This blog was originally entitled Tale of Two Cities, to cover Split and Dubrovnik. However there was so much to say about our stay in Split that I decided to split it into two parts. This is part one.
It was an easy drive down the motorway to Split. The motorway takes the inland route, so from a scenic perspective it was very different to the coast road. High mountains, bare of vegetation, valleys filled with scrub bushes, hardly any sign of inhabitation, we could have been on another planet. As we descended the hairpins from the motorway towards Split we could see how it got its name. The city, Croatia's second largest, is split between the famous old centre and the not so famous mass of ugly communist era apartment buildings that surround it. It is split between the busy port where working ferries and cargo ships ply their trade and the coastal waters where giant cruise ships lie in state, discharging their tenders of tourists and guides at regular intervals. The old town itself is split between the part built within the walls of Diocletian’s palace and the medieval and Venetian part outside the walls.
Split personality number one. The city’s population, as well as being a multiplicity of ethnicities (Croats, Serbs, Slovenes, Bosnians and other Slavs), is also split between the Torcida and the non Torcida. The Torcida are the supporters of HNK (Hrvatski nogometni klub) Hajduk Split, the others either support RNK (Radnički nogometni klub ) Split or have no interest in football (which is rare in Croatia). The Hajduks were the heroic bandits who fought a guerrilla war against the Ottoman Turks, much as the Klephts did in Greece, holding the same place in folklore as other bandits such as Robin Hood or William Tell. The group of students who formed the team in 1911 took the name Hajduk and Hrvatski to signify what great Croatian patriots they were. The rival team, RNK, was founded in 1912 as a workers team (Radnički means worker) in the shipyards, and has always been a very politically motivated team, fighting not only in football matches but also sending troops to fight against Franco in the Spanish civil war and fighting with Tito’s partisans against the Axis forces in WW2. The rivalry between the two teams is strong and there are graffiti all over town supporting one or the other. Not just simple "MUFC" type scrawls, but huge pictures with the team flags and slogans covering entire walls.
We found our campsite at Stobrec, a small beach and harbour about 6 miles south of Split. This too was split, between shady pitches under tall trees, and beachfront pitches with no shade but fantastic views. We were allocated the latter, the first time in all our travel we have pitched up actually on the beach. It was just ten paces to the sea, although, like at our last site, it was a few hundred paces more to get to swimming depth! Our beach was split by a small rock mole, with rough beach on one side and a more civilised area on the other. The site was also split by a rocky headland on which sat the bar- restaurant, with views across our bay to Podstrana, the next town south, or across the other bay and the little port of Stobrec. The beach on the Stobrec side of the campsite was well organised with chairs and tables, pedaloes and a beach bar.
Our wonderful pitch had its downside, as the weather too was split. It was hot and sunny when we arrived, so we put up our awning, without the front or sides, to provide some shade. Next day was very windy and the awning started flapping around, so we had to put one side and front panel in to stop it acting like a giant kite. The next day it rained, so we were glad of the extra cover, but the day after it was hot and sunny again so everything steamed up.
On our first day there we sat in the van as the wind howled around us. We managed to get out to the nearest supermarket, but that was all. Next day we were stir crazy so we decided to go out for a short drive, in spite of the drizzle. We set off south towards Omis, just to see what was what, but not long after we set off the drizzle became a downpour, then the downpour became a deluge. We could not see more than a few feet in front, the road was awash and great streams of water were coming off the banks of the road, bringing mud and stones across the road and down to the sea. It was the first rain this part of Croatia had seen for five months, so the locals were grateful. Returning to the site we sat out the rain. Three days on a beachfront pitch and we had not yet been able to take advantage of it.
On Saturday the weather cleared so we went into Split. It seemed several million others had the same idea. Took us an hour to find a place to park the car, but eventually got sorted and walked down to the old town. To get at the East gate, known as the Silver gate, we had to plough through the market, which extended several streets outside, right along the palace walls and right into the gate. It was amazing to look at the walls, which anywhere else would be the walls of a large city, and realise that these were the walls of just one palace, 1,700 years old. The interior of the palace is the size of a small town, and has in fact actually become a small town. Many of the buildings remain intact, converted for other purposes, many have been rebuilt on the original Roman bases, and only a few have disappeared.
