Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Split - Just Another Walled City?

As our journey through Croatia continued, we found ourselves in Split - yet another charming city full of history and ancient stone architecture. However it turns out that Split is actually very different from Kotor, Perast, Dubrovnik, and even Trogir (a neighbour one hour away we visited by day trip).

Old Town walls in Split - view from the cathedral belltower

Illustration of Diocletian's Palace, Paris 1912 (via)

Initially constructed in preparation for Roman Emperor Diocletian's retirement  in 305 AD, Diocletian's Palace was more a luxurious villa/military camp  than a palace. Complete with a main square, public and private apartments, and various religious buildings including a cathedral and mausoleum, the rectangular palace was surrounded by huge gates and watchtowers. After being abandoned by the Romans, the palace sat empty until the 7th century when nearby residents sought refuge there from invading barbarians. It has been occupied ever since and is now one of the most famous and complete remains of a Roman Palace.

Perhaps what sets Split apart from many of the other fortified cities along the Adriatic coastline that we've visited lately, is the way in which the more modern city has swallowed up the ancient historic centre. Unprotected as an official heritage site until 1979, urban development pushed up around Diocletian's Palace before breaching the gates and spilling onto the worn stone streets. 

Sphinx in the main square - 3 of the original 13 still exist in Split

Entrance gate on the East end of Old Town

Stone buildings in Old Town Split

Local produce at the daily outdoor market

As a result, modern storefronts and family dwellings stand in contrast with Roman architecture dating back thousands of years, often covering or replacing it completely. The result is a Frankenstein-esque aesthetic and unique atmosphere where Lacoste clothing stores compete with ornate cathedral belltowers for the attention of the tourist hoards on a daily basis.

It's unfortunate that it's so difficult to decipher where the ancient sites once stood. From the top of the belltower of the Cathedral of St. Duje, it is possible to make out a few stretches of stone fortification still intact, however don't look away, the buildings on each side tend to blend together and with just a blink of the eye the portion of wall you spotted moments earlier has disappeared, swallowed up by the city.

At first I was a bit disappointed by the palace and Old Town as the surrounding neighbourhoods encroach on the historic sites making them hard to admire and ultimately suffocating the Old Town (there's a running joke in Split of a tourist asking where the Palace is, and a local informing them they are already in it). After an hour on our first day we toured the Cathedral of St. Duje and its crypt, the main square, and the Temple of Jupiter - where were the thirty foot walls to climb or the ancient fortress perched on a mountain top to explore?

What I had yet to realize is that half the tourism draw to Split is the opportunity to marvel at the ancient world and bustling modern city interwoven, as a fully functioning city including historical sites, modern shopping centres, and a daily market offering local produce, fish, and household items, all within the Old Town centre. It's actually quite amazing to look around at daily life unfolding around you as it has every day for thousands of years. 

Cathedral Belltower, Diocletian's Palace

Staircase to the top of the belltower, Cathedral of St. Duje

Cathedral Crypt where it's said Diocletian was buried

I've heard a rumour that visitors often struggle to fully appreciate both Dubrovnik and Split, and if a tourist loves one they won't like the other; however, after exploring each city over the past week I'd challenge this perception. By taking each city for what it is, and not trying to make it anything it isn't, it's very possible to fully enjoy all that Split and Dubrovnik have to offer.

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Hey there!

Calli and Travis returned from a four month trip through Europe more excited than ever to hit the open road. Who knows where they'll end up next...

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