An Even Split
Hello from Split. Here is a challenge, try to find Diocletian's Palace on the map. This is a bit of a trick question since most of Split's Old Town used to be the palace. I fell for this myself while trying to find my hotel and looking for a local landmark.
Such is the charm of the old quarter, it is a labyrinth of former palace grounds and buildings that have since transformed into a vibrant neighborhood. You can see remnants of this as you walk around, with narrow lanes becoming dead ends and cul de sacs, many with random stairways leading up from the street. My hotel itself was up a small stairway at the end of an alley, which made it tricky to find at first. On the plus side, the building used to be the old Roman baths known as the Thermae. So I guess you could say I was living like a Roman, albeit with Wi-Fi.
What makes Diocletian's Palace (a Roman emperor circa 300 AD who retired here, being a native of nearby Illyria) unique and quite cool is its lived-in quality rather than serving simply as a historic monument/ghost town. Being an active part of city life, there are small businesses, cafes, apartments with laundry hanging on the line, a large grocery store, and the ubiquitous ice cream kiosks. Right across from my local ice cream spot, in fact, was a courtyard from Diocletian's time built 17 centuries ago. The city cathedral is there as well, being a latecomer from the 6th century. One afternoon, I came across a wedding in the courtyard. The bride and groom posed for pictures (below) in front of the church, decorated with Venetian lions and right next to a small sphinx the Romans brought over from Eygpt, which gives you a sense of the history. Meanwhile, tourists such as myself intermingled with the wedding party.
Split did have a noticeable uptick in tourists compared to Zadar, and it wasn't too uncommon to overhear English. There were also several African street vendors like you see elsewhere in western Europe. But for now, the Old Town is holding the line on becoming too tourist-heavy and still remains a spot for locals. An even Split, I guess you could say.
But I learned from my guide on a walking tour that this local character of the old quarter could soon change. The Old Town has become increasingly trendy for jet setter types (which leaves me out), which is driving up rents and leases there. Most of Split lives in sprawling concrete block apartments that ring the city, with gray buildings blending into the granite of the nearby mountains. The apartment buildings I saw didn't look to be in the best of shape, careworn and rusted, so it will be interesting to see how all the people living in these areas will be re-housed as the buildings age out.
One bonus to my time here has been the Euro 2020 soccer tournament, delayed from last year because of Covid. The tournament determines the European championship. It has also been an interesting window on Croatia since certain historical rivals (ahem, Turkey) generate heated responses. For a small country of 4 million people, Croatia has had remarkable success in soccer, being runner up to France in the last World Cup (with the big star Luca Modric from Zadar). In Split, I often ended the day with a beer while watching soccer in one of the many cafes on a promenade facing the sea just outside the old city walls. In the evenings, this a popular spot for locals to gather, meet friends, and stroll. This end-of-day strolling custom, like those in Zadar gathering to watch the sunset, is common across Croatia and known in many places as the Corso.
While in Split, I took a day trip on a ferry to the nearby island of Hvar (pictured), famous for its lavender and wine. The town of Hvar centers on a long main square with side streets climbing the hills behind it. During the day, Hvar felt sleepy, but at night I understand it is a party spot for the yacht crowd (which leaves me out again). Most of the side streets are stairways, I learned the hard way, as I made a long climb in the afternoon heat to visit a fort overlooking the town and harbor. The fort was once used to protect Hvar from the Turks and other raiders. The view (below) made the climb worth it, with a long expanse of the blue Adriatic and green islands. Down below, I could hear yells and chants from the town square as Croatians gathered for the team's first match in the Euro. Either that or we were about to be raided by Turks and pirates...