A Town in the Roman Palace: Split, Croatia

My legs were stiff when I got off the bus in Split. I had spent the whole day travelling, starting at 6am from Budapest by train to Zagreb, with a couple of hours spent at the bus terminal before another 5 hours on a bus down the Croatian coastline.

The Split skyline as seen from Marjan Hill.

The Split, Croatia skyline as seen from Marjan Hill.

At night the lamps of the city illuminate the old, crumbling walls in a subtle glow. The cathedral tower dominated the immediate skyline with its Romanesque arches and the surrounding sea appears almost black next to the lit up city. The sea air breathed into the evening, and I got off the bus, meeting with my host of my AirBnB apartment.

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The tower of the Cathedral of St. Dominius.

He spoke in broken English, recommending a few places en route to the place I had rented. He limped slightly, told me he was wounded while fighting in the Yugoslav War against the Serbs. We were five minutes from the port and everything awaited, but at that point all I wanted to do was sleep.

In the morning, the city on first impressions seemed quiet. A few ferries could be seen making their way out of port towards the islands of Hvar and Brač. A few locals strolled past me going about their daily lives under the echo of seagulls flying above the terracotta tiled roofs. The closer I reached the walls of the former palace, which today feels more like a city in its own right, the was a spike in activity.

The local market in Split was in full swing. Set just outside the old walls, women sold local flowers group in bunches, farmers sold their produce of either vegetables, cheese or meat cuts and further in I even found clothing, bags, sunglasses and even the odd bits of jewellery for sale under little tarpaulin covered stalls. By daylight, the original Roman features were now clear on the aged walls of Diocletian’s Palace. Centuries of coastal weather had worn down the arches and the original Corinthian columns set between medieval brickwork and contemporary wooden shutters.

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The morning market outside the walls of the old palace.

The central part of Split is a curious construction. Narrow medieval streets are packed tightly against Roman walls and original archaeological relics. It’s the first time I ever saw a city sporting this kind of accidental city planning and it’s remarkable. The ruins here are alive and breathe with daily life as children skip over the stone slabs, laundry hangs out dry on the washing lines interconnecting the windows set across the narrow streets, and the sound of of porcelain cups clink in local café, echoing across the hidden courtyards out of the small bars. Diocletian’s Palace evolved over the centuries, growing with the times and its residents from a Roman Emperor’s pleasure palace into what feels like a self-contained community in its own right.

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Roman details lie side by side with more “modern” constructions.

The Emperor Diocletian was local to the area and his backstory might not be what you imagine from a Roman Emperor. He was born to a freed slave and rose through the ranks to become the ruler of the Roman Empire. Diocletian might not have a name like Julius Caesar, Augustus, Nero of Caligula, but Diocletian became infamous for his persecution of the Empire’s Christian population.

The city of Split, Croatia  grew out from his palatial grounds, which was planned as his seaside retirement home — was the size of a small town. It measured in a square formation with dimensions of 160m by 190m, and housed over 9000 people!

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You’ll find details from the original Roman palace scattered about the Split city centre.

 

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A chamber in the foundations of Diocletian’s Palace.

However, once the Romans abandoned the site after Diocletian’s death, it remained empty for centuries and started to crumble into ruin until the 7th century, when it was populated by the region’s residents when it became a place of refuge when the Croats invaded. Since then, the palace transformed into a fortified town with a difference, and its residents constructed homes, churches and businesses within the city walls amongst the old Roman ruins, and even used the reinforced palace basement. From its ruins, the city of Split grew out around it to become Croatia’s second city.

I entered the old palace down into the reinforced cellars. The subterranean chambers were constructed in the 4th century, reinforced with giant stone blocks, but even today archaeologists are unsure of the specific purpose of these cavernous rooms – beyond offering the palace a stable foundation.

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Inside Diocletian’s Palace, most of the streets are narrow and tightly packed with residential houses.

While many know of Dubrovnik’s role as a backdrop for the TV series Game of Thrones, Split also took a big role as the city of Meereen. The cellars played host to Daenerys’ dragon prison, alongside some shots of the city’s dark side streets.

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View of the Peristyle.

Above ground, the city is a mix of medieval architecture and Roman ones. A monumental courtyard known as the Peristyle was once the northern access to the imperial apartments and also accessed Diocletian’s mausoleum, which became the Cathedral of St. Dominius, whose tower peers above the old Roman walls. The grounds are accented by old columns that once belonged to the Temple of Jupiter.

It’s interesting to see the historical tapestry take place inside the city walls. Echoes of hidden temples, the city’s oldest synagogue which lies in a secluded side street, even authentic Egyptian sphinxes can be found. The outer part of the palace is home to old city gates, where clever fortifications lie to trap in any unwanted visitors wanting to enter.

It’s easy to get lost wandering around Diocletian’s Palace, but it’s worth taking the time to slow down and really look around. Pay attention to the Venetian style windows, the clock tower and a stone with a Latin inscription. If these walls of Split, Croatia could talk, imagine the stories they could tell?

 

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