With its seafront cafés and ancient alleyways, shouting stallholders and travellers on the move, bustling, exuberant SPLIT is one of the Mediterranean’s most compelling cities. It has a unique historical heritage too, having grown out of the palace built here by the Roman Emperor Diocletian in 295AD. The palace remains the city’s central ingredient, having been gradually transformed into a warren of houses, tenements, churches and chapels by the various peoples who came to live here after Diocletian’s successors had departed. Lying beyond the Roman/medieval tangle of central Split lie suburban streets full of palms and exotic plants, followed by stately rows of socialist-era housing blocks that look like something out of a modernist architectural stylebook.
Nearly everything worth seeing in Split is concentrated in the compact Old Town behind the waterfront Riva, made up in part of the various remains and conversions of Diocletian’s Palace itself, and the medieval additions to the west of it. You can walk across this area in about ten minutes, although it would take a lifetime to explore all its nooks and crannies. On either side the Old Town fades into low-rise suburbs of utilitarian stone houses grouped tightly around narrow alleys – Veli Varoš, to the west, and Manuš, to the east, are the most unspoiled – and, although there are no specific sights, worth a brief wander. West of the city centre, the wooded Marjan peninsula commands fine views over the coast and islands from its heights. The best of the beaches are on the north side of Marjan, or east of the ferry dock at Bačvice.
As Croatia’s second city, Split is a hotbed of regional pride, and disparagement of Zagreb-dwellers is a frequent, if usually harmless, component of local banter. The city is famous for the vivacious outdoor life that takes over the streets in all but the coldest and wettest months: as long as the sun is shining, the swish cafés of the waterfront Riva are never short of custom.
According to conventional wisdom, Split didn’t exist at all until the Emperor Diocletian decided to build his retirement home here, although recent archeological finds suggest that a Roman settlement of sorts was founded here before Diocletian’s builders arrived. Diocletian’s Palace was begun in 295 AD and finished ten years later, when the emperor came back to his native Illyria to escape the cares of empire, cure his rheumatism and grow cabbages. Even in retirement Diocletian maintained an elaborate court here in a building that housed both luxurious palatial apartments in the south of the complex and a military garrison in the north. The palace as a whole measured some 200m by 240m, with walls 2m thick and almost 25m high, while at each corner there was a fortified keep, and four towers along each of the land walls.
The palace was home to a succession of regional despots after Diocletian’s death, although by the sixth century it had fallen into disuse. In 614, it was suddenly repopulated by refugees fleeing nearby Salona, which had just been sacked by the Avars and Slavs. The newcomers salvaged living quarters out of Diocletian’s neglected buildings, improvising a home in what must have been one of the most grandiose squats of all time. They built fortifications, walled in arches, boarded up windows and repelled attacks from the mainland, accepting Byzantine sovereignty in return for being allowed to preserve a measure of autonomy. The resulting city developed cultural and trading links with the embryonic Croatian state inland, and was absorbed by the Hungaro-Croatian kingdom in the eleventh century.
Venetians, Ottomans and Austrians
By the fourteenth century, Split had grown beyond the confines of the palace, with today’s Narodni trg becoming the new centre of a walled city that stretched as far west as the street now known as Marmontova. Venetian rule, established in 1420, occasioned an upsurge in the city’s economic fortunes, as the city’s port was developed as an entrepôt for Ottoman goods. Turkish power was to be an ever-constant threat, however: Ottoman armies attacked Split on numerous occasions, coming nearest to capturing it in 1657, when they occupied Marjan hill before being driven off by reinforcements hastily shipped in from Venice, Trogir and Hvar.
During the nineteenth century, Austrian rule stimulated trade and helped speed the development of Split’s port.
