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.
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.
The traditional Adriatic repertoire of grilled fish, fried squid and seafood stews is central to the cuisine of southern Dalmatia. In addition, Dalmatian pašticada (slabs of beef stewed in prunes and red wine) is particularly good in Split and Makarska, where it features on the lunchtime menus of almost every konoba. The towns inland from the coast and along the Neretva delta are famous for their frogs’ legs – which are either fried in breadcrumbs, grilled with garlic, or wrapped in slivers of pršut. The Neretva is also famous for its tangy, succulent eels, especially when used as the key ingredient of brodet – a spicy red stew that’s often accompanied by a glossy yellow mound of polenta.
According to conventional wisdom, Split didn’t exist at all until the Emperor Diocletian decided to build his retirement home here, although recent archaeological finds suggest that a settlement of sorts was founded here by the Greeks, well 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, with 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 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. 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.
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.
Split entered the twenty-first century as a transit city in which visitors spent a few hours before boarding their ferries. However the last decade has seen an enormous boost in tourism, with new hostels and hotels (with ever higher prices) catering for independent travellers eager to experience the city’s unique urban buzz. Split's new-found popularity does of course have its downside, with traditional residential areas in the Old Town gradually metamorphosing into tourist zones composed of apartment conversions and holiday homes.
Adapted long ago to serve as Split’s town centre, Diocletian’s Palace is certainly not an archeological “site”. Although set-piece buildings such as Diocletian’s mausoleum (now the cathedral) and the Temple of Jupiter (now a baptistry) still remain, other aspects of the palace have been tinkered with so much by successive generations that it is no longer recognizable as an ancient Roman structure. Little remains of the imperial apartments, although the medieval tenements that took their place were built using stones and columns salvaged from Diocletian’s original buildings. Despite its architectural pedigree, the palace area hasn’t always been the most desirable part of the city in which to live. During the interwar period it was dubbed the get (“ghetto”) and – abandoned to the urban poor, down-at-heel White Russian émigrés and red-light bars – became synonymous with loose morals and shady dealings. Nowadays the palace area is once more the centre of urban life, hosting a daily melee of tourists and shoppers.
Running along the palace’s southern wall, into which shops, cafés and a warren of tiny flats have been built, Split’s seafront Riva (officially the Obala hrvatskog naradnog preporoda) is where the city’s population congregates daily to meet friends, catch up on gossip and slouch over a leisurely coffee. In 2007 the Riva was subjected to an expensive facelift by architecture bureau 3LHD, with pristine Brač-marble flagstones laid beneath the palm trees, and neat new café awnings held up by what look like huge hockey-sticks. Nearly a decade on, it remains uncertain whether the notoriously conservative Splićani will ever get used to it.
The main approach to the palace from the Riva is through the Bronze Gate (Mjedena vrata), a functional and anonymous gateway that originally gave access to the sea, which once came right up to the palace. Inside is a vaulted space which once formed the basement of Diocletian’s central hall, the middle part of his residential complex, now occupied by arts and crafts stalls.
Born the son of slaves, Diocletian was a native of Dalmatia – and possibly grew up in Salona, next door to Split. Despite his humble origins he proved himself quickly in the Roman military, becoming emperor in 284 at the age of 39. For 21 years he attempted to provide stability and direction to an empire under pressure – goals he achieved with some measure of success. Believing that the job of running the empire was too big for one man, however, Diocletian divided the role into four, the Tetrarchy, carefully parcelling out responsibility among his partners – a decision which some historians believe led directly to disintegration and civil war. Diocletian was also renowned for his persecution of Christians: those martyred during his reign included the patron saints of Split, Domnius and Anastasius, along with many other leading religious figures – Sebastian, George, Theodore and Vitus among them.
The motives for Diocletian’s early retirement have been the subject of much speculation. It was obviously planned well in advance by a man who feared he was no longer up to the rigours of government. As a highly innovative emperor, Diocletian obviously saw the very concept of retirement – a total novelty among Roman rulers – as a logical adjunct to his other reforms. However, the power-sharing system he left behind soon disintegrated once he was no longer at the helm, leading ultimately to the rise of a new strongman, Constantine the Great (ruled 309–38).
Our knowledge of Diocletian’s Palace owes much to the eighteenth-century Scottish architect Robert Adam, who set out to provide a visual record of what remained of the palace, believing that contemporary European builders had much to learn from Roman construction techniques. Adam arrived in Split in 1757 with a team of draughtsmen; they spent five weeks in the city despite the hostility of the Venetian governor, who almost had them arrested as spies. This didn’t prevent Adam from enjoying the trip: “the people are vastly polite, everything vastly cheap; a most wholesome air and glorious situation” was how he summed the town up. The resulting book of engravings of the palace caused a sensation, offering inspiration to Neoclassical architects all over Britain and Europe. Adam’s work was certainly seminal in the development of the Georgian style in England, and large chunks of London, Bath and Bristol may be claimed to owe something of their space, symmetry and grace to Diocletian’s buildings in Split.
Standing at the heart of medieval Split is Narodni trg (People’s Square, although it’s colloquially known as “Pjaca” or piazza), the public space that stretches just outside the Iron Gate (Željezna vrata), the palace’s western entrance. Narodni trg replaced the Peristyle as the city’s main square in the fourteenth century, and is overlooked to the east by a Romanesque clock tower with the remains of a medieval sundial. The north side of the square is dominated by the fifteenth-century Town Hall (Gradska vijećnica), with a ground-floor loggia of three large pointed arches supported by stumpy pillars – it frequently plays host to major art or history exhibitions in the summer.
