This past year
is the one that the tourism industry
will try to forget.
The COVID-19 pandemic ruined travels in an unprecedented way, but with vaccines coming world-wide, things might change. Let’s prepare for that moment.
The City of Split is definitely one of the most popular destinations for American tourists in Croatia. Actually, in 2019 more travelers arrived in Split from the USA than from any other country, including Germany, UK, and Italy, which are traditionally strong markets for coastal Croatia.
Besides that, Writers at Large plans to bring its “Living Literature” program to Croatia, with Split as its base and starting point.
Split, with its historic center built in and around the Palace of Roman Emperor Diocletian, offers tourists a unique heritage, vibrancy, and spirit. Split is worth visiting, but even more so worth getting to know.
This article was originally published as part of the series called “25 Things to Know About . . .” in Total Croatia News. Since then, it’s required some updates, some of original 25 dropped out, some new ones came in. Even with those changes, the list could have been much longer.
1. How did Split get its name?
In Spring, all hills around Split are scattered with small yellow flowers, but it’s much more than just an introduction to a warmer part of the year. This flower is locally known as brnistra (hard to pronounce, but something like “behrnystrah”); in English it’s Spanish Broom or Weaver’s Broom, and legend says it’s the origin of the city’s name.
The clue for the riddle lies in its old Greek name aspalathos (or ασπαλαθος). According to some sources it was also a name for the first Greek settlement that existed on the same spot more than 2,000 years ago, before the Romans came in.
From Aspalathos, today’s name was derived through Spalatium, Spalatum, Spalato, and finally Split.
The other theory is much less romantic, and temptingly simple. The name came after the Diocletian’s Palace had been already built, and the connection is “palatium.” Even a famous Roman road map called The Peutinger Map, dating back to late 4th century, mentions Spalato. As I said, not so romantic.
And those yellow flowers are beautiful anyway. . . .
2. City founded by a Roman Emperor. Beat that!
As mentioned above, even before Diocletian, some settlement existed where Split sits today. Nevertheless, this prominent and long-reigning Roman Emperor (who ruled from 284 to 305 AD) is the man who is usually named as “Founder” of the city.
His Palace, built to accommodate the retired Emperor in 305, is the heart, soul, and foundation of Split; and tourism has further made the Palace Split’s greatest asset.
It’s really hard to point to only a few things worth seeing and visiting inside the Palace, the largest Roman Imperial domicile to have survived on such a scale in Europe.
Start with the substructures, Peristil square (which still serves as a public square after more than 1,700 years), imperial mausoleum turned into a Cathedral, the Palace’s gates . . . the list can go on and on.
Still, maybe the most important connection between Diocletian and his Palace with today’s Split is that it’s a living structure.
The “Old Town” is not just a monument like so many tourist attractions throughout Europe; it’s a place that still lives, and it should stay that way. Without its people, the actual inhabitants who still live inside the walls–not just the visitors– the Palace would be just an empty shell.
3. The oldest Cathedral in the world
The Cathedral of Saint Domnius, consecrated at the turn of the 7th century AD, is regarded as the oldest Catholic cathedral in the world that remains in use in its original structure, without near-complete renovation at a later date (except for altars and bell tower dating from the 12th century).
It’s more than a hundred years older than the one in Aachen, Germany where Charlemagne was crowned.
Furthermore, the structure itself, built in AD 305 as the Mausoleum of Diocletian, is the second oldest structure used by any Christian Cathedral.
4. Diocletian's Palace substructures
To feel a spirit of the past, don’t miss visiting Diocletian Palace’s substructures. You might be a Game of Thrones fan who wants to see where Daenerys kept her dragons, but there are so many other reasons to visit, especially witnessing incredible construction skills of old Romans. There are 68 rooms beneath the Palace, of all shapes and sizes, and they are an exact copy of rooms and buildings in Diocletian’s residence which stood just upstairs. Also, it’s one of the biggest roofed structures still standing from Roman times.
“You might be a Game of Thrones fan who wants to see where Daenerys kept her dragons…”
During the tour you can also try to imagine what was it like few centuries later, when Substructures served as a giant septic tank for all the houses which were later built above.
