Traveler: Danielle Gervalis
When: May 2015
Overall Experience: I didn’t have expectations about Split because it was the last stop on an already amazing journey in Croatia. Wow, was I blown away. Split is an epicenter of surprises, refinement, and antiquity.
Hotel: We stayed at Villa Marjela (Street name: Jobva 5) which is a small hotel a little over a half mile from the main attractions of Old Split. Our cab had a hard time trying to find this place because it is in a residential area and next to a large empty lot. The neighborhood can look a little sketchy at night as it’s surrounded by sad looking playgrounds and communist style, plain concrete buildings. We didn’t have any issues and we pretty much walked everywhere. The rooms themselves are no frills with sturdy mattresses. Be prepared to haul your luggage up a few flights of stairs. If you are passing through Split, it’s not a bad place to spend the night, however, if you are staying a few nights you might be more comfortable somewhere else.
Diocletian’s Palace – This incredible UNESCO World Heritage Site makes up half of Split’s Old City and is incredibly fun to explore. Be forewarned, it is the top attraction in the city so it can get busy during peak season. If you want the place all to yourself, get up early.
Built in 11 years, at a cost an estimated 2,000 slaves’ lives, the palace served as a retirment home for the Emperor Diocletian, infamous for executing scores of Christians during his 20-year reign in the third and fourth centuries. If you can get past all of the human misery associated with it, the complex is actually stunning. It faces the harbor (in the past the water came directly up to the door for an alternative escape route in case of attack) and consists of Diocletian’s villa, mausoleum, which is now a cathedral, four entrance gates, which only pillars remain today, and an extensive maze of cellars. The ruins are part of the old city itself so most of the palace complex is free to explore (aside from the cellars and cathedral).
Walking through the ostentatious entry vestibule, you’ll arrive at the entrance to Diocletian’s villa. The structure once had a dome adorned with colorful murals on the ceiling, where a gaping hole is today. Even without the dome, the entryway is still stunning. If you’re lucky, you’ll be entertained by an all-male a cappella group singing and selling CDs in the entry.
The Peristil is the main, grand square located where the two main roads of the palace intersect. It’s still a large gathering area inspiring awe from the many tourists walking through here. You’ll see huge columns and 3,500 year old sphinxes lounging about brought from Egypt. Feel free to spend time here people watching and enjoying the live music during the early evenings.
The Cathedral of Saint Dominus was originally Diocletian’s eternal resting place but once Rome fell, it was converted to what you see today. The ticket buying/entrance can get a little cumbersome because there are tickets needed for each attraction but it is worth paying the extra 15kn to climb to the top for the incredible views of the city. It’s a steep climb but you are rewarded at the top! You can also tour the church museum, and crypt for a fee but nothing really remains from the time of Diocletian and the contents are similar to what you would find in other churches across Europe. Unless you are a true church history buff, you won’t feel like you missed out.
Believe it or not, the pièce de résistance of the entire palace is the cellars! Divided into east and west, the western side is the exhibit and event space and the eastern side is the rougher, more authentic version of the ruins. The entirety of the cellars was once filled with water and in later years was used for human waste and garbage. You’ll see holes in the ceilings where the upper echelons of society would literally dump their trash…. How pleasant. Today it’s used for a variety of cool events such as fashion shows, art exhibits, souvenir shopping and oh yes, filming Game of Thrones!
Best of all during my visit, there was an EPIC wine tasting event in the cellars! It was 40kn for what must have been 50 vendors all in the bowels (pun intended) of Diocletian’s palace. You were able to tour both sides at your leisure with a glass of wine, stopping to view the old roman piping and a bust of Diocletian. Serendipitous moments like these enamor me to traveling. Wandering around an ancient Roman palace, drinking Croatian wine, talking to the winemakers and peering at the artifacts found by archeologists — pinch me!
Once you are done exploring the main sights, head through the claustrophobic alleyway to Jupiter’s Temple which was converted to St. John’s Baptistery at the same time as the Cathedral. A small rectangular monument, it’s included in the Cathedral entrance ticket. On the exterior, you’ll see one of the famous Egyptian sphinxes sadly this one no longer has its head. Inside, you’ll see the adult sized baptismal font and a statue of St. John the Baptist which was created by famous Croatian sculptor Ivan Mestrovic.
Speaking of the famous sculptor, outside of the Golden Gate, you’ll see a giant statue of Bishop Gregory of Nin, who was a native Croatian and lobbied the Vatican to have mass said in the native language instead of Latin. You’ll see that his big toe is much shinier than the rest of the sculpture. Local legend is that if you rub the toe, you’ll have good luck, so go ahead and give it a try.
Food and Drink:
Bokeria Kitchen & Wine – This restaurant is incredibly hip, has beautiful modern décor, a comfortably cool atmosphere, and most importantly a menu filled with delicious Mediterranean style dishes. It’s a large space with two floors and communal tables in the bar area. Since we didn’t have a reservation, we sat at the one of the communal tables and made new friends over the Croatian wine list, sampled seasonal veggies and perfectly cooked meats and fish recommended by the kindly servers. Don’t forget to leave room for dessert!
Restaurant Spalatin – A great, casual spot for lunch, we stumbled upon this place to wait out a sudden rainstorm. It’s located in a large courtyard open to the harbor and has loads of outdoor seating as well as covered seating under an awning with large striped blinds. You can’t miss it! The food is reasonably priced. We had lunch for two people plus wine for under 200kn ($30). The menu is standard Dalmatian and Mediterranean fair with their specialty being pizzas.
Dnevni Boravak – Translated to English as “Living Room” this comfortable, tiny bar is effortlessly cool. It’s located within the city walls on windy Dominisova Street. Cocktails range from 30 to 70kn ($3-$10). We really enjoyed taking a break from wandering the old city and throwing back a few drinks with the friendly staff in such a unique locale.