Split’s biggest period of growth occurred after World War II, when industrial growth attracted growing numbers of economic migrants from all over the country. Many of these newcomers came from the Zagora, the rural uplands just inland, and ended up working in the enormous shipyards – colloquially known as the Škver – on Split’s northwestern edge, providing the city with a new working-class layer. It was always said that productivity at the Škver was directly related to the on-the-pitch fortunes of Hajduk Split, the football team which more than anything else in Split served to bind traditional inhabitants of the city with recent arrivals. Beginning with the big televised music festivals of the 1960s, Split also became the nation’s unofficial pop music capital, promoted as a kind of Croatian San Remo. Since then generations of balladeering medallion men have emerged from the city to regale the nation with their songs of mandolin-playing fishermen and dark-eyed girls in the moonlight.
Into the present
Split entered the twenty-first century as a transit city in which people spent a few hours before boarding their ferries. However the last decade has seen an enormous boost in tourism, with new hostels and new hotels (with ever higher prices) catering for travellers who want to experience the city’s unique urban buzz. As Split becomes wealthier, however, it is also becoming socially more conservative and provincial – the kind of place where moral-majority citizens campaign to have Gay Pride marches banned from the streets. The current expansion of Split University may help to alleviate this slide towards philistinism, with more and more young talents being encouraged to stay in the city rather than drift off to Zagreb.Read More
- Diocletian's Palace
The Marjan peninsula
The Marjan peninsula
Crisscrossed by footpaths and minor roads, the wooded heights of the Marjan peninsula offer the easiest escape from the bustle of central Split. From the Old Town it’s an easy ten-minute walk up Senjska, which ascends westwards through the district of Veli Varoš, arriving after about ten minutes at the Vidilica café on Marjan’s eastern shoulder. There’s a small Jewish graveyard round the back of the café, and to its right a stepped path climbs towards Vrh Marjana, where there’s a wider view of the coast and islands.
About 1km further west, there’s an even better panorama from the peninsula’s highest point, 178-metre-high Telegrin. Keeping to the left of the Vidilica brings you to a path which heads round the south side of the hill, arriving after about five minutes at the thirteenth-century St Nicholas’s Chapel (Sveti Nikola), a simple structure with a sloping belfry tacked on to one side like a buttress. From here, the path continues for 2km, with wooded hillside to the right and the seaside suburbs of Marjan’s south coast on the left, before arriving at St Hieronymous’s Chapel (Sveti Jere), a simple shed-like structure pressed hard against a cliff – medieval hermits used to live in the caves that are still visible in the rock above. From here you can descend towards the road which leads round the base of the peninsula, or cross its rocky spine to reach Marjan’s fragrant, pine-covered northern side. Paths emerge at sea level near Bene bay, where you’ll find a combination of rocky and concreted bathing areas and a couple of cafés.
The main visitor-magnet east of the city centre is Bačvice beach, a few minutes’ walk east of the ferry terminal. This simple crescent of sand and shingle can’t compare with the beaches farther south, but it remains a popular – and crowded – destination for Splićani of all ages. Bačvice is also the spiritual home of picigin, a game only played in and around Split, which works rather like a netless version of volleyball in the sea, involving a lot of acrobatic leaping around as players try to prevent a small ball from hitting the water. Immediately behind the beach is a chic modern three-tier pavilion, resembling a cross between an Art Deco seaside building and a high-tech metal tent. With several cafés and a couple of swanky eating places inside, it’s a popular venue for after-dark drinking and feasting throughout the year. A coastal path leads east from Bačvice past a couple of smaller bays, passing the tennis club where 2001 Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanišević honed his skills. There are plenty more cafés along the way, and the whole stretch is a popular strolling area all year round.
Miljenko Smoje (1923–95)
Miljenko Smoje (1923–95)
Split is famous for its self-deprecating humour, best exemplified by the writings of Miljenko Smoje, a native of the inner-city district of Veli Varoš. Smoje’s books, written in Dalmatian dialect, document the lives of an imaginary group of local archetypes and brought the wit of the Splićani to a nationwide audience. An adaptation of his works, Naše malo misto (“Our Little Town”), and its follow up, Velo Misto (“Big Town”), were the most popular comedy programmes in Croatian – and probably Yugoslav – television history.
