We really enjoyed our time in Split. It is an engaging city that dates back to the Roman Empire. The “Old Town” area is close to the city harbor. To the west of this area, about a 20-30 minute walk along the harbor, is the Marjan Peninsular that is an undeveloped park area which is great for hiking and getting away from the city and tourist. To the north of the Old Town is the more modern city of Split. We didn’t spend time in the newer section but passed through it when we traveled to a nearby town of Trogir. It was kind of depressing to me…the buildings looked like they could use a coat of paint.
The older section of Split was enjoyable and fun to wander through. The Old Town was originally a large palace built by the Roman Emperor, Diocletian (245-313) who was of Croatian ancestry and wanted to retire in his homeland. Over time, the palace was abandon and in the 7th century locals, fleeing from a Serb invasion, sought protection behind the palace walls. They stayed and from this, a medieval town was created. In the 15th century, the Venetians invaded and added touches of their architecture to the palace area. Today, Diocletian’s palace remains the heart of Split. Some 2,000 people continue to live and work in this area where an emperor once walked.
I loved wandering through the narrow streets, paved with stones. It was so easy to get twisted around but eventually, we would come out to one of the many open plazas that were lined with outdoor cafes.
There is a wonderful “cafe culture” in Croatia. I love how people sit with a cup of coffee and watch time go by. On the Riva (Italian word for harbor), families and people come out after dinner and stroll along the waterfront or sit at a cafe and sip coffee while visiting. It was a great place to just sit and people watch.
Not far from this photo of men, is the working fisherman’s part of the harbor. It is called Matejuska Fishermen’s Port. The fleet of working boats are nestled in amongst the glitzy yachts of people enjoying a vacation along the Dalmatian coast. There is a small stone building that is like a “club house” for the fishermen. Whenever we walked by, the door would be open and there was a table with adult beverages. Men would be casually standing outside enjoying a beverage and chatting with their acquaintances. It was a glimpse into everyday life in Split, which I very much liked seeing.
The walkway followed the harbor. The photo below was about a 10 minute walk from the center of the Old Town to the west heading towards the undeveloped park area of the Marjan.
Directly across from this point, is the part of the harbor where you would get the ferries to the islands, cruise ships docked, the bus and train stations were located. It was easy to get around in this part of Split, an easy walk that took no longer than 20 minutes or so from one end of the harbor to the other.
I am sharing this photo of the Riva with you again because it shows part of the wall that surrounded the palace that the Roman Emperor, Diocletian built for his “retirement home”. When the palace was built in the 4th century, this wall was right at the waterfront. There was no promenade, like there is today. This was considered the back part of the palace but today, it is considered the “front entrance”.
The building process took 11 years, which was a short period of time for a structure of this size. It is believed that 2,000 slaves lost their lives during the construction. Due to the fact that land sloped to the sea, a cellar was built to level the building. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a photo of the cellar area which was massive, vaulted ceilings and thick columns to support the weight of the rooms on the floor above. Today, there are art exhibits and souvenir booths in this area.
Walking through the cellar you come to a staircase that brings you to an open square called the Peristyle. It was the focal point of the palace and appears to be so today.
You can barely make out two figures standing in the center of the square. One is holding a staff. These are “Roman Soldiers” who are students from the nearby university. They volunteer to dress as soldiers and will pose for photos with tourist for a tip. I asked them what was the most unusual or funny thing that happened to them. One of them said that a lady from Poland, reached under his tunic to see if he was wearing underwear…she had the audacity to grab him and then, didn’t even leave a tip!
This is another view of the square – the darker colored columns are made of red granite from Egypt, where Diocletian spent many years. To the right of the bell tower, is the only remaining black sphinx out of 13 that the emperor originally had at the palace.
At the end of the square, up the stairs and through the arched doorway, is the domed entrance into Diocletian’s living quarters. It was meant to impress his guest, which I am certain it did.
The acoustics are wonderful in here and whenever we passed by, we would hear an a cappella male group singing traditional Croatian songs. It was beautiful sounding.
According to my guide book, Roman Emperors were considered gods. Diocletian called himself the son of Jupiter or Jovius. Four times a year, at the change of the seasons, he would stand at the arched door from this entrance, look out over the Peristyle and his subjects would lie prone, praising him and kissing the hem of his gown.
Back out to the square….
This impressive bell tower was added from the 13-16th century. Behind the tower is a octagonal structure that, in Diocletian’s time, was his mausoleum. After the fall of the Roman Empire, it was converted into a cathedral, which it still is today.
