Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Diocletian Delight

A member of the EU for just over a year now, Croatia harbours many European wonders. Majestic, rich Roman history, an incredibly well preserved palace and hidden Adriatic wonders amid relatively unspoilt islands, I take a breath of fresh sea air in Split, on the growingly popular Dalmatian coast of Croatia. What was it about Split that Diocletian found so appealing to build a palace there?

A rowdy, restless stag group and a few rows of talkative Americans behind me; seemingly seasoned travellers to Croatia from what I can hear over the loud beer induced ‘whoops’ from the Welsh revellers. If a destination could be judged by the passengers descending on it, I’m not quite sure what to expect.
Croatia is still young as far as established tourist destinations are concerned. Joining the EU might be another leap onwards from the often still raw sensitivities and hangovers from the brutal Croatian War of Independence of the nineties. Prior reading about the dangers of potentially still active landmines (although primarily limited to rural areas) and public sensitivity to discussions of war emphasise this.
Roughly half an hour from the airport by coach I reach Split harbour, and then a short taxi ride to Podstrana. The staff at Le Meridien Lav are very welcoming, and I am stunned by the view from the lobby of the Adriatic coast. The hotel room is spaciously comfortable, and it becomes more obvious that the typical clientele of this hotel are the ‘yachty’ type: the sailing art in the room, the yacht magazines, the marina and, perhaps, the majority of well-heeled, smartly dressed guests, all oozing an air of nautical reminiscence while manoeuvring towards the champagne bar.
Enjoying the late evening warmth, spectacular sunset and a cocktail at the hotel’s own beach, I’m left with a pleasant and relieving first impression – no rowdy stag groups to be seen just yet.

Split is considered to be roughly 1700 years old, an age derived from the construction of the Emperor Diocletian’s Palace in 305CE. What better way to get to the most widely conceived root of the city than starting with a wander around one of the oldest and persevering Roman ‘ruins’. Back in 305CE the walled encampment would have been heavily patrolled and governed by the Emperor, but now, under UNESCO protection, it’s very much under control of the Croatian people who live and work within its limestone walls.
I arrive at the harbour via the hotel’s shuttle bus service, and make my way around to the Riva, Split’s modern waterfront opposite the palace. From here, those looking to discern a distinctive ‘fortress’ may be disappointed, as the palace is now so well incorporated into the local architecture, shops and restaurant fronts, and with its sheer size is impossible to identify as a block-like structure. In fact, only portions are reminiscent of a military style encampment, such as the basement level entrance I traverse after crossing the street. In fact, the intricate and detailed architecture, homely and florally adorned buildings are welcoming. I feel like I am emerging into a small town of luxury villas rather than a fortified palace. A few posters promote the fact that the palace is being used as the set for the new season of ‘Game of Thrones’, which I am yet to see, but can understand why its historical, unique and wholesome architecture might appeal to film crews.
I emerge at the top of some stairs into the Peristyle, a large impressive court, surrounded by Roman brilliance: towering columns, the oldest and smallest cathedral in the world, Cathedral of St Domnius on my right, exquisite limestone building fronts and a few ‘Romans’ themselves, cashing in on the authentic atmosphere.
I peer past the hordes of tourists posing with the guard’s modern counterparts; red caped, smiling and most likely less scrupulous than the real thing, and look up at the spectacular cathedral and bell tower. Punctuating the entrance is an imposing sphinx figure, beheaded, but yet strikingly well preserved for an imported Egyptian artefact over 3000 years old. The sphinx offers apparent protection from the holy space within.
The cashing in continues behind me as a mock address from a costumed Emperor draws tourists into the court, as he waves to his ‘followers’. I depart the Peristyle and wander around the well-worn cobbled streets. An excavated area reveals elaborate tiling from the Roman bath, a sign that despite its almost immaculate condition, the Palace had even more delights to showcase in its Roman past.
I notice the fresh, uplifting sea-air cascading in from the Adriatic through the ‘windows’ in the palace walls. No wonder this place was long hailed for its health benefits throughout the ages. It really is invigorating.
More cashing in ensues as I enter a captivating tall circular tower, the blue sky filtering in ethereally and illuminating an intricately detailed archway. An all-male bellowing band then descends on my position, filling the acoustically generous space with just-about-tolerable music, before brandishing their CD like a threatening weapon.

