Split: Beaches and a Roman palace
Looking for a fascinating vacation spot that combines ancient history with natural beauty? Consider Split, Croatia.
Split, the largest city along Croatia’s Adriatic coast is a hub for bus and boat connections from the country’s European neighbors as well as from the capital of Zagreb, which makes it an ideal base for exploring Croatia.
Even in October, ferries link Split with the popular islands of Hvar and Korcula and their gorgeous beaches. The local grape harvest is under way and truffle season has begun. And while the weather is still pleasant, averaging a comfortable 68 degrees, there are fewer tourists on the streets and hotel prices are lower than during the summer season.
Complementing the city’s natural beauty is its star attraction: Diocletian’s Palace, which was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979. The palace is arguably the largest and most complete remains of a Roman palace in the world.
As early as 229 B.C., Romans established Solin (Salona), three miles from current-day Split, as the capital of the Roman colony of Dalmatia. In 285, Diocletian, who was born in Dalmatia and rose through the military to a position of power, decided to build a seaside palace near his birthplace for use after his retirement. Construction of the 322,000-square-foot complex took 10 years. After his death in 316, the structure was used as a retreat by other Roman rulers.
As you stroll outside the palace’s southern wall along the popular, palm-lined seaside promenade known as the Riva, it’s easy to see why Diocletian chose this strategic seaside location. With good access to Mediterranean trade routes and coastal mountains that protected it from invasion, the impressive palace was perfectly situated.
Many portions of the current palace are original, while other parts have been reconstructed or built during later periods, including the 15th and 16th centuries.
From the Riva, visitors enter the complex through the Bronze Gate. It’s a short walk to the barrel-vaulted basement — part of the original palace — and as you look around, you begin to sense the scale and grandeur of the place.
Passing through the passageway, you reach the Peristil, or main square of the palace, surrounded by ancient columns. The Cathedral of St. Domnius sits on the eastern side of the square. A black granite Egyptian sphinx acquired by Diocletian during battle guards the entrance to the cathedral, which was built to be Diocletian’s mausoleum..
Inside the fortified walls of the palace, residents have always found a safe, secure home. The emperor’s living quarters are along the southern side of the palace, closest to the sea front. As many as 9,000 people, including soldiers and slaves from conquered lands, once lived inside the palace, and during the Middle Ages, noble families and wealthy merchants built their homes there. Many descendents of those early inhabitants continue to live on the palace grounds.
As local residents and tourists relax on broad steps along the sides of the Peristil, you can imagine Roman soldiers under the command of Diocletian socializing in the same spot more than 1,700 years ago. Narrow, white marble streets polished smooth by centuries of footsteps lead off the Peristil, and modern cafes serving strong Italian espresso are found on nearly every corner. Small apartments with laundry drying in the gentle sea breeze are tucked into narrow alleys, as are clothing and gift shops.
Immediately outside the Peristil, you arrive at the main Roman east-west street, the Decumanus, now called Kresimirova. This street splits the palace grounds into two halves and connects the eastern, or Silver Gate, with the western, or Iron Gate. Outside the Iron Gate lies the 15th- century Venetian-style town hall, while outside the Silver Gate, rebuilt in 1952 to repair World War II bombing damage, there is a busy market filled with colorful produce, locally produced olive oil and elderly women selling flowers.
The north, or Golden Gate, leads to a 1929 statue of Gregorios of Nin, a 10th-century religious leader. His big toe has been polished to a high shine by local residents who touch it for good luck.
The archaeological museum is slightly north of downtown Split and provides a fascinating supplement to Diocletian’s Palace and the nearby site of ancient Salona. Exhibits and explanations in English trace local history from Roman times to the Middle Ages.
The extensive ruins of Salona lie about three miles northeast of Split. Visitors can see the burial place of early Christian martyrs, remains of the city walls, a fifth-century cathedral, public baths and an amphitheater. A bargain at $2 per person, the ruins are open Monday through Saturday.
Allison Bough is a freelance writer and frequent traveler living in Naples, Italy. E-mail her at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Know & Go
Tourist information centers are inside the Silver Gate near the Peristil, and outside the Bronze Gate along the Riva promenade. Main areas of Diocletian’s Palace are open daily with free admission, but hours are limited inside the cathedral and its treasury.
Walking guided tours of the palace are available through Split Walks Inc. The 60-90 minute tours cost 11 euros (or 80 Croatian kuna); reservations are not required. Details at www.diocletianpalacetour.com.