‘I left my heart in…’ is an occasional series about the cities and landscapes which surprised me. It might be a stopover which leaves me longing to return or a city which I had few expectations of but unexpectedly loved. Previous entries include Mexico City and Chapada dos Guimaraes in Brazil.
If you tell people you’re visiting Croatia, everybody seems to know about Dubrovnik. With its impressive walled citadel, set right on the water and with Games of Thrones connections it’s become wildly over-touristed, prices out of locals’ reach and drowning in cruise-ship and day trip visitors. It’s undeniably pretty but difficult to enjoy with such huge crowds. But if you’re looking for a historical treasure- trove, with a lovely waterfront and a relaxed vibe, there is another option: Split.
Split is Croatia’s second city and has a wonderful mix of ancient history, plenty of cool little bars and restaurants and a walled old town (Diocletian’s Palace) which manages to avoid the Disneyfication of other walled towns in this part of the world. Split feels very liveable with tiny little bars in the old town tucked down medieval narrow streets; each one probably only has room for ten or twelve people but that’s part of their charm.
Dive into history at Diocletian’s Palace
Diocletian was Roman Emperor at the turn of the 4th century A.D. After voluntarily giving up his throne he was looking for somewhere to spend the later years of his life and settled on the Croatian coast at what is now Split. No small retirement home this, the walled complex is home to a number of palace buildings, a cathedral, Temple of Jupiter and many grand houses with stone courtyards. Four gates guard the entrances to the Palace, the grandest being the Golden Gate on the north side. Don’t miss the tiny church that sits in a narrow space above the gate, St Martin’s Church. St Martin was the patron saint of soldiers and this unique chapel is only 5m wide.
Pick up a map from the tourist office which shows all the spots not to miss inside the walled city. Eventually the little alleyways will lead you onto the main square, home to the cathedral and Roman loggia. Walk under the campanile into the cathedral and you’ll see its original use as the Emperor’s mausoleum reflected in the domed brick ceiling…it reminded me a bit of the Pantheon in Rome.
Take a right off the square to take you to the steps of the Temple of Jupiter – all of these buildings are amazingly well-preserved/restored. With a little imagination you can picture how busy the streets must have been when the Palace was first built back in the 4th century.
If you’re lucky you may find traditional Croatian singers in little courtyard just behind the main square.
Relax along the Riva, Split’s waterfront
Split does have a cruise port but it’s larger size means the number of tourists is not so overwhelming…most visitors to Diocletian’s Palace (which is free!) disappear by mid-afternoon leaving you free to wander the streets and soak up the fascinating history before heading to the waterfront for an Aperol Spritz or a local craft beer.
If you feel like stretching your legs, keep walking right to the end of the Riva, follow the road along the coast and you’ll come across the Jadran Beach Bar. It’s hidden in a little cove which is perfect for swimming or just enjoying a drink just feet from the inviting turqoise waters of the Mediterranean. Would you believe this is only a 15 minute walk from the centre of Split?
On the way back into town stop into Toto’s Burgers for a range of freshly made burgers, prawn and veggie skewers and salads. There are options for vegetarians, vegans and fish-lovers – the fresh tuna burger was delicious!
When I visited a new free food festival, Split Spring, was set up in the small park next to the main city walls (by the Golden gate entrance to the Palace). Get there early as they had already sold out of the veggie options I had my eye on. As you eat local acoustic musicians will serenade you… a nice place to spend part of your evening.
So if you’re looking for somewhere on the Croatian riviera that combines history, great food and drink and a relaxed city-by-the-sea vibe, Split could be the place for you!