Split, Croatia, a Roman emperor’s choice

Coming from the island of Hvar by ferry, Split looked massive in comparison. The second largest city in Croatia, it sits on a wide bay on the Adriatic Sea, set against a high mountain backdrop. Spreading over a central peninsula in both directions, the swarming of ships and boats of all sizes in its harbor informs the first time visitor that Split is an active commercial seaport. 

Closer to shore, majestic palm trees lining a wide pedestrian street by the water – the famous Riva – give the place an attractive look that has been luring tourists for generations.  But Split is more than a popular tourist destination: it’s the primary hub for commerce and transportation in Croatia’s central Dalmatia region, where ferries connecting the mainland to the islands arrive and depart from constantly. 

Inside Diocletian’s apartments in the palace

The beauty of Split has been well-known among travelers for the longest time. The first celebrity who fell for it was the Roman emperor Diocletian, who chose the sleepy port founded by Greeks in the 3rd century BC as the location of his retirement home. Split was also chosen for being close to Salona, the ancient capital of the Roman province of Dalmatia, just three miles away. Built between the years 295 and 305 AD, the coastal palace became a center of power and a major magnet for businesses in the area. After Diocletian’s death, in the year 313 AD, many rulers used it as a retreat. 

With the decline of the Roman Empire, by the 6th century Diocletian’s palace had been practically abandoned. That changed in 650 AD , when Salona was sacked and its inhabitants sought sanctuary behind the palace’s high walls; the wealthy in the emperor’s former quarters, the poor in the less spacious towers. From then on, Split grew to become an important Byzantine city, and the descendants of Salona’s citizens continued to live there for many centuries.

The Peristyle

As the world’s best-preserved Roman palace, Diocletian’s retirement home holds an outstanding place in the world’s heritage; it transcends local importance, and its ruins are still used as homes, shops, restaurants and everything else in between. In Split, past and present coexist peacefully and harmoniously.  

Leaving the ferry, I waited by the Riva for someone from the hotel to pick me up. I was surprised when a man on a bike pulling what looked like an oversized luggage compartment stopped by me and placed my suitcase in it. “You may go in, too,” he said. “Cars don’t fit in the palace area, we use bikes for transportation here,” he added. It was an unusual – and enjoyable – experience to zoom through the narrow ancient streets of the city’s ‘Stari Grad’ (Old Town) in the luggage compartment of a bike.

My ‘taxi’ at the hotel

The Jupiter Luxury Hotel that would be my home for a few days was inside the palace ruins, but nicely appointed with modern amenities and comfortable settings. When I got to my room and opened a door to a small balcony, I was face to face with tall Roman columns, next to a cafe full of chatting tourists. “What part of the palace was my room in, in Diocletian’s time?” I wondered, as I unpacked. “The legionnaires’ quarters? The emperor’s suite?” I later learned that it was in neither, just part of an area close to an enormous kitchen that served the emperor and his Roman court. “It’s not everyday that one sleeps in what was a Roman emperor’s kitchen,” I thought, before going to bed. 

Narodni Square

Split’s Old Town is very compact, and the buildings of the former palace are at its core.  Walking from my hotel the next morning, I passed by small souvenir stores housed under the palace’s arches, before getting to what looked like the center of it all, Narodni Square. Called ‘The People’s Square,’ it has been the location of the town’s main businesses and administration since the 15th century. A lively space full of ice cream parlors, bars, book stores and elegant buildings, Narodni Square is where the local nobility built their homes in centuries past. One of them, the Renaissance-style Town Hall, has a beautiful loggia with three arches on the ground floor and Gothic windows right above, a spot always full of tourists taking photographs. 

The Riva

From the Narodni it’s only a few steps to the Riva, Split’s bustling waterfront, located between the southern wall of Diocletian’s Palace and the harbor. With many bars, restaurants and shops, the attractive promenade is flanked by towering palm trees and shaded benches. At the end of the day, when the fashionable locals mingle over coffee, and others wait for their ferry to the islands, the Riva is an ideal spot for people watching. Practical advise: on the promenade there are many cash machines; locals will tell you which ones to avoid, as some charge ‘foreign’ (not Croatian) credit cards an extra fee to give you cash in Kuna, the local currency.

