SPLIT HAS the greatest attribute a cruise port can boast — a harbour right in the centre of the action, with that action concentrated in a historic and spectacular location. Welcome to Diocletian’s Palace, a Roman emperor’s seaside retirement home, which has evolved into a pleasure palace for 21st-century visitors.
Croatia’s Dalmatian jewel, also the country’s second city, is emerging as one of the world’s great new coastal playgrounds, with a feel that is more Côte d’Azur than eastern Europe. Split’s centrally placed cruise terminal is a big plus point, not to mention the broad, yacht-lined prom with the spectacular Roman compound, 10 minutes’ walk from where the cruise liners tie up, at its centre. This is one port where you do not need to book an expensive guided excursion, since wandering by yourself is actually the city’s greatest delight.
While Diocletian’s Palace is the focus of Split’s lively shopping, dining and night-life, it is also a beautifully preserved hunk of Roman architecture, fascinating to explore at ground level, before ascending into the modern offerings lining its marble-paved piazzas and the warrens of narrow lanes connecting them.
The lower tier of the palace at promenade level was covered by water when the Roman emperor sailed into his new palace, around the turn of the fourth century. It is worth visiting this basement hall, with its eerie vaulted rooms, just to get a sense of the ancient atmosphere. Then ascend the steps outside to enjoy the squares, lanes, shops and cafés, all lent authenticity by the fact this is still a living complex, with some 3,000 residents whose apartments are inside the palace grounds.
While it is unlikely anyone would cometoSplitandnotbedrawntoclimb Into the fortress from the prom (or walk into it through the beautiful Golden Gate from the park at the back), Split has so much to offer beyond Diocletian’s masterwork and the superb Byzantine relics of ensuing centuries.
The Hungarians, Venetians, French and Austrians followed the Greeks who colonised the city, the Romans who founded its civilisation and the Slavs and Croatian kings who came after t hem, ea c h leaving their mark on the architecture.
Riva, as the broad promenade lying between the palace and the sea is known, has a life all its own, recalling the cafél in e d st r i p of St Tropez whi ch bo r - ders a similar kind of marin a , pa c k e d with cracking yachts.
Headwestof Riva to discover Prokurative, Split’s answer to Venice’s San Marco, a broad 19th-century square, colonnaded with arches on three sides, home to bars, restaurants and cultural events.
Pjaca, another beautiful city square, is the site of Café Central, where Split’s intellectuals have gathered for more than a century, as well as Morpugo, one of the world’s oldest bookshops.
Fruit Square, nicknamed after the produce market that once occupied it, is notable for an octagonal Venetian tower and a 17th-century palace with a fabulous baroque façade. It is close to Diocletian’s Palace, as is colourful Pazar, where the local Dalmatian produce is sold today.
Even if the fish market does not appeal, Marmont Street, its location, is worth visiting for its handsome Secession buildings and the Photo Gallery museum.
There is also a Gallery of Fine Art, the Mestrovic Gallery and a handful of more contemporary attractions, such as Room Escape Split, a live game for small groups tasked with figuring out how to escape from a locked building. Watery attractions include an aquarium and a semi-submersible which allows underwater life to be observed while floating along the Riva. Nature lovers might prefer the fr a g r a n t forest trails of the Marjan reserve, in the hills close to the city. Punctua te d wi t h lo o k o u t s and ruined chapels, it is linked to the city centre by the atmospheric Varos district.
Where to eat in a city noted for its food but peppered, like ev e r y daytrip destination, with a fair share of tourist traps? Uje, which means oil in Croatian, is a popular hangout in the old city and its nearby shop a good place to buy local Brachia extra virgin olive oil. Apetit, in an old Venetian palace near the Pjaca, is classy and contemporary, as you might expect of a Croatian restaurateur who has spent several years in Berlin; vegetarians and pasta-lovers are particularly well catered for here. Konoba Marjan in the heart of the Varos quarter,well worth a visit in its own right, also comes highly recommended for grilled sardines and other super-fresh local fish.
Split’s Summer Festival is a huge draw from mid-July to mid-August, but May and June offer a spirit of revelry without the horrendous crowds of the school holidays. And if time permits, it is easy to hop on the ferry to Brac, the close-by Dalmatian island with a fascinating school of stonemasonry that can be visited by prior arrangement.
Roman holiday: Diocletian’s Palace reveals Split’s history as an imperial seaside retreat
Tour the palace, then emerge to enjoy modern city life