I love re-visiting a favorite city through features on my Instagram account Travelknowing, where I originally posted this series on Split, exploring more of the fascinating details that I didn’t get to in my original blog post. Split’s a terrific destination, the second largest city in Croatia with a fascinating history, interesting museums, and friendly easy going people. We loved our week exploring this vibrant city!
The beautiful waterfront pedestrian promenade – the Riva – is the most important public space in Split. It started to look the way it does today 2 centuries ago when Split was a short-lived province of the French Empire in Napoleon’s time.
Layers and layers of history lived in and used every day, the buildings that now face the lovely Riva pedestrian promenade started out as the back of Emperor Diocletian’s Palace in the 4th Century.
St. Dominus Bell Tower
One of the best views of Split, and the best way to see how Diocletian’s Palace is incorporated into the city, is from high up in the St. Dominus Cathedral Bell Tower.
From a 360 degree spin around the tower you can see all the ancient walls, towers, and medieval buildings crowding into the interior of the Palace/Fortress.
The long ago centerpiece of Diocletian’s Palace, the Peristyle courtyard with it’s Egyptian red granite columns is just before the entrance vestibule of the Emperor’s Palace. In the middle ages people built upon the remains of the palace and filled in the spaces between the columns with their houses.
Through the opening in the Vestibule, what used to be Diocletian’s grand entrance to his living quarters, you can see the tip of the St. Dominus Cathedral Bell Tower.
Would you think this huge round roofless chamber has great acoustics? It does! Throughout the day you are treated to a few beautiful traditional Dalmatian songs sung acappella by a Klapa group, an all male group of singers with gorgeous harmonies. Klapa was inscribed in the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage and a CD of this music is the perfect packable souvenir.
Touring through the amazing maze of Diocletian’s Palace cellars is a terrific way to learn about the history of this important historical site, the world’s most complete remains of a Roman palace!
Because the upper levels of the palace were changed so radically through the centuries of use, the original floor plan was lost to history…until the basement cellars were excavated from all the detritus of the people living above to reveal the foundations of the palace, a mirror of the original floor plan of the ancient palace.
St. Dominus Cathedral
What do you think of when you hear “Cathedral”? Huge spaces with soaring vaults? Gothic arches? Not in the Saint Dominus cathedral in Split! One of the world’s smallest cathedrals, and regarded as the oldest Catholic cathedral in the world that is in use in its original structure, St. Dominus used to be Diocletian’s mausoleum.
There’s a lot going on in the tiny space but what fascinated me were the ancient monumental columns and carved reliefs around the domed ceiling depicting portraits and hunting scenes, all remnants from Diocletian’s time.
Diocletian identified with Jupiter, the mightiest of the Roman gods, and built the tiny rectangular Temple of Jupiter during construction of the palace.
One of the best preserved Roman temples in the world, the beautiful original barrel vaulted stone ceiling has unique decorative motifs in the middle of each stone block and a wonderful stone frieze border. The temple was converted to the Cathedral’s baptistery, with a sculpture of Saint John the Baptist by Croatia’s own master sculptor Ivan Meštrović, right where a statue of the god Jupiter once stood.
– Or is it really Jupiter’s Temple? It seems that the experts still argue about the title of this beautiful temple!
The Western Gate (Iron Gate)
At the western Iron Gate entrance to Diocletian’s Palace, a medieval palace was built right up against the wall for Split nobleman Cipriano de Ciprianis.
The palace is known for its beautiful arched windows separated by double columns, but what really catches your eye is the columned niche with a life-size relief of Saint Anthony the Hermit. When you’re in Split look really close at the sculpture’s left leg and you’ll see a tiny figure clutching the robes of the saint – a depiction of C. de Ciprianis, the donor.
The Main Gate (Golden Gate)
From the small inner defensive courtyard of the main gate of the palace, the Golden Gate, you can see the bricked in windows of a tiny 9th century chapel, built right into the walls over the gate in what was at one time the Roman guardhouse.
The Chapel is dedicated to Saint Martin, the patron saint of soldiers and was the very first church built within Diocletian’s Palace. At only about 5 feet wide it’s definitely the narrowest!