Split personality number two: Diocletian (Gaius Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus Augustus) was born in Dalmatia to a family of low status. However, having no spots on him, he rose through the ranks of the army and in 284, on the death of the Emperor Carus, he was proclaimed Emperor himself. He reigned for 21 years then became the first Roman Emperor to retire voluntarily. In the last years of his reign he arranged for the building of an enormous palace near the city of Salona and in 305 he retired there to grow vegetables for the last 11 years of his life. He is most famous perhaps for two achievements. Most importantly he brought a long period of stability to the collapsing Roman Empire, enabling it to survive for another hundred years. Less important, but more significant, was the Diocletianic Persecution, the largest and bloodiest persecution of the Empire’s Christians.
Having had a welcome coffee just inside the gates we walked on to the mausoleum Diocletian had built for himself, which is now the cathedral of St Domnio. It was altered and consecrated in the 7th Century, when Diocletian’s remains were replaced by those of St Domnio (of whom more later). It is still possible to imagine it as a mausoleum, although between the 13th and 17th centuries various Romanesque and Baroque additions have been made, which clash rather with the frieze scenes of Eros hunting, giving an overall impression of a bit of a mish mash. There is no photography allowed in the Mausoleum, but so many cameras were flashing away I though, hey, why not. I took one picture and was pounced on by an attendant. The basement crypt, which was the most sacred place in any Roman temple, is now dominated by a statue of St Lucy holding her eyes on a plate, another of Diocletian’s victims.
Outside the mausoleum is a small square, the Peristyle, which was heaving with tours. Stairs lead up to a balcony, from which came the sound of a beating drum and a squad of Roman soldiers marched up, escorting none other than the Emperor Diocletian himself, looking very fit and well considering his great age, who gave us a very nice welcoming speech in Latin. After cheers from the crowd, which upset him considerably because they were not loud enough, he took his wife’s hand and was marched off elsewhere, no doubt hunting for more Christians to persecute.
We followed him up the stairs and entered the Vestibulum, a round, open topped building where a Dalmatian male choir was singing traditional Dalmatian songs. They were very good and very tuneful. Perhaps if Roger Radcliffe had heard them he might have been able to pen more than his one hit single “Cruella De Vil” A rather obscure reference, or as Clegg said recently, “I’m sorry, I told a joke I couldn’t deliver”. Roger Radcliffe was the poet/composer who was the lead human in 101 Dalmatians.
Beneath the Vestibulum lie the old Roman storehouses, now transformed into a huge shopping arcade, lined with arts, crafts and general souvenir tack. I could go on for hours writing a whole guidebook on the palace, but suffice it to say we wandered for hours instead, fascinated by the old Roman buildings and the way they had been transformed for modern day use.
We lunched in a modern restaurant housed on a Roman ground floor with a youth hostel above. According to a plaque the very last Roman Emperor was murdered nearby.
Split personality number three. Julius Nepos, who was ruler of Dalmatia and became Western Emperor in 474. His position as Emperor was acknowledged by the Eastern Empire and all others. However he was usurped by a rival, Orestes, in 475, who put his own teenage son on the throne as his puppet. The new Emperor was never acknowledged internationally, being regarded as an illegal appointment, and when he abdicated in 476 the Empire fell apart, not to be resurrected until Charlemagne. Nepos was therefore the last legal Emperor of the Western Empire. He tried unsuccessfully to regain control of Italy but was murdered by his own soldiers in 480.
We walked down to the Riva, the harbour front. The seafront here has been made into a long, wide promenade with a small park in its centre. The seaward wall of the palace, with its insignificant South, or Brass gate, is a long parade of shops, bars and restaurants. Hard to believe it is a palace wall.
West of the palace is the Venetian quarter, where a number of Venetian and medieval palaces cluster round Narodni Trg (Peoples Square), just outside the Western (or Iron) Gate, whilst to the north of the Golden gate is another statue of St Grgr, who we met at Nin the previous week, before the small park blends into the modern city.
