseshoe-shaped bay lined with neatly arranged palm trees, dotted with seafront cafes under rows of pristine white sunshades, speckled with docked sail boats and framed by the glamorous backdrop of the centuries-old Roman palace walls. Linger in the lovely People’s Square (Narodni Trg), home to the former City Hall. Admire the countless elegant Renaissance, Baroque and Gothic-styled family palaces built by Venetian artisans for aristocratic families. Interpret the symbols of social status (animals, birds and mythological creatures) displayed on the family coat of arms outside the mansions. Squeeze into the world’s smallest church, 6th-century St. Martin’s, built inside a minuscule 5-meters wide guard passage above the Golden Gate. And make a wish by rubbing the shiny big toe of Ivan Mestrovic’s imposing statue of 10th-century Croatian bishop Gregory Nin.

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Then head to the epicentre, Peristil, a large imperial square, constantly humming and buzzing with people. Hogging the limelight is the grand St.Domnius cathedral with a bell tower. To its left, touching it like a massive annexe, is an octagonal structure, Diocletian’s mausoleum…its eight sides symbolising eternity. The structure has been almost completely preserved, except for the domed ceiling, which has lost its glittering mosaics. So, the Emperor does live on! Wait, a wedding has just taken place and outside the cathedral, guests are singing celebratory songs in abandon, showering flowers on the blushing bride and the groom and lighting signal flares. Cheer along!

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The 27-meter long and 13.5-meter wide Peristil is framed by two colonnades, lined with six huge red granite Corinthian columns. Diocletian’s loot from Egypt. Three on either side are reddish-purple, while the rest are white…these colours once marked the boundaries between commoners and royalty. Purple was the rarest of colors, prepared by boiling thousands of marine snails in giant lead vats for days. Anyone besides the imperial family caught in purple attire could be beheaded in those days. So, if you cannot lie without violets and lavenders in your wardrobe, be thankful that you weren’t born in Diocletian’s era.

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Diocletian brought back 13 black Egyptian sphinxes from the Pharaoh Thutmose III’s tomb to Split, but only three remain. One old black Egyptian sphinx stands guard at the gateway of the cathedral. The second headless one is outside the Temple of Jupiter opposite his mausoleum, down the narrowest lane in the world. Both are there’re 3500-years old!

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At the head of Peristil, to the south, tread a flight of wide steps, leading to a large circular stone-tiled space, the Vestibule. Inspired by the Pentagon in Rome, maybe? Pan from massive pool of sunlight on the irregular mosaic patterned floor to the ceiling to the perfectly circular gaping hole, providing clear views to the brilliant blue sky above. There would have been a huge cupola here, covered in mosaic and marble. The Roman emperor, a self-proclaimed Sun God would enter the Vestibule from his imperial quarters daily around 12 noon, and greet the cheering crowds eagerly waiting at the Peristil. This ritual is enacted even today, during summer months by actors. A young boy testing out Vestibule’s acoustic design by calling his ‘mommy’, is hustled away just in time for the live vocal performance by a group of five singers in black suits, white shirts and red cummerbunds. For the next 10 minutes, lose yourself in the chorus of the traditional Dalmatian songs echoing in the circular auditorium.

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Opposite the cathedral, at the classy Luxor café, earlier part of the Cipci Palace, gaze at the glorious remnants of the imperial palace on its walls and floor. A marble circle on the floor indicates the spot where the base of the Temple of Venus had been. Exposed walls and the ceiling murals reveal unadulterated history. Outside the cafe, squat on the red cushions scattered on the steps of the Peristil, order coffee and cake and roll back into the 4th century. If you were guests of the Roman emperors during one of his royal feasts, and this was his dining room, you would probably be sampling 25 or more exotic dishes reclining languorously on your right side, using your left hands to gobble down the food. Close enough!

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Venture into the Cathedral, to gape at its intricately domed interior and check out the 57-meter belfry towering high above the palace for gorgeous views. A sea of roofs…all red-tiled, some newer and brighter red, others older, brown and discoloured, some curved and bent with the weight of time. Crumbly houses cluttered so close together, randomly hung electricity cables, TV aerials, dish antennas and solar heaters fighting for space. Poor Diocletian would be turning in his grave…or what’s left of it!

