Following an uneventful drive (thank goodness!) we arrived in Split and found the apartment at which we are staying. I know such things are popular in places like New York, but this was the first time I had used a car elevator. This particular one barely fit our car and took us down three levels to park at the lowest reaches of the car park. With the supporting columns, tight space, and relatively large car, it was a bit of a challenge to get it into the space, but I managed it in the end. Luckily we didn’t need to get the car out again until we left.
Split is a particularly interesting town. It is Croatia’s 2nd city and the effective capital of the Dalmatian coast. As such, although there are lots of interesting sites and plenty of tourists around, this is not just a tourist city, Croatians live and work in the same city explored by visitors and as such it has lots of local color, and restaurants are not just aimed at fat walleted outsiders. The core of Split that is of interest to visitors is the well preserved Old Town, which is made up of two square sections. To the east is Diocletian’s Palace and to the immediate west is the adjacent medieval town with Venetian squares and the sorts of cobbled streets and lanes one sees in other charming Adriatic towns.
The pearl in the oyster is Diocletian’s Palace, named after the Roman emperor who was from this area and later had his retirement palace built here – a huge compound housing not just his family and his servants, but a garrison as well. Sometime after he died in 313 CE the palace was abandoned only to be taken over by Slavic invaders who coopted the space to their needs, with higher ranked citizens taking up residence in the former palace halls above and the plebs (or whatever Slavs called them!) grabbed space in the former cellars below.
In the 15th Century the Venetians took over this area, developing and fortifying Split with their particular style of architecture and during this time many of the open spaces of the palace were infilled with new buildings so that today the area of Diocletian’s Palace is a smorgasbord of Roman, medieval and other buildings in a sort of 3D matrix. It is an amazing space, and one that has been used for film and TV sets including the ubiquitous (in Dalmatia) Game of Thrones.
The walk began with the cellars many of which had become infilled with trash dropped down from above during Slavic time by holes bored in the floors of the palace. These were mostly excavated to reveal the area visitable today, although in places one can see areas that are yet to be excavated. Since the area above is built up, the cellars now give the best impression of how the Roman palace was laid out and it must have been extraordinary in its time.
Walking upstairs and above ground, one comes out into the Peristyle, the heart of the former palace, and the heart of Old Town Split today. Along one side is the Cathedral of St. Dominus which is also the former mausoleum and crypt of Diocletian. The upper columns of the Cathedral were a part of Diocletian’s own sarcophagus. Kind of ironic that there is no trace of remains of this Roman Emperor who killed Christians, but that his mausoleum is now one of the world’s smallest Cathedrals.
Nearby the former Temple of Jupiter was converted into St. John’s Baptistry. The half-barrel ceiling is considered one of the best preserved of its kind anywhere, with individual gargoyle like heads studded in the patchwork.
In a cupola, close to the peristyle we got to hear Klappa singers, something we had been looking forward to seeking out, but in the end came upon surreptitiously. Klappa is an a Capella form of singing that is taken very seriously in Dalmatia. This space happens to have amazing acoustics, so we enjoyed a brief, very atmospheric concert, during which I was able record one of the songs.
Sorry that the video is a bit jumpy, but it’s hard to avoid the tourists. You have to love the Japanese couple who make a cameo appearance during the performance and the singers didn’t even miss a beat!
[For some reason my blog editor won’t let me embed the video, so follow this link for a 1 minute treat of an a Capella Klappa performance]: https://youtu.be/W7l2tszMLV0
The above ground old city is a complete warren of tiny lanes and there is no map of the town – the best bet is to just wander – you can’t get too far lost and major sites are signposted anyway. We had heard that the Synagogue closed at 2, but late in the day we saw the gate was open and knocked on the door and were able to come in and visit. Jews have been in Split since the Romans brought them to their colonies following the destruction of the Temple. This particular synagogue is one of the oldest in continuous use in Europe and seems to have some similar features to Venetian synagogues we’ve visited.
At its prewar peak, there were probably about 350 Jews in Split, but the current population is only about 100 and they take a pragmatic approach to their religion today as many of the congregants are intermarried. Interestingly, when the Italians occupied this area they warned the local Jews that the Germans/Ustashe were coming to take over and that they should come to Italy with their retreating forces. Those that did ended up in Italian internment camps, but survived the war. Those that stayed, thinking “we lived under the Italians, we can live under the Germans” perished, and there is a memorial plaque on the wall remembering these people.
On an after dinner stroll we found a stall still open in the green market and bought some delicious strawberries to have with breakfast. The walk back took us past the Golden Gate (there are Gates on each side of the palace called Golden, Silver, Brass, and Iron) and although today this is the main gate into the area since it faces the mainland, in Diocletian’s times, it was the opposite, Brass Gate, which faced the ocean that would have been the principal entrance. The Golden Gate is next to the quarters where the soldiers and servants stayed.
The next day was a slow day as Kelly was not feeling great. We ended up walking along the old city, just west of Diocletian’s Palace, stopping to have drinks in Republic Square, which is little like St. Mark’s in Venice. In other words, the Venetians really left their architectural stamp on this city.
We also strolled The Riva, the coastal promenade in front of the Old City and the place to see and be seen. Back in the Palace, a visit to the Ethnographic Museum allowed us to see local folk instruments (who knew the Dalmatians used a form of bagpipe like the Irish uileann pipes?) as well as traditional costumes, toys and the like. There is also a terrace that is on the top of the museum with a great view of the town and the coast and this space turns out to be the whole in the roof of the cupola in which the Klappa singers performed below. We caught a few bars of their singing as we got to the terrace, but then they must have gone on a lengthy break as we did not get to hear them again.
Having a washing machine and nice weather, we were able to leave Split with clean clothes, ready to for the remainder of our journey.