Not a very nice picture (and smell) perhaps, but that’s how this structure — mostly excavated in 1950s and 1960s — was preserved so well, as a place for human waste.
5. The Sphinxes of Split
Split was founded thanks to Roman emperor Diocletian, and most of its oldest heritage can be traced to Roman times. However, probably one of the top five the most photographed spots in Split has even older origins: ancient Egyptian. Of course, we are talking about the Split Sphinxes brought to the Palace during its construction.
Most of them were damaged or smashed in early Christian days when symbols of previous cults were destroyed or converted. The best preserved Split Sphinx is the one in front of the cathedral, the only one which still has a head. Even more importantly, hieroglyph inscriptions describe Pharaoh Tuthmose (or Tuthmose the 3rd), which means it dates back to 15th century BC, around 3,600 years ago.
As far as we know, Sphinxes were brought to Diocletian’s Palace as war trophies from one of his military campaigns in Egypt. Even so, these Sphinxes weren’t just “war souvenirs”; Roman Emperors considered themselves as God’s given, close to Egyptian pharaohs’ concept of ruler and God in one person.
Nobody knows exactly how many Sphinxes once stood in the Palace, but fragments of thirteen still exist.
Three more sit in public spots, but most are in the City Museum and the Archaeological Museum. Sphinxes are not the only traces of Diocletian’s fascination with Egypt; dozens of granite columns and other decorations were also brought from there already made, probably originating in the city of Thebes. Today, they surround Peristil square, and interior of the Cathedral/Mausoleum.
6. Where the last legal Roman emperor was killed
If you put Split and Roman Emperor in one sentence, the obvious association is Diocletian. However, he wasn’t the only one. On April 25, 480 the last legal Emperor of the Western Roman Empire, Julius Nepos, was killed on the streets of Diocletian’s Palace. There is even a street bearing his name and a mural with his biography, as an example of citizens’ taking a step ahead of authorities in preserving the city’s heritage.
Julius Nepos ruled from 474 to 475 when he was overthrown and 12-year old Romulus Augustulus appointed. Nepos fled to Dalmatia. However, Romulus was never recognized by the Emperor at Constantinople who never stopped to consider Nepos as the only legal ruler of the West. Julius Nepos continued to rule in Dalmatia as Emperor until he was killed by his own soldiers.
7. rare painting of Prophet Muhammad
One of the best-known rules of Islam is that art should not depict any human being, especially not Prophet Muhammad. Even Christian artists rarely took Muhammad as a “model,” and one of the rare examples can be seen in one of the most beautiful religious buildings in Split, the Monastery of Saint Anthony near Poljud Stadium.
The painting sits at the church’s northern wall, on the left side when facing the main altar. In its lower, right corner there is a figure identified with a writing above the head, saying (in Italian) “Prophet Muhammad.”
As one of 39 theologists shown debating about the Immaculate Conception, Muhammad holds a Latin inscription “Nullus est, ex Adam, qui non tenuerit Satan, preter Mariam et Filium eius.” Translated, this means “All Adam’s descendants were under Satan’s power, except Mary and Her Son.”
Usual interpretation is that with these words Muhammad recognizes Adam, but even more importantly, acknowledges Mary’s purity when she gave birth to Jesus Christ
The original painting was a work by Renaissance artist Nikola Bralić or Braccio, dated 1515 or 1518. Unfortunately, that one was lost, and the one displayed is a 1727 work by Baroque artist Mihovil Luposignoli. Popular legend says that this painting actually saved the church and monastery from destruction by Ottoman Empire army at the end of 16th century, because they didn’t dare to loot and burn the church after seeing the prophet’s image.
8. City with 2,000 years of Jewish presence
Split houses a synagogue which is the third oldest still active in Europe, but the history of the Jewish community is far richer and longer. Since the 2nd Century, Jewish inhabitants have lived in nearby Salona, a 60,000 strong capital of Roman province Dalmatia.
After the city was destroyed by invasions during the early 600s, its population fled toward Diocletian’s Palace. Jews moved with others and settled in the southeast corner of the Palace. Right there, carved Menorahs are still visible in the substructures, pointing to the possibility that a first synagogue was based there.