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For a fee of 10 kunas, explore the underground cellars which mirror the layout above…since most of the palace was in ruins, how can you let that go? Diocletian had built the basements to raise the level of the entire palace complex, so that he could enjoy the sea view better. Heights of extravaganza! The huge labyrinthine halls were once used to store foodstuffs, make wine and press olives. It is a strange feeling to know that once the sea used to reach the very walls of the palace, and boats berthed in front of the gate to drop off supplies or receive noble guests.

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When night falls, rain drops go pitter-patter over wooden benches and red canopies of the case in alley ways. Waiters hang around, waiting for diners, chatting. Cheerful sounds of laughter echo from a far end of a quiet alley. What is it like having a home in a neighbourhood strewn with ancient Roman leftovers? Knowing that the doorway to your house has a marble pedestal which is the top slice of a marble column from the 4th century? Is it possible to ever have an uneventful day living within a palace? Where laundry dries on makeshift clothes lines across the narrow lanes, grannies watch the action in the squares from the shuttered windows of their cream stone houses. Where motifs in Greek and Roman art decorate the doors, bistros show-off ancient exposed brickwork on their walls, ordinary homes are adorned with ornate balconies, carved doorways and graceful venetian windows. Where centuries old graffiti is inscribed on nondescript walls, laced borders carved into limestone provide unexpected relief, and water trickles out of a lion head fountain where they pick their daily bread.

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So when you tread the streets late that night, chances are you may hallucinate. Is that a bunch of solemn-faced toga-clad Romans stationed at the columns beneath the balcony where Diocletian and his queen sometimes surveyed the inky-dark Adriatic waters? After all, the Emperor is resting.

 

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Diocletian’s ancient walled city, is now a UNESCO-protected World Heritage Site, and an enticing Mediterranean destination

 

 

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118 thoughts on “Why is Split the most enticing Mediterranean destination?

  1. Split seems to have been designed to the wild imagination and indulgence of Diocletian’s mind. I can imagine how it must have been in those days. The place however seems to be bustling with tourists but that does not detract from its irresistible charm. Another gem of Europe is Split.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Utterly love the story about Diocletian pushing for his own work-life balance and planning and building his retirement palace in Split! How marvellous! And that is what resulted in the UNESCO WHS that we can visit today. The warren of narrow streets full of cafes, stores and restaurants, and beautiful old architecture at every turn, this is what I love about visiting the historic cities of Europe. Your post has given me a real yearning!

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  3. Indeed, the place is interesting and holds a lot of history. What is it like? is it more of a tourist spot or do locals have own (non tourist industry) life?

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  4. Beautiful and Gorgeous place, I would love to walk through the stone-walled streets. Every corner of this place looks so historical. Loved the wedding shot you took, would be fun to attend one. And the guards reminded me of the Roman empire documentaries i watch when i get time to dig out the history of Wars.

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  5. Thank you for the informative background! I gotta say this is deifnitely something I love when reading your blogs. It’s like I’m there with you and you’re my tour guide hehee. And good thing my closet doesn’t have too many purples nor am I from that era! Hahaa.

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  6. Punita, your snapshots are truly mesmerizing! I felt as though I went on a tour around Croatia. My Polish friend living in Croatia has fallen head over heels for this country.

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  7. I’ve been obsessed with Croatia ever since I was 11. No joke, I’m one of their international football fans. 😛 And Split is totally one of the cities on my bucket list as they have the infamous football club Hajduk Split. Seeing your pictures on this post, there is no doubt that I want to go there one day! 🙂

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  8. I ADORED Split! Croatia in general is such a stunningly gorgeous country, but there was something special about Split. I spent the holidays there about ten years ago and haven’t been back since, but this definitely inspires me to plan another trip!

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  9. I loved the detail you describe of the Peristil, bringing the Roman Emperor’s history into this century. Your descriptions of the physical details make me feel like I am there – like the little boy testing the acoustics! I bet the ancient stones have seen so much, it would be amazing to think what went into the construction all those years ago. Sitting at the cafe on the steps of the Peristil thinking back to the 4th Century – sounds like a perfect way to finish an afternoon of exploring! Great post.