After a hot and busy day in Split it was time to get back to the campsite and enjoy a swim and prepare for the next day’s sightseeing, in stark contrast to the palace, the ruins of Salona. This was the original city before Split was even thought of. Situated about 6 miles inland, it was famous for its salt pans, salt being an extremely valuable commodity. Founded by the Illyrians, occupied by the Greeks, it came into its own in Roman times when it became the richest and largest city on the Adriatic coast and capital of the Roman province of Dalmatia. It had a huge amphitheatre (used to kill Christians), a theatre, and all the usual Roman baths, temples and a forum. It was sacked by the invading Avatars (or should that be Avars?) in the 7th century and the occupants fled to Diocletian’s palace in Split, forming a new town there. The city fell to ruin, but parts were later rebuilt, using the old stones, by Christians who formed a thriving complex. It fell to ruin again and is now a vast park covered in olive groves and vineyards, with the occasional ruin poking through. In the early 20th century the main archaeologist, Frane Bulic, built himself a house on the grounds using bits of stone, pillars and statues that he had dug up from the ruins.
We spent a couple of hours wandering the ruins, getting lost then refinding ourselves. At one point we interrupted a huge group of men on a waste patch playing a Croat version of petanque, using larger and heavier balls and taking the whole game very seriously indeed.
The best preserved part of the
site is that from the Christian era, the Bishop’s complex and the necropolis, whilst the Roman baths are still recognisable (although how long that will be the case is not certain, given the small boys who were digging away at the stonework and pulling
the plaster from the walls, much to the amusement of their parents). The necropolis is a mass of empty sarcophagi strewn higgledy piggledy around the edge of a very English looking ruined chapel.
Split personality number four. St Domnio (also known as St Domnius, St Duje, St Dujam and St Dominus). Who knows, if he had got the spelling of his name right, he might have been the founder of a pizza chain and prospered. As with many early saints, the truth is a bit vague. Born in Antioch, he is said to have accompanied St Peter to Rome, then was sent to evangelise Dalmatia. We do know he was executed by Diocletian in 304, in the amphitheatre here, and was buried outside the walls of Salona in what is now the necropolis. He would have been about 350 years old by then. When Christianity was legalised by Constantine his body was given a better burial, and was later placed in Diocletian’s mausoleum when it was converted into a cathedral.
Some miles up the coast, north of Split, lies the delightful island city of Trogir. Founded by the Greeks in 380BC it has survived several sackings and is now regarded as the jewel of the Dalmatian coast. It is a lovely place to wander around, squeezing past the tours from the large cruise ship moored in the bay. The cathedral has a very intricate Romanesque doorway and a fine bell tower with wonderful views. Access to the bell tower is up a series of very narrow stairways where, on the day we were there, all common sense had been abandoned, resulting in a lot of shouting and frayed tempers, not just from me! It seemed sensible to pull into the side at one corner to let an elderly crowd come past on the way down. However the Germans behind me simply pushed past and carried on up, causing a bit of a jam, to say the least. It took all my self control not to mention the war.
Split personality number five, Boris Buric Gena. A modern one for a change! Here I quote from the Trogir website. “'Ethnic’ style suits and classic handmade suits designed by Trogir designer Boris Buric Gena are favoured by such famous celebrities as Pavarotti, Bernie Ecclestone, Goran Ivanišević and many other celebrities. Croatia’s first gift to US President Barack Obama is a suit from the same top Croatian fashion house from Trogir. If you want to get a formal, made to measure, suit with a Mediterranean style all of its own, search out Gena workshop in the old town of Trogir.”
Towards the end of our stay at camping Stobrec we retraced our drive down to Omis, this time in good weather. Omis is a popular resort some 20 miles or so south of Split, at the mouth of the river Cetina, a rushing torrent through the Cetina valley popular with white water rafters and canoeists. Omis too is a split city. The main street is lined with shops, cafes and a small market, but as this is the main coast route to southern Dalmatia it is also choc a bloc with traffic, making it a bit smelly and noisy. This is not helped by the large trees along the roadside, which block out all light and fresh air. However, step away from the main street and there are charming little medieval back streets crowded with restaurants and good quality art shops.
We drove up the Cetina valley, with views of the torrent below, along twisty little roads through villages unchanged over the centuries. At the top of the valley the road we were going to take was closed for road works, with no advanced warning anywhere. We waited 20 minutes or so while a hole was refilled and the machinery moved so we could get past. As soon as we had passed they started to dig the hole out again. From here the road hairpinned down to the coast, with amazing views of the sea and the nearby islands.
Then it was time to pack up and set off for Dubrovnik. Our start had been delayed by an insurance problem (more in the next blog). Before leaving we had a lovely pizza in the camp site restaurant, looking out over the bays. This was a super camp site and one I hope we return to one day.