Advantages Beautiful, atmospheric, good cafes and shops, mostly free
Disadvantages Those slippy pavements
In the same way that many Brits go off to spend their twilight years in Spain, so the Roman Emperor Diocletian decided to retire in the sun. He chose Croatia’s Adriatic coast, Split to be precise, and he had built for him a magnificent palace. In spite of its grandeur it was largely neglected for several hundred years after the Romans quit Dalmatia and this led to its partial decline; however in the seventh century, many living near to the palace sought sanctuary within its walls from invaders, and it is because of this that so much of the palace is still not only standing, but in use for homes and businesses today. When you see how much still remains it is incredible to think that it dates from the fourth century (with some later additions and tweaking).Although the Old Town of Split is crammed with interesting and important buildings, the palace is really the jewel in the crown. It is notable for the degree of preservation, in fact, it is the best preserved Roman palace in the world and undeniably worthy of its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Monument. But the thing I like best about Diocletian’s Palace is that it is the true heart of Split; like a north African medina, life is lived within the walls of the palace. There are a couple of parts of the complex that require an admission fee and are certainly worth paying to see but you can stroll the little lanes and enjoy the squares free of charge and still take in this marvellous sight. One minute you can be among hordes of chattering tourists, the next you’re in a silent little alley way at the end of which someone’s washing is hanging out to dry.
The palace is situated next to the port and is really unmissable. There are various entrances through the old gates in the walls and you’ll probably find yourself weaving in and out of the palace many times during an extended trip to Split. The tower of the cathedral of St. Dominus can be seen from some distance away and is a useful point of orientation. Most guidebooks include at least a small map of the palace but you should really accept that you’ll end up “lost” in the maze of lanes. Occasionally you’ll be surprised and perplexed to discover you’ve come round full circle but in such wonderful surroundings you need hardly be vexed about that. There are several companies offering guided tours which are no doubt useful for getting the most out of your visit, but, if you can, I’d recommend spending some time just wandering too as the tour will only take you to the main points of interest and there is much to enjoy off the main squares.Each of the palace walls has a gate; they are named after metals – gold, bronze, silver and iron. Just outside the Golden Gate is an impressive statue of Gregorius of Nin; he was a tenth century Croatian bishop who campaigned for the right to conduct religious services in Croatian. One of the toes of the statue is polished to a golden sheen because legend says that if you rub Gregor’s toe you’ll return to Split. In September 2003 I rubbed the bishop’s toe and I was back in Split in 2009 to do it again so obviously it is true!
Inside the fifteenth century Papalic Palace is the Town Museum; while it’s quite interesting, it does contain exhibits from right across the centuries so if it’s specifically the palace and the Roman period you are interested in you’ll find that section quite limited. Like so many history museums there are collections of arms and armour, ancient coins and furniture. I’d only recommend the museum if you are staying a few days in Split; if you are on a day trip there are better ways to spend your time.On the other hand I would certainly recommend spending the 10 Kuna to visit the cathedral . It’s amazing to see how well preserved this part of the palace is. It was originally built to be Diocletian’s mausoleum. It’s built in the shape of an octagon with 24 columns arranged around it. The highlights are a brilliant frieze in just below the dome which depicts Diocletian and his wife, and the carved main doors of the cathedral which date from the thirteenth century.
Although it is part of the same building, there is another charge for admission to the Romanesque belfry though you enter from a different place and don’t have to pay admission first to the cathedral in order to get into the belfry. There are a few interesting exhibits in here and if you have time it’s worth the small charge.
Under the palace and accessed from near the cathedral is the vestibule in which you can find lots of souvenir stalls. In among the more tacky stuff are a small number of stalls selling lovely handmade items including some lovely jewellery. Even if you don’t want to stop it’s certainly worth a look in here because there are some well preserved mosaics to see. Next to the vestibule is my favourite part of the palace complex, the basement halls. This is another section that imposes an admission charge but I think it is the one that is most worth paying for. It is actually just a series of vaulted cellars but they are so atmospheric and as they virtually unchanged it is the closest you’ll get to the heart of the palace’s history. If you are interested in architecture this section is a must as it enables you to see how the whole design allowed for the palace to be built above sea level and to benefit from the warmth of the sun yet still enjoy a breeze.
There is more to the palace and the sights within its walls than I can describe here; besides discovering these secrets is part of the joy of visiting so I would want only to give a tantalising glimpse of this really quite remarkable place.Are there any disadvantages? Well I am sure it won’t come as a surprise to know that this part of Split gets very crowded in summer; that is only to be expected. Sometimes there are short queues for entrance to some of the different sections but I wouldn’t let that put me off seeing something.
I would advise care while walking as the stone used for the pavements is very shiny and slippy. It comes from the nearby island of Brac which was also the source of the stone used to build the white house. The pavements are a little uneven in some areas so do take care after a couple of glasses of Dalmatian wine or some Ozujsko beers.If you visit Split it’s inevitable that you’ll at least stray into Diocletian’s Palace; if you are staying up the coast or on one of the islands with an easy ferry trip of Split, I would recommend making a day trip to see the palace. It’s a brilliant example of people co-existing with history instead of it being roped off and explored in a reverent hush. Diocletian’s Palace is one of Croatia’s must see sights, as interesting and compelling as the perhaps better known Old Town of Dubrovnik and thoroughly deserving of a visit.
Note: if you buy a Split Card (currently 36 Kuna, approximately £4.44, correct on 8.11.09) you will then get free admission to all the sections of the palace which charge a fee. These can be bought from the Tourist Information Centre and larger hotels. A Split Card is valid for 72 hours. However, as admission to the individual elements is around £1 at the most, often as little as 60 Pence, you may think it’s not worth the bother if you are only in Split for one day.
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