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.

Brief history

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 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.

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.

Twentieth-century Split

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 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.

The palace

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.

The Riva

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 Bronze Gate

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.

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