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  10. Split has been on my list for so long – in fact Croatia as a whole has, but I love the Roman history of Split so it has always been at the top! I am a big fan of walled cities, as I think they give you such an interesting perspective on the past, which you have captured here so wonderfully in your photography!

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  11. We really want to visit Croatia and from the UK it’s not that far. Split does look really interesting, you forget how much ancient history there in the region. By the way, I’m also a self-proclaimed Sun God but everyone just ignores me.

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  12. 7 acre villa! Quite an retirement option. The 3500-years old Sphinx is really interesting as well. Just trying to imagine the kind of lifestyle the emperor had! Split seems like a wonderful place for history buffs like us.

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  13. I felt like I was the Emperor Diocletian while reading your post. I love the feel and look of this Croatian town. We live in the United States where the emphasis is always on new structures and buildings. We have too few buildings that have weathered the test of time. So, I love seeing your pictures of these ancient structures and so admire seeing the aging that subtly occurs in the marble and bricks.

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  14. What a fun post. I loved how you walked me through a journey to Split and a journey in time. You gave me a history lesson in a most appealing way that went hand in hand with your beautiful photography. This isn’t the first I’ve read about Split and probably not the last piece I’ll read on it, but I’ll always remember your style.

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    1. That is such a wonderful comment, thanks a million for the appreciation! I am fascinated by history and it always manages to creep into my stories. You might enjoy my other post on Split too. Its on the blog.

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  15. The Split is surely the most enticing and picturesque destination. I would love walking through those heritage homes and streets. 220 buildings for 3000 people is a great number.The place used to be disease and infection free is awesome. The story of purple and Lavenders is really unique. Great post and pictures as always.

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  16. We almost went there this summer but thanks to lack of time we had restrict ourselves to Zagreb. Looking at your photos, I guess for the history buffs this is a must visit place. And the statue is so biiiig… Even the black Sphinx are quite interesting.

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  17. When I was in college, we talked a lot about Diocletian’s villa in Split. Ever since then I’ve wanted to visit it, but still haven’t made it. Your inspiring post is reminding me that this is still on my bucket list, and that I should go there soon! By the way, I didn’t know that only 3 out of the 13 black Egyptian sphinxes from the Pharaoh Thutmose III’s tomb still stand in Split!

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  18. There are so many beautiful places in the Mediterranean, but Split has to be up there with the best, that’s for sure! I love the idea of rubbing a statue’s toe for luck, i did that with a boar’s noae in Florence 🙂

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  19. I really loved Split, and Diocletian’s palace was one of the highlights of the trip. I had just come from Rome itself and it was so nice to be able to appreciate architecture and ruins without massive hoards of crowds – Split still had a lot of people, but not nearly on the same level as Rome did. I had no idea that there used to be a three-week quarantine on the city though – daaam! Glad they don’t impose the same these days lol!

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  20. Wow! I never knew that Split was so gorgeous! Your photos really bring it to life. I’m definitely adding it to my list when I visit Croatia. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

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  21. We didn’t get chance to visit Split when we were in Croatia last year, we deffo have plans to head back over that way and return to Croatia and see some of these beautiful places that we missed out on, such a wonderful country

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  22. The history is amazing and the pictures even more so. I love seeing pictures of Croatia with the reddish orange roofs on white buildings. Great pictures!

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  23. I love the shiny stone cobbled streets! As I read your article I feel like I’m being taken back in time and experiencing this place as it was before! I like how the look of it still has all of that charm! I would love to visit Croatia, especially Split!

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  24. So much charm – both your words and the pictures of Split. I’ve had Croatia on my list for a while and I’m glad to read about about the magical Split. Its Roman history is what fascinates me and those buildings are fab!

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  25. I spent an evening in Split and absolutely loved the vibe! Walking around the cobbled stone streets, sitting on the steps of Diocletians palace (the cafe), climbing to the top of the tower for a birds eye view of the city and its red roof tops, and sipping on a cocktail in one of the bars near the port. Such an amazing town! Your post brought bck great memories 🙂

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  26. Wow, looks amazing! Croatia has been on my bucket list for many years, I can’t wait to experience it one day. I would love to just wander through the streets of Split and admire the historic architecture. It’s very cool that you got to see a wedding! I bet the singers in the Vestibule sounded absolutely incredible.

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