In the early 1500s, the Jewish community relocated to the northwest part of the Palace and lived there mostly in harmony with the rest of population, participating strongly in social life and contributing to city’s development.
At the time Split was under rule of the Republic of Venice, which was more liberal than most other European countries of that time, but still imposed some restrictions upon Jews.
In the 18th century that part of Split became a ghetto with gates locked every night. This harsh treatment stopped with the arrival of French rule and Napoleon Bonaparte’s laws at the beginning of 19th century.
Besides the Synagogue, an important landmark is an old Jewish cemetery on Marjan founded in 1573. Unfortunately, the Jewish community in and around Split was reduced by more than half during World War II.
9. Eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites Nearby
Culture, heritage, culture, and a little more of heritage. Did you know you can visit no less than eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites within two hours of Split?
Obviously, Diocletian’s Palace is right there at our doorstep. Only half an hour of easy driving is the town of Trogir.
Just a little bit farther is Šibenik, the only Croatian city with two UNESCO sites, the 15th century Cathedral of St. James and the Venetian fortress of Saint Nicholas.
Drive a little further, and you will reach Zadar with its Republic of Venice-era city walls. In the opposite direction, drive to medieval necropolis of unique tombstones called stećak (pron. stěːtɕak) near Imotski, or cross the border of Bosnia-Herzegovina to visit the Ottoman Empire heritage in Mostar.
This list can be concluded with Stari Grad Plain on island Hvar, the only preserved example of ancient Greek division of land in Europe. Not a much longer trip, about a three-hours drive, can take you to three more sites: Dubrovnik, Plitvice Lakes National Park, and ancient beech forests on Velebit mountain. The latter one will require some serious hiking, though. In short, we exist in a paradise for dedicated UNESCO Sites chasers.
10. Starting point to explore Croatian Parks
If UNESCO sites are not enough, how about national parks, or nature parks? If you are a nature lover, Dalmatia and the rest of coastal Croatia offer endless possibilities. Within less than a two-hour drive there are three national parks: Krka waterfalls, Kornati archipelago, and Paklenica canyons, with Plitvice Lakes only one more hour away. Besides them, nature parks (i.e., lower level of protection) can be found on Biokovo mountain and Vrana Lake, not to mention a number of excellent hiking and walking spots on various islands and in Dalmatian hinterland with spectacular views.
11. And then the Dalmatian islands
The Croatian Coast is the second most diverse in Europe, next to Norway. There are 1,185 islands, islets, and rocks of different sizes scattered along the coast; also the national parks Brijuni, Kornati, and Mljet are actually either islands or archipelago.
That makes the Adriatic sea one of the most popular destinations for sailing or yachting.
Split is positioned almost at the center of the coast, and some of the most interesting islands are those around this city. They are easily accessible by ferries, and Split’s tourist / passenger harbor is one of the busiest in the Mediterranean, with frequent connections to the inhabited islands of Brač, Šolta, Hvar, Vis, Korčula, and Lastovo.
Several agencies also offer day trips to smaller islands popular for their natural features; probably the most popular is the Blue Cave on the island of Biševo, off Vis.
12. "The most beautiful place on Earth"
“There is no other Split.” “What is even London compared to Split?” “Who can pay for this beauty?”
These are just a few of the countless sayings used to make a simple case: Split is the most beautiful place in the world.
Of course, there is no place that can be named the most beautiful on Earth, but people in Split genuinely and sincerely believe Split cinches the title. So, if you want to blend in, don’t oppose that view.
13. Recreation of body and spirit
For a large European city, Split is blessed by nature. The Adriatic glistens in front of the city, and to the right is Marjan, a divine green hill that is not only the lungs of the city, but also home to some amazing heritage.
Possibilities of recreation are endless, both for mind and body. Split boasts miles and miles of places for hiking, cycling, and jogging; climbing forest paths; and a string of beaches, plus some spectacular views as a bonus.
