Head away from the Dubrovnik crowds and you'll discover that Byron's 'pearl of the Adriatic' moniker applies equally well to Dalmatia’s largest city, Split
Dubrovnik may be the most popular destination in Croatia’s Dalmatia region, but the region’s largest city of Split is catching up fast. This stylish Adriatic port city has always boasted a stunning setting and one of the most impressive old towns in Europe, but these days its bountiful scenic charms are backed up by glitzy millionaire yachts and a flurry of trendy cafes and bars that have breathed new life into its old Roman core.
Croatia’s second most populous city was originally founded on a whim by the Roman emperor Diocletian. He decided to build his elaborate retirement palace by the Adriatic Sea here, but his plans of a restful seaside retirement, cooled by refreshing Adriatic breezes, ended in tragedy as infighting soon engulfed his former empire and he ended up poisoning himself within the grounds of the palace.
For centuries the ill-fated palace fell into disarray. Its hulking great walls, though - some as much as two metres thick in places, and over 20 metres high - remained strong, and in the 7th century local Slavs fleeing the sacking of Diocletian’s old stomping ground of Salona flocked into the palace complex to seek refuge and brought new life into its dormant stone.
Ever since they arrived as Slav squatters, the citizens of the city, known as the Spličani, have woven in their own architectural touches, with elements of Austrian and Venetian architecture arriving over the centuries. But the focus is still firmly on the original palace that proudly strides along the waterfront, welcoming the increasing number of travellers who pass through Split on their way up and down one of Europe’s most spectacular coastlines.
Today Split’s long palm-fringed waterfront, the Riva, not only buzzes with the swarm of Jadrolinija ferries that take tourists out to all of the Dalmatian islands and on as far as Italy, but also plays host to an increasing number of super-yachts. Bill Gates and Bernie Ecclestone are said to be amongst the luminaries now cruising some of the cleanest and least spoiled waters in Europe.
It is easy to see what is attracting a rapidly increasing number of Europe’s movers and shakers. Split’s setting is stunning, with a hulking shadow of limestone mountains rising up to the rear and, on the other flank, milky blue bays spilling out into the Adriatic. The spectacular backdrop is matched by the Spličani themselves, who always like to put on a show, whether it be striving to look cool over their cappuccinos, scooting around on a moped or strutting their stuff on the Riva promenade.
Split even has its own sport (picigin), which fittingly seems, to the casual observer, to not really be about points or rules, but merely an excuse for the local men to show off their lean physiques as they palm around a ball in the sea while the local women look on. So striking are the Spličani that a number of top European model agencies now regularly send scouts out to the city looking for both men and women.
Locals and visitors alike find themselves inexorably drawn into spending most of their free time within Diocletian’s Palace, which was originally built between AD295 and 305. Now recognised on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, the palace complex is both a stunning Roman remnant and also a testimony to the resourcefulness of the local people, with real homes moulded into the old walls and old ladies stringing out their washing where once the affairs of state of the entire Roman empire were discussed. This is no staid museum piece, but a living and breathing urban oasis, awash with myriad sights, sounds and smells; all thriving inside the two-millennia-old walls.
From the Riva, the Bronze Gate leads right into Diocletian’s former retreat. Over 200 buildings remain tucked within the original dimensions, with the emperor’s old chambers and garrisons converted over the centuries into shops, bars, cafes, hotels and houses. Remarkably, 3,000 people still live where the refugees from the nearby Roman city of Salona first moved in, and savvy foreigners are joining in by snapping up property as prices start to rise.
Break west from Narodni Trg to Marmontova and the shiny, modern face of Split emerges. The locals descend on this polished and recently revamped promenade every evening to flit and flirt through the myriad designer shops. They lick gelati (sladoled in Croatian) as they stroll in the orange hues of the early evening. With a number of big-name designers and some small domestic outlets, this street shows just how seriously the Spličani take their fashion.
After the shopping frenzy, evenings tend to start off early with the catwalk-style promenade past the Riva’s bars, as Split’s bright young things show off their latest fashions. Around 10pm the action for the 20 and 30-something crowd moves on to the sprinkling of cafes in the packed Mihovilova Širina, while clubbers head straight for the loud bass booms of the Bačvice beachfront.
If both of these are too crowded, head up the steps to the second level of Diocletian’s Palace, where a few more laidback bars await. That Diocletian’s Palace even has a second floor is not known to many visitors, and the bars here tend to attract a mainly local crowd even at the height of the summer.
Whether it is sifting through the layers of history of a two-millennia-old Roman palace as you follow in the intriguing footsteps of one of the most notorious Roman emperors, or just relaxing on the Riva enjoying a few drinks before a top-notch seafood feast in one of the excellent local restaurants, Split is a city that offers so many different things to so many people. It is easy to see why Diocletian wanted to retire here and it may not be long before Split is being mentioned in the same breath as Dubrovnik as a true ‘pearl of the Adriatic’.
Where to stay
: a serious injection of cash has transformed this formerly grungy, pension-style accommodation into a clean and welcoming three-star hotel. If funds suffice, splash out on suite 401 with its separate sitting area, which would surely be a favourite of Diocletian if he were back in town.
: long regarded as Split’s best hotel, the four-star Park
enjoys a pleasant location set just back from the waterfront at Bačvice. It also boasts modern and comfortable rooms and a decent restaurant with an attractive palm-fringed terrace that looks out to sea.
: this wonderfully characterful boutique property has 12 individually styled rooms right at the heart of Diocletian’s Palace. Throughout the hotel the décor is light and classically elegant, the fixtures and fittings high quality, while friendly and welcoming staff provide the finishing touch.
Where to eat
Šumica (Put Firula 6): a favourite with besuited business types, this classy retreat does both meat and seafood dishes with a dash of panache amidst woodland near the Adriatic. The outdoor terrace in season is a favourite see-and-be-seen spot of the local cognoscenti.
Nostromo (Kraj Sv Marije 10): modern and funky seafood restaurant adjacent to the city’s fish market, specialising in the freshest of seafood. Watch your grilled seafood platter being cooked in front of your eyes if you sit upstairs. You can hear the bustle of the adjacent fish market from the downstairs dining room during the day.
Stellon (Bačvice): funky and informal favourite of 20 and 30-somethings out at the leisure complex at Bačvice. Good seafood, meat dishes and pizzas among a wide choice; nice drinks, too. Sea views and a trendy vibe make this a much better choice than the increasingly touristy restaurants of the Riva.