Next, we moved on to Split on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia. The Old Town is delightful, full of atmosphere and history, but you have to drive through ugly urban sprawl to get there. Split is an interesting mix of old and new: the Old Town, which is basically built in and around the ruins of a Roman palace; and a large port, transportation hub, and ship-building city.
We flew from Zagreb to Split and caught the airport bus into the city. It’s 33 kn (just under US$4) per person, a pleasant drive in summer because it’s a/c, and takes about 30 minutes. The bus station is along the edge of the water, where the big ferry boats come in. The owners from Old Town Apartments, where we had made a reservation, were waiting to meet us and walked us to the rooms in the old town, outside the palace walls—a good thing as we’d never have found the place on our own in the winding maze of tiny streets!
To give context to the Old Town that many people love to visit today, here is a brief summary of the history.
The Roman emperor Gaius Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus, usually known just as Diocletian, decided to build a summer villa in his native land, on the coast of what is now Croatia, where he planned to retire. He was the first Roman emperor to give up his role voluntarily, interesting as the longer the Roman Empire endured, the more unpredictable the emperors became.
Work on the palace started in the 3rd century, and parts of the palace have been continuously occupied for 17 centuries.
The imperial palace enclosed by walls, with rectangular towers projecting from the corners, had elements of a castrum—a Roman military camp. There were 3 gates on the mainland and one on the sea side, and 2 principal streets, Cardo and Decumanus, dividing it into quadrants.
The complex was divided into 2 halves; the southern (sea side) half was for the emperor’s family, while the northern half had housing for servants and guards, as well as storage space. From the main entrance (north), also known as the Golden Gate, the street Cardo led to Peristyle, which opened to the emperor’s octagonal mausoleum. From there, a Vestibule opened into the emperor’s living quarters. The highest quality stone was used for the building, and it was decorated with Italian marble, Egyptian columns and sphinxes.
When the barbarian Avar and Slavic tribes invaded nearby Salona, the capital of the whole province of Dalmatia several kilometers away, in the 7th century, the Christian population fled to find shelter inside the walls of the palace. The living space became more crowded as new stone houses were incorporated into whatever available space there was in the squares, streets and porticoes, and the palace became an area of urban living.
This continues today, as the remains of his palace there still give the foundations of the modern city.
The Emperor’s Mausoleum became the city’s Cathedral, the oldest in Croatia. This is an ironic twist of history, as Diocletian was notoriously one of the most pitiless persecutors of Christianity in history. And the cathedral was chosen as the last resting place for the bones of the city’s patron saint, St Domnius, who was martyred and killed by Diocletian himself. The Romanesque belfry of St Domnius was built next to the cathedral and today towers over this unusual palace-city.
Three Roman Temples were inside the palace walls; the most important remaining is the former Temple of Jupiter, usually called the Baptistry these days.
However, this brief summary of this most unusual city doesn’t really prepare one for what it actually looks and feels like. So, I’ll try to capture that in the next posts.