I escape through another gate which takes me outside the palace, and here I am informed I should touch the toe of bronze statue for good luck, currently concealed by scaffolding. I oblige, of course, and from his vantage point I can see more clearly the incredible stature and strength of the palace walls.

Beachside dining, cocktails and swimming sums up the rest of the day, followed by a mini-adventure in a paddleboat the following morning. I hadn’t quite expected Split to be so scenic, in fact I’m pretty sure that I had previously associated Croatia with Eastern European concrete blocks and inevitable hardships after the war, but sitting off the coast in a paddle boat it certainly looks like an undiscovered paradise.

Marjan’s peak is marked by a large cross and a Croatian flag. I am back at the harbour, and spying the cross from here, Split’s huge forested park area looks vast, and the peak seemingly hours away. A general sense of direction vaguely guides me through the narrow, storybook streets, and before I know it I am at the gates of Marjan. I wonder why it’s necessary to have an armed guard at the gate, as I pass nonchalantly and up the winding path to the peak. Tantalising glimpses of the distant hills, glistening Adriatic sea and coast can be seen through the trees. The occasional outlook offers another glance and a welcome rest.

Passed by easy-gliding cyclists, hurtling downhill, I reach the foot of the steps that will take me to the concrete platform at the top. The giant cross dominates, and the Croatian flag at the top looks proudly authoritative when framed by the still blue sky. I walk around the perimeter, snapping a few shots with equal pride that I may have burned off a few of the beachside cocktails.

Downhill is less arduous, and a long direct series of steps makes the journey back to Split town even quicker. The terracotta, sun-defending roofs and limestone spires visible below lessen the feeling of leaving unspoilt woods for urban sprawling chaos, but instead for a laid back Adriatic gem.

I witness a very public wedding back in the palace, marked by the launching of bright flares all around the Peristyle, further highlighting the palace’s longitude of life. This certainly isn’t a moth-balled poorly preserved ruin. I head down into the basement to see its underbelly.

A sculpture exhibition and a ghostly lack of tourists makes the caverned rooms feel a little creepy. Water cascades down moss covered ceiling and walls as I skip over puddles – a far cry from the level of preservation upstairs, but a reminder of the true age of the palace. Several cats and kittens also seem to be making good use of Diocletian’s old haunt.

Perplexed by a multitude of island hopping options, Hvar is my destination the next morning. Split has many neighbouring islands: Brac seems to be the most popular option, with Hvar heralded as the more ‘naturistic’ and laid back to the south, and party central to the north.
The ferry departs Split harbour promptly, and affords more spectacular views of the Adriatic coastline, passing many yachts and enticing emerald-watered retreats abound during the two hour journey.
Disembarking, there seems to be only one main path to follow around the rocky coved beaches. The serenity at the south of the island appears to attract like-minded people, hopefully with little chance of bumping into those stag doers here…

Eventually I reach a harbour, tucked away behind buildings so endearingly European, quiet and storybook-like, it’s almost like discovering some pre-meditated movie set of spontaneous, effortless yet precisely perfect construction. I imagine I’m waiting to hear somebody yell ‘action’, and witness a glamorous movie star step off an arriving yacht.

I stop for a wonderfully prepared lunch by the water, and then delve in further to the ‘movie set’, yet there is no false backing – in fact the back streets reveal further delights, including a virtually hidden cathedral and court.

Further on, the area becomes more wooded and secluded, harbouring a few small bays, bars and areas for sun-worshippers. Seeing the ferry port from the other side, I realise just how far I have to get back to the ferry, and slowly make my way back, stopping here and there to sit by the water and absorb the tranquillity.

My taste of Croatia, though limited to this coastal area, has transformed my warped ‘old-school’ view of this part of the world, from high-rise blocks, language barriers and post-war hang-ups to stunning Adriatic vistas, wall-to-wall summer perfection, immersive Roman experiences, tranquillity and class galore. Diocletian made the right choice.