Back to the center of the square with the bell tower to your back, there is a narrow street which wasn’t there in Diocletian’s time…he would have been able to look directly to the small temple dedicated to Jupiter…after all Diocletian considered himself to be “the son of Jupiter”.
At approximately the time that the mausoleum became a cathedral, the Temple of Jupiter was changed to St John’s Baptistry. I didn’t pay to go into the cathedral or go up the bell tower, but I did pay to see the inside of this small building. In the very center is a rather large font, with the woven-rope design called “pleter” that celebrates the nautical heritage of the region.
The vaulted ceiling was very interesting. It is decorated with different designs and faces.
For me, the centerpiece of the baptistry is the statue of St John the Baptist. It was created by Ivan Mestrovic, who I learned was one Croatia’s most famous sculptors. His style is elongated forms that he felt were more expressive. I will write much more on Mestrovic in a later post so I can properly share his story and art.
Returning back to the Peristyle square and walking behind the bell tower and cathedral, is the Golden Gate which was the main entrance to the palace in Diocletian’s day.
The small slit-like openings is the small chapel of a Dominican convent. It was such a sweet and peaceful place. There was a nun collecting a small fee for the visit.
This is a good example of the protective wall that surrounded the palace. At other parts of the wall, buildings have been added as can be seen on the Riva side.
Just outside of the Golden Gate is this larger than life statue of Bishop Gregory of Nin. During the 10th century, this Croatian priest persuaded the Vatican to preach his sermons in Croatian rather than Latin. This allowed his followers to understand this sermons and as a results, their faith grew stronger.
It is believed if you rub the toe of the the bishop, you will receive good luck but only “nonmaterial” wishes are given serious consideration….so don’t ask to win the lottery! I wish I had a picture of the toe, as it is shinier than the rest of the statue from the people rubbing it.
These are just some other interesting sights that I discovered wandering through the palace grounds. This small tunnel-like area is near the Golden Gate.
This open area was near the Peristyle square.
On the east side of the palace, just outside the wall is the Green Market.
Locals and tourist visit the market to buy their daily provisions of fruit, vegetables, cheese, honey and baked goods. In another section of the market, clothes are sold and for the tourist, there are souvenir stalls. A little something for everyone.
Since we didn’t take a formal tour, I am certain that there is much history that we missed. I hope that you have a general idea of the massive palace area that was once home to Diocletian.
A Visit to the Plazas
Trg Republike or Republic Square
Prokurative (Trg Republike) – Republic Square
This plaza is surrounded by neo-Renaissance buildings. It was constructed in the late 1800s and resembles the architecture of Venice that was popular at that time. We were traveling during the “off season” for Croatia. I understand that this place is very busy during the summer months with cultural events and concerts.
Narodni Trg or People’s Square
This square is just outside of the walls of Diocletian’s palace and came to being when a Roman town developed near the palace. In the medieval period, this was the main square for the town.
This building is in the back of the square. The relief is of St Anthony and above it, you can just make out the relief of a man and woman who are arguing. Here is a closer look at that relief. It makes you curious as to why they would put such a decoration on the building…just above St Anthony.
Trg Brace Radica or Radic Brothers Square
I think this is my favorite square in the Old Town. It is just so full of personality!
The statue is another by the famous sculptor, Ivan Mestrovic. It is of Marko Marulic, a 16th century poet who is considered the father of the Croatian language. Before Marulic wrote his poetry in Croatian, it was considered to be backward and used by peasants only.
This square is outlined with buildings that have rustic green shutters, adding to the personality.
This tower was built for a dual reason. It was to be used as protection from any Ottoman attack and to discourage any locals against plans of rebellion.
The Marjan Peninsula
The day after we arrived in Split was Sunday. We had gotten there so late and were not really orientated to the city but I knew that it would be the best day to visit the Mestrovic Gallery which is located in the Marjan Peninsula area.
The weather was perfect! Clear blue skies with enough of a breeze to cool you from the bright sun. We had gotten directions on the bus route but decided to enjoy the views of the harbor and walk to the gallery. What a good decision! We followed the promenade around the harbor until we came to one of the first parks, located behind St Stephen’s Church.
Instead of walking along the Ivana Mestrovica Boulevard that would have taken us directly to the gallery, David and I walked along the ocean path that we discovered and then cut up to the gallery.
The gallery is in a palace that was designed by Mestrovic and served as his residence, studio and exhibition space. Going through his gallery was a lovely way to spend a Sunday afternoon.
My next post, will be about the life and work of Ivan Mestrovic. I could segue right into Mestrovic’s story here but feel that this post is long enough for now.