Pretty, lively People’s Square just outside of the western Iron Gate was the place where a Roman village sprang up back in Diocletian’s time. By the middle ages this square replaced the Peristyle as the main town square, with the former gothic style Town Hall, with it’s distinctive windows and loggia, in the center and other interesting medieval buildings built by nobility.
The Eastern Gate (Silver Gate)
Ancient arches on the exterior wall above the eastern gate of Diocletian’s Palace called the Silver Gate. When you go through this gate to the center of the Palace look down – you’re treading on the original Roman road used by soldiers, chariots…and emperor Diocletian.
The Venetian Tower
An octagonal tower dominates one corner of the walls of Diocletian’s Palace, built after Split became a part of the Venetian Republic in the 15th century when the danger of the Ottoman Empire was a serious threat all along the coast.
The Fruit Square
Between the imposing stone blocks of the octagon Venetian Citadel tower and the grand baroque Milesi palace, is tiny Radić Brothers Square. The square is known locally as Fruit Square (Voćni trg) because of it’s colorful past life as a bustling fruit market where people came from the countryside to sell their produce.
Poet Marco Marulić
Commanding a place of honor in front of the baroque 17th century Milesi Palace in the Fruit Square is a statue of the father of the Croatian language, Split’s own 16th century poet Marco Marulić – the first to write literature in the Croatian language.
The statue is by the famous Croatian sculptor Ivan Meštrović whose work you’ll see all over Split – you can’t mistake his distinctive style!
With more time in Split, don’t miss a walk up to Marjan Hill through one of the oldest suburbs in Split – the Veli Varoš neighborhood.
Filled with traditional Dalmatian stone houses and narrow winding alleys, the neighborhood was originally settled in the 17th century by fishermen.
Fishermen who keep their boats in the local port below still make their homes here, but you’ll also find plenty of guest rentals of all types plus some of the most popular restaurants in Split at the bottom of this stair-stepped pedestrian street.
Through the old Varoš neighborhood and up the steps of the paved path on Marjan Hill is the second best, maybe THE best view of Split. If you want to stop to relax there’s the perfect outdoor terrace of Caffe Bar Vidilica.
The evocative, forested Old Jewish Cemetery founded in 1573 is behind gates behind the Café.
You can continue on up Marjan for a long hike, a terrific way to get out in nature, admire some awesome views of the Adriatic, and see some interesting medieval chapels and the exteriors of walled in hermit caves where monks once lived. One chapel isn’t too far uphill from Caffe Vidilica but to go to the top and the other chapels it’s a long walk. If you like biking at all, that’s the way to go!
Down the other side of Marjan Hill toward Split, it’s well worth it to stop at the Ivan Meštrović Gallery, the world famous sculptor from a poor nomadic farm worker family near Split. His distinctive work is found all over Croatia and his most famous international work is a pair of Native American warriors on horseback in Chicago’s Grant Park.
He built this imposing Marjan palace for himself but only lived here a couple of months, in WWII he was briefly imprisoned by the Ustase (Croatia’s Nazi puppet government), after that he fled to Italy and then the U.S. where among many other achievements, he was a professor at Notre Dame University. He died in 1962 in South Bend, Indiana.
A perfect break in a Marjan Hill excursion is the open air bar at Kastelet beach, known locally as Obojena Svjetlos beach for the Caffe Bar. The beach is below the famous Croatian sculptor Ivan Meštrovic’s Kastelet Chapel, worth a quick visit to see his huge carved wood reliefs depicting the life of Christ that he created over a 30 year span. The Meštrovic Gallery is nearby, if you have time see both with a combined ticket. The beach and the gallery is a bit of a trek from town – my suggestion – rent a bike!
Circling (or cycling!) back from Marjan Peninsula and back to the Riva, you pass right by an oasis of tradition, the Matejuška port – Split’s working fisherman’s harbor where the small boats of local fishermen set out daily to earn their living from the sea, just as residents of the Veli Varoš neighborhood have done for centuries.
Exploring Split Wrap-Up – A final photo of Split and a view of the Riva and the symbol of Split – St. Dominus Cathedral Bell Tower.
With fascinating history, interesting museums, great excursions, terrific friendly people, plus easy transportation to other places and other European countries, there’s a lot to love about Split!