West of the square lie the bustling narrow streets and passages of the medieval town. To the south, Marulićeva leads down towards Mihovilova širina, a small square whose café-bars get packed on warm summer evenings, and the adjoining Trg braće Radića, more popularly known as Voćni trg (Fruit Square) because of the market that used to be held here. There’s a large statue of Marko Marulić, supplied by the industrious Meštrović, in the middle, and an octagonal tower that once formed part of the fifteenth-century Venetian castle, or kaštel – most of which has now either disappeared or been incorporated into residential buildings.
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.
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.
The main visitor-magnet east of the city centre is Bačvice beach, a few minutes’ walk east of the ferry terminal. A popular destination for Splićani of all ages, Bačvice is 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.
For a major city Split has quite a variety of beaches offering clean, safe swimming, all within easy reach of the centre. These are just three of the best.
Bačvice is the most popular of Split’s beaches, largely thanks to its central location but also because of its uniquely shallow, sandy floor. Bathers can safely wade out for quite a distance, which makes it popular with paddling families. There is a well-equipped children’s playpark in the square immediately behind the beach, and the cafés and restaurants of the Bačvice pavilion are nearby.
Four kilometres east of the centre (reached from Bačvice via coastal footpath; otherwise catch bus #8 from outside the central market), Žnjan is a part-pebble, part-gravel beach that was laid out relatively recently – this part of Split’s shoreline was where Pope John Paul II held Mass in front of 50,000 people in October 1998. The beach area is still a bit gravelly and rough underfoot, but there is a wealth of facilities including cafés, a playpark, bouncy castles and a karting track.
Four kilometres west of town, on the south side of the Marjan peninsula, Kašjuni is a strip of fine shingle that largely lacks any accompanying facilities, thereby making it the perfect choice for connoisseurs of idyllic bays. Reached by an unmarked side road about 1km beyond the Ivan Meštrović Museum, it faces out towards the green island of Čiovo and feels totally removed from the bustle of the city.
Five kilometres inland from Split, at the foot of the mountains that divide the coastal plain from the Zagora, is the sprawling dormitory suburb of Solin, a characterless modern town which has grown up beside the ruins of Salona, erstwhile capital of Roman Dalmatia and probable birthplace of Diocletian. The town once boasted a population of around sixty thousand and was an important centre of Christianity long before Constantine legalized the religion throughout the empire – prominent leaders of the faith (future saints Domnius and Anastasius among them) were famously put to death here by Diocletian in 304. It was later the seat of a powerful Byzantine bishopric until 614, when the town was comprehensively sacked by a combined force of Slavs and Avars, and the local population moved off to settle in what would subsequently become Split.
The town of Klis grew up around a strategic mountain pass linking the coast with the hinterland of the Zagora. The steep rock pinnacle around which the modern town huddles was first fortified by the Romans before being taken over by the expanding medieval kingdom of the Croats; kings Mislav (835–45) and Trpimir (845–64) both based their courts here. Klis remained in Hungaro-Croatian hands until the sixteenth century, when the Turks, already in command of Bosnia, began pushing towards the coast. Commanded by Captain Petar Kružić, Klis withstood sieges in 1526 and 1536, but finally succumbed to Ottoman attack in 1537, when attempts to relieve the citadel ended in failure. Kružić himself was captured and executed; the sight of his head on a stick was too much for Klis’s remaining defenders, who gave up the fortress in return for safe passage north. The use of Klis Fortress in fantasy series Game of Thrones (in which it doubled as Meereen, the slaver-city conquered by a certain Daenerys Targaryen, if you must know) has provided the site with an additional layer of mystique.
The present-day town straggles up the hillside beneath the fortress and is divided into three parts: Klis-Varoš, on the main road below the fortress; Klis-Grlo, at the top of the hill where the Drniš and Sinj roads part company; and Klis-Megdan, off to one side, where you’ll find the main gate to the site.
The fortress (tvrđava) is a remarkably complete structure, with three long, rectangular defensive lines surrounding a central strongpoint, the Položaj maggiore (Grand Position, a mixed Croatian–Italian term dating from the time when Leonardo Foscolo captured the fortress for the Venetians in 1648), at its eastern end. There’s no real museum display and very little labelling, but the fortress interior is immediately impressive, with cobbled walkways zigzagging their way up through a succession of towered gateways. You can peek inside several dusty storehouses, barrack blocks and – near the fortress’s highest point – an ancient stone chapel that briefly served as a mosque during the Ottoman occupation. The views from the walls are truly breathtaking, with the marching tower blocks and busy arterial roads of suburban Split sprawling across the plain below, and the islands of Šolta and Brač in the distance.
(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.
(Festival mediteranskih filmova) Early June. Features and documentaries with a strong regional focus, with showings at open-air cinema Bačvice and Kinoteka Zlatna Vrata, and DJ-led after-parties.
Early July. Sixty thousand revellers descend on Poljud stadium for a long weekend, celebrating the best in electronic dance music with live acts and DJs until the early hours. With the city filling up with festival-goers, accommodation prices go through the roof. Website.
(Splitsko ljeto) Mid-July to mid-August. 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. Tickets are available from the HNK box office.
September. Independent, radical and subversive features, shorts and documentaries. The main venues are Kino Karaman and Kino Zlatna Vrata. Website.
Top image: Split,Croatia. © novak.elcic/Shutterstock