Split’s Old Town - Things you see while you wander through 1700 years of history

What happened in Split is easily described in one sentence. The Roman Emperor Diocletian built a palace as a retirement home, and over the last 1700 years his palace turned into the lively town of Split. Nevertheless, it would be a shame really if you would stop reading at this point.

Travel Croatia. Things you see while you wander through 1700 years of history in Split’s Old Town

Split is UNESCO heritage listed for a reason. There are shops, restaurants, bars, museums in the protected old part of town, but its integrity remains fully intact. Locals go on with their day to day lives, and hang out with friends and family together with countless tourists who are there to buy souvenirs, eat and be merry and take photos. There even is street art, and that is a sure sign for a truly alive city. The amount of street art is not as exceptionally massive as in Berlin, London, and Rotterdam or as in the secret street art capital of the world Athens, but it is there.

In Split you walk through roman architecture, gothic parts of town, will see renaissance buildings, and even come across baroque facades all in close proximity to properties in modern brutalist style in the other parts of town. And all that is nicely surrounded by the Adriatic Sea and by Mosor and Kozjak, the two mountains that create the most picturesque backdrop.

Don’t forget this is not about visiting places and ticking them off your list of must-sees. Talk to the locals you meet along the way, try to get a feeling for the place. Imagine how it feels to live in a world heritage site. If you eat in Split, ask yourself how come there are so many Italian and Austrian influences in its cuisine. Read about the Yugoslav Wars, the Croatian War of Independence, the Croat-Bosniak War. The ethnic conflicts ended not so long ago, in 2001. Check your dates, facts and figures and combine them with your own experiences, and create a wonderful story.

Things you see while you wander through 1700 years of history in Split

Diocletian's Palace. The heart of Town  

The palace built with limestone and marble is a piece of stunningly well preserved roman architecture, which is formed of four building parts and two main streets. Over the centuries the town naturally changed immensely, but the original layout of the Imperial Palace can still be found.

The Golden Gate  

Walk through and try to imagine that Emperor Diocletian walked through here too as he entered the Palace in 305. Also referred to as Northern Gate and built in the shape of a rectangle, these walls were part of defensive military tactics, where the guards lived. In Roman the gate was called Porta Septemtrionalis but as soon as Venice ruled in the 16th century (and ever since then) the gates name changed to Porta Aurea.

The Silver Gate was actually closed from medieval times till 1952. The gate in Roman times called Porta Orientalis used to be one of the four major entry points into the palace.

The Iron Gate in Roman times called Porta Occidentalis was used during all 17 centuries; try to imagine how many millions of people walked through this gate before you, all the drama, all the happiness felt here. If you walk out you end up in the market area and if enter you are next to the cathedral of the palace. At one point there used to be a church in here, in medieval times it was a courthouse before it was turned into small stores.

The Peristyle 

This is the central and main square of the palace and used to be the place where subjects could talk to the Emperor. Later in the 13th century when a new city square and town hall was created, the peristyle was a religious meeting point. If you go there these days at night, there will most certainly be some kind of live entertainment and an audience sipping Aperol Spritz or coffee. Look out for the 3500 year old sphinx that watches every step you take. 

Bell Tower Split

If I would say this is a spectacular thing to do, that would be entirely true for the view of the red rooftops in town, the mountains in the distance and the sea with the mostly white softly bouncing up and down fisher boats and yachts in the harbour along the palm fringed promenade. The climb up the bell tower is not for the faint hearted, it is rather scary.

After you get through a slightly dark narrow staircase, you have to climb up an open air metal staircase from where you look directly down to the ground. The stairs are a bit on the wobbly side, and I’m not too sure how the construction is installed in the thick stone walls. I couldn't help but think of the erosion caused by the salty air of the sea. The tower as we see it today was built in 1908, is this still the staircase they put in, and has it ever been maintained? ... If you don’t mind heights, if you never experienced a fear of falling, and if you can ignore that thing with the construction the climb is fun and the view truly lovely.

Top tip: If you walk up to the first landing, there is a wonderful view. When I was there, there was already a small gathering of people who had to stop their climb and get back to relax from the scare, they had experienced.

Cathedral of Saint Domnius

The Cathedral of Saint Domnius is one of the oldest catholic cathedrals in the world. It is from the 13th century and was converted from a mausoleum for Diocletian. It is a fairly small cathedral but has got a lot of things to look at. The doors of the cathedral are made from walnut and the two door posts have fourteen blocks each with scenes from the Gospels.

The octagon of the mausoleum was enclosed by an aisle of 24 columns. It has a circular form with four semi-circular and four rectangular niches, and above the niches rise eight red granite Corinthian pillars, and above these another eight smaller ones. The cornice shows a relief of hunting masks and human heads, and in two of the medallions with bows archaeologists recognised the portraits of Emperor Diocletian and his wife Prisca.