On the other hand, Marjan has always been the city’s spiritual sanctuary with about a dozen of its miniature, centuries-old churches. That reputation is even older than Christianity. The Peutinger Map shows the Roman Temple of Goddess Diana at its western-most point.
You shouldn’t miss seeing those spots, ranging from caves, which once were homes to hermits — followers of St Jerome– to Our Lady of Bethlehem where you can attend a midnight mass on Christmas Eve, which, surprisingly, begins in the p.m.
14. Football club with a glorious history
There is a story of sport in Split, and there is a story about Hajduk. Founded in 1911, this football club is so much more than just a sport team. Hajduk is one of the strongest city’s symbols, and no matter if it wins or loses, Hajduk lives forever as dozens of murals around town are saying.
This club is by far the biggest in Croatia in terms of number of fans and devotion. Hajduk always lived with its town, including some hard moments. During World War II, the whole team declined playing in the Italian league and joined the antifascist movement. They played across the Mediterranean with allied forces teams, and the highest honor came when Hajduk was declared an official team of “Free France.” Today, Hajduk is maybe not that good on a pitch, but watching their games is an experience for itself, or at least it will be once COVID-19 allows fans attending.
15. The most Olympic winners per capita
Split is a famous sporting city. From Wimbledon winner Goran Ivanisevic to semi-religious phenomena of Hajduk to more than 70 Olympic medal winners. Their names are engraved on the Walk of Fame on the city’s newest promenade, West Riva. When Tokyo finally hosts Olympic games, I’m sure we can expect some more names on this Walk. Perhaps city’s surroundings are conducive to its success — sea, mountains, and challenging terrain.
In additon to everything above, I have to mention one of my favorite sport facts: local basketball team Jugoplastika was declared by FIBA as the best team of the 20th century, with a few incredible players like former Chicago Bull Toni Kukoč.
Not many cities have their own sport, and after everything you have read here, don’t act surprised that Split is one of them. The game invented here is called picigin (pron. pytsighin), and to properly enjoy it, you must come to sandy Bačvice Beach.
It’s probably a little too ambitious to call it a sport, though; it’s more of a beach pastime, but people who play it, no matter what the weather is like, wouldn’t agree.
Picigin requires five players and a little ball, usually a tennis ball, peeled and sanded to be lighter. The goal is to keep the ball out of water as long as possible by hitting it with an open palm, but at the same time you throw it to other players in a way that they need to run and dive. It’s played in ankle-shallow water, so if you don’t know how to dive, don’t do it, otherwise injuries are possible.
For years Bačvice Beach even hosted annual World Picigin Championships. Of course, “world” in this case means two or three teams coming from some of the nearby islands, or some other local beach. Croatia even protected picigin as a cultural heritage. It’s possible to play it elsewhere on sandy beaches, but don’t tell that to anyone at Bačvice.
17. From swimming to hiking in minutes
For a city of almost 200,000 people, Split has excellent natural features, especially when it comes to beaches. It’s rare to find such a large town with almost 20 kilometers of swimmable coast, with sea water as clean as on a Dalmatian island off shore. Choose between bodies-packed Bačvice and almost deserted corners around Marjan hill; there is something for every taste, even nude bathing. And just above the beaches are some great hiking options, either on Marjan, or the more daring mountains around the city like Mosor and Kozjak, further inland, or up and down the coast. Recently some interesting cycling routes have been marked, mostly winding inward.
18. Tiny church inside the Palace wall
Of all the churches in Split, and there are dozens of them in the Old town and on Marjan alone, the most peculiar is the miniature church of Saint Martin. Built within the northern wall of Diocletian’s Palace, where once stood the guards’ corridor above the Palace’s northern gate, is a really tiny church, only 1.6 meters wide and ten meters long, and filled with history. How could it not be–originally built in the 5th century with some important pieces added in 11th? This church also provides a completely new view of the nearby statue of Gregory of Nin and of the cathedral’s bell tower.
