I remember the first time I visited Split, half a decade ago. Our bus docked in the terminus beside the harbour, located right outside the city walls, and we walked up to the apartment we were staying in through the centuries old stairs leading up to the walls of the Diocletian palace. Later, we would enter the city through the courtyard of the palace, passing first through the square guarded by a sphinx, a throwback to the city’s Roman past.
Between then and now, with five years in the interim, not much has changed. In Split, one gets the feeling that nothing much has changed for thousands of years. Perhaps the cafés have new owners and the city kitchens are modernized, the boats that line its harbour are now mostly powered by engines, although many are still supplemented with sails; but the essence of the city remains timeless. Still, life revolves around the great palace at its centre and the former temple of Zeus, now a Catholic church, where worshipers frequent often and tourists enter to gawk at its ancient grandeur