In the cupola bricks were laid fan-like in the lower part, and circular in the upper third. The cupola was tiled with glittering mosaics, in the exact same style as the cupola of the Vestibule. You can see this particularly well if you sit one one of the chairs opposite the altar on the left of the entrance.

The hexagonal pulpit made of gilded porphyry is from the 13th century. The Altar on the right with its ciborium in late Gothic style is dedicated to the martyr St Domnius. The main altar was built from 1685 till 1689. On the altar in the northern niche, are St Domnius's remains. Don’t miss to have a look at the wooden benches that were carved in the first half of the 13th century, they originally stood in front of the main altar.

Info. Tickets: Buy a combined ticket for the bell tower, the crypt and the cathedral - 45kn. Hours: Monday to Saturday 8am to 7pm. Sunday: 12.30pm to 6pm.

Crypt – Church of St Lucy  

Where do I begin? It is underground, it is dark-ish. It is dedicated to St Lucy of Syracuse, and there is a statue of her. It has got the same layout as the cathedral above. Lucia of Syracuse was a Christian martyr who did during the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. 

Substructures of the palace. If you would like to experience subterranean shopping in the old town enter from the promenade or down the stairs from the Peristyle. There are lots of souvenir stalls in this space below the Roman palace and they sell everything you will never need, so it is a fun place to have a wander and chat with stall holders. As I said, this area sits right underneath the palace, and it makes sense that is was the storage area. Here you can get an insight into how the actual rooms like dining hall, kitchen, women's quarters, and the spa of the palace must have looked like. In medieval times this was a residential area, and the underground rooms were used as a dump by locals. In an effort to conserve this space, everything is cleaned up and reconstructed.

Vestibule of the palace in Split

Where are these voices coming from? I can clearly hear a group singing a Capella songs. As I follow the melody I end up in the vestibule of the Palace to find a choir standing in a front of a happy smiling audience. “It is a klapa” a bystander tells me, a traditional Croatian choir. A lady asks the choir whether they can sing happy birthday for her husband Michael, they happily agree, birthday boy Michael has to stand next to them and she films the spectacle live and in colour.

The Vestibule, with semi-circular niches for statues and a large cupola with colourful mosaic stones was used to enter the residential part of the palace. Until very recently (roughly 50 years ago) people still lived here and kept chickens and grew vegetables. Today it is a raw structure from where you can look straight up into the sky. 

Trg Braće Radić 

That means Square of the Radić brothers. It was once home of a market where people from villages near and far sold their fruit and vegetables. There is a striking Venetian tower, a part of an old fortress and a Palace from the 17th century with a Baroque façade.

Pjaca Square Split

This square is first mentioned in the 13th century as the first occupied part of Split outside the Diocletian Palace. The Town Hall is in a Gothic building and was the seat of the city's authority whereas today it is an exhibition centre, where sweeping opening parties will be thrown at the beginning of each new exhibition.

The distinct dark green colour of a shop front, with golden letters above the entrance, attracts my attention, as if by magic, and I soon find out this is one of the oldest book stores in Europe, it has been here in this exact place ever since 1861. From here, only a few steps away, try to find the pretty gothic clock, it has 24 digits instead of the usual 12. 

Cute lunch spot on Pjaca Square: BEPA! I had the Green Sandwich. Estragon mayo sauce, avocado, hard sheep milk cheese on toasted whole meal bread plus a cup of fried skinny chips with a cup of tomato sauce. Service was swift, all smiles, food was served in beautiful enamel dishes and tasted freshly made. The Espresso was yum.

BEPA! Narodni Trg 1, Split 21000, Croatia. Hours: Friday and Saturday 8am to 1am. Sunday to Thursday 8am to 11pm.

Split City Museum  

There is a collection of maps and paintings showing the development of Split and various pieces from roman and medieval times all the way through to the 19th century, like for example clothes, silverware, china, trunks, coins and furniture. The exhibit is in a former palace, the Papalic Palace; don’t miss to check out the four-parted-window and the restored ceiling on the first floor. You are also allowed to enter and walk through one of the only remaining two-storey town houses, which was built in early medieval times between the 9th and 11th century.

I found a good amount of information in English and learned about the town's amazing history. I hope they add information about their recent history too. What was their role in WW2? And what happened in Split during the Croatian war, in the years before independence?

Info: Split City Museum. Papalićeva 1. Monday to Sunday 8.30am to 9pm. Closed December 25th. January 1st.  Tickets: Adults 20kn, Children, students 10kn. Visit the website for more info (in Croatian).

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