19. Markets filled with flavors and colors
No matter how many supermarkets and shopping malls exist in and around Split, buying groceries at the city’s markets is a must. The Main Green Market is usually packed with sellers and buyers, especially on Saturdays, and offers everything you might need to enjoy a Mediterranean diet, another UNESCO-protected intangible heritage in which Croatia prides itself. For the rest, just take a short walk across the Old Town to the old fish market, the only one without flies due to a nearby sulfur springs connected with another legend: Diocletian built his Palace close to those springs to cure his rheumatism.
20. Water from the aqueduct
People in Split people are proud of an endless list of things. One of them is water. The usual mantra is that the city gets its running water from the aqueduct built by Diocletian, which is not completely true, but close enough. This aqueduct was renovated in 1860s, but yes, the route and the source of that water–river Jadro’s spring–is still mostly the same as in Roman times. Much more important is that water in Split is really good, much better, not to mention cheaper, than what you buy in a bottle. Wherever you see a public fountain, refill, or use your hands to drink.
21. Wining and Dining
Split is part of Dalmatia, the Croatian region with a rich Mediterranean heritage, including food. No wonder that Croatia is part of UNESCO’s protected Mediterranean diet on its “World Intangible Heritage List.” If you want to enjoy Split (and Dalmatia), one of the best ways is seafood, from grilled white fish, to salted sardines, to different brodettos. Local restaurants–at least those worth visiting–keep stocked with a fresh supply of daily fish from local fishermen.
If you are more of a meat person, rely on lamb on a spit, or peka (dish cooked under the iron bell covered with hot ash), or pašticada (beef stew with gnocchi).
When it comes to wines, they are one of the least known gems of Croatia, mostly because of bad foreign-market coverage.
You can trust us: Dalmatian wines are great, from fresh white Pošip to full bodied, high-alcohol Plavac Mali.
And important fun fact: Zinfandel draws its origins from the region that includes Croatia, Montenegro, and Italy. To be more precise, it’s been DNA-proven that this popular variety comes from vineyards in Kaštela Bay just next to Split. Here it’s call Crljenak, and is well worth of sipping.
22. Countless coffee varieties and rituals
Everywhere in Croatia, coffee drinking is a ritual. In Split it’s a way of life. Inviting someone for a coffee doesn’t even have to include coffee, it’s just a code for spending some time socializing.
Of course, everything is much easier with Split’s climate. On the other hand, ordering coffee is not that simple, and waiters are the usual victims. One of them told me once, jokingly, that it’s impossible to use any kind of gadget to speed up the ordering process, since there is no software to remember all the varieties. You just must have YOUR coffee to qualify for being Splićanin (person living or originated in Split), and there are some rules.
23. Gregory of Nin's toe
Verona has Juliet’s breasts, New York has Wall-Street Bull’s balls, but Split has Gregory of Nin’s toe. One of the most popular landmarks in town, this giant statue of the 10th century bishop made by renowned sculptor Ivan Meštrović in 1929 just can’t be missed. It’s important as a piece of history and as an artwork, but any tourist will care much more about getting some good luck by rubbing its shiny toe.
24. Split is Mereen and Braavos
Game of Thrones is now part of television history, but filming locations are not going anywhere and still make the show’s fans happy. Dubrovnik, which served at King’s Landing, might be the main destination for them, but Split and its vicinity have a lot to offer, either as organized or self-guided tours.
Locations include those within Diocletian’s Palace such as the room where Daenerys kept her dragons or the Unsullied fought the Sons of Harpy; then nearby Klis fortress was dubbed Meereen; and fans can visit the quarry in nearby Žrnovnica, Kaštel Gomilica (AKA Braavos), as well as the old watermill on river Žrnovnica where Missandei first spotted Greyworm while bathing.
25. Nobody calls squares by their names
Although it looks like a labyrinth, moving around Split is not that difficult when you realize a simple pattern–all roads going downhill lead to the sea.
However, it might be tricky to ask locals where some address might be. People in Split have their own alternative names for almost all of them, and usually don’t use those official ones.
Of course, it’s not a written-in-stone rule, but throughout history those names changed so often, that it is understandable. So it’s important to remember names like Voćni trg (Fruit Square), Pjaca (Piazza), or Prokurative. If you ask for Square of Radić Brothers, People’s Square, or Republic Square God knows where you might end up.