I took a guided tour to explore Diocletian’s Palace and was lucky to get a very knowledgeable city guide called Jasenka Blandford. She was so familiar with the Roman emperor’s home and with Split’s history that I joked that she had probably lived there in another life, some 1,700 years ago. She told us about Diocletian, a mysterious figure who retired early – instead of following the norm and governing until dying or being murdered – which was uncommon then. The emperor remained politically active after retiring, and still casts an ambiguous shadow over Split: celebrated as the city founder, he is also condemned for the execution of the city’s first Christian martyrs. 

Whatever the verdict, his majestic palace has survived and its extensive history is alive today. A typical Roman military camp enclosed by sturdy stone walls that reach 92 feet in height in some places, the original four entrance gates to the complex still stand, all named after a metal: the Golden, the Silver, the Iron and the Brass gates. The most impressive of them is the Golden Gate, the largest entrance to the palace, which faces the road to Salona. In the 11th century, the corridor between the palace and the gate was closed and converted into the Church of St Martin. 

Jasenka, an excellent tour guide

The Silver Gate was the palace’s eastern entrance. Next to it, there’s now a busy daily market selling vegetables and local delicacies, along with shoes and clothing. I took pleasure in visiting the stalls and purchased an Italian leather handbag for a very good price. I then stopped by the Oratory of St Catherine, built near the gate in the Middle Ages. It was used by the Dominican friars in 1217, while their own monastery was being built and rebuilt in the 17th century to become the Church of St Dominic, which now houses precious paintings. 

The Iron Gate, the best preserved of them all, sits next to a 12th century tower and the church of Our Lady of the Belfry, a site that hints at how the palace has evolved since its first days. The gate’s simple appearance is deceptive: it opens onto the richest facade of the palace, which later became living quarters. Vast cellars have been excavated there to reveal impressive arched vaults and fine detailed masonry. 

Those who watched the TV series Game of Thrones will be interested to know that Diocletian’s palace in Split served as a set for Daenerys dragon lock-up and training ground – the exquisite architecture and the huge scale of the building seem to have more to do with fiction than with life today. After visiting the palace, one is reassured that the Romans built grand and built to last. Very few places can attest to equal the level of engineering excellence of Dioclesian’s retirement home.  

One of the palace’s gates

The beating heart of the palace is still the Peristyle, once its central square. Layers of buildings from across the centuries can be seen side by side – and sometimes on top of each other – around what is now the Cathedral of Saint Domnius, built on the former Temple of Jupiter. With three impressive columns on three sides, the Peristyle was the entrance to the emperor’s private quarters, decorated with a tall arched tympanum and beautiful relief motives.

Today the Peristyle is the first stop for tourists taking pictures while enjoying the pleasant cafes around the square. The remains of emperor Diocletian were once in the Temple of Jupiter, alongside the remains of his wife, but – in a curious twist of fate – they were removed from the site in the 7th century, to make room for the body of a 3rd century Catholic bishop who was martyred during Diocletian’s persecution of the early Christians. 

The Prokurative

Split is bigger than its palace, and has much more to offer. The distinct Venetian look of the buildings around town recall the years between 1420 and 1797, when the busy port was under Venetian rule. One of the most beautiful of these sites is the Prokurative, also called Trg Republike (Republic Square). Built in stages between 1863 and 1928, long after the Venetian rule was over, it nonetheless retains a clear Venetian flair in its symmetric arcaded Renaissance buildings around a wide pedestrian space. With shaded areas where people relax and socialize, the Prokurative has many ground-floor cafes, and is the location of choice for outdoor events in Split. At the end of one sunny summer day in 2021, I got a table at one of the cafes and enjoyed a Cappuccino while watching ships coming and going at the port in front of me. That is one of the memories that I still relish of my trip to Croatia. 

I stayed in Split for a few days, to savor it one piece at a time – and it was worth it. From there I explored the stunning islands of Brac, Vis and Trogir, all a ferry boat ride away. Split is a great location on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia to venture out from, and a charming destination by itself. Diocletian knew what he was doing.  

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