Orson Welles in Split
Orson Welles in Split
Head for the Joker shopping centre on put Brodarice (ten minutes’ walk northeast of the Old Town along Dovominskog rata) and you’ll come face to face with a bolero-hatted bronze sculpture of Hollywood director Orson Welles, unveiled in 2007. The statue was designed by Welles’s long-time companion, Croatian-born actress and sculptor Oja Kodar, who he met while shooting gloomy central European exteriors for his adaptation of Kafka’s The Trial in Zagreb in 1961. Croatia became a second home to Welles, who acted in local-made films (including the partisan war epic Battle on the Neretva in 1969), had a holiday villa at Primošten and – according to local lore – was an eager follower of Hajduk Split.
Feast of St Domnius
(Sveti Dujam or, more colloquially, Sveti Duje) May 7. The city’s protector is celebrated with processions, masses and general festivity. Domnius is also the patron saint of woodwork, and you’ll see craftsmen selling chairs, tables, barrels and carvings in Split market on the days surrounding the feast.
Mediterranean Film Festival
(Festival mediteranskih filmova) Early June w fmfs.hr. Features and documentaries with a strong regional focus, with showings at open-air cinema Bačvice and Kinoteka Zlatna Vrata, and DJ-led after-parties.
Split Summer Festival
(Splitsko ljeto) Mid-July to mid-August w splitsko-ljeto.hr. In the summer Split hosts a spate of cultural events – including top-quality theatre, a lot of classical music and at least one opera – many performances of which take place on outdoor stages in the Peristyle and other Old Town squares. Seats for the operas cost between 100Kn and 250Kn, significantly less for other events; tickets are available from the HNK box office.
Split Film Festival
September w splitfilmfestival.hr. Independent, radical and subversive features, shorts and documentaries. The main venues are Kino Karaman and Kino Zlatna Vrata.
Few football teams are as closely associated with their home city as Hajduk Split. Formed in Prague’s U beer hall in February 1911 by Croatian students inspired by Czech teams Sparta and Slavia, the club is named after the Robin Hood-like brigands who opposed both Ottoman and Venetian authority from the Middle Ages onwards. Hajduk was an explicitly Croatian team at a time when Split was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and, later, towards the end of World War II, the entire squad was shipped to Italy by the Partisans in order to play demonstration matches as an explicitly anti-fascist team. They were also the first team in Yugoslavia to play with a petokraka (communist five-pointed star) on their jerseys, and the first team to remove it when it became clear that Yugoslavia’s days were numbered.
A large part of the Hajduk mystique comes from their success on the pitch: they were Yugoslav champions twice in the 1920s, three times in the 1950s, four times in the 1970s and went on to become champions of Croatia five times between 1992 and 2005. They’re also famous for their loyal fans, known as the torcida (after the Brazilian fans that Hajduk supporters had seen footage of during the 1950 World Cup). Split’s version of the torcida launched itself in October 1950, providing the team with maximum, Rio-style support for the title-decider against Red Star Belgrade – the first time that torches, banners and massed chanting had been seen on the terraces in this part of Europe. Hajduk won the match, but the communist authorities were shocked by the levels of popular frenzy displayed. Horrified by the idea that football supporters could organize themselves without the leadership of the Party, the government came down hard on the torcida. Today, Hajduk and their fans remain an unavoidable part of the urban landscape, and victories over traditional enemies like Dinamo Zagreb are still celebrated with citywide rejoicing. Some would argue that the team has become all-important to the local population as other symbols of Dalmatian identity are gradually eroded and the act of supporting Hajduk becomes one of the few communal experiences left. And although over the last two decades they’ve fallen from being a major European force to ineffectual east European minnows, if the number of freshly painted Hajduk murals is anything to go by, they still retain the status of number-one local religion.
The team plays in the Poljud Stadium (8. Mediteranskih igara 2; t 021 323 650, w hajduk.hr), a strikingly organic structure originally built for the 1979 Mediterranean Games. The season lasts from September to April and matches take place on Saturday or Sunday; tickets (20–50Kn) are sold from kiosks at the southern end of the ground. Most of the torcida congregate in the northern stand (tribina sjever), while the poshest seats are in the west stand (tribina zapad). Beer and popcorn are available inside, and there are numerous snack bars offering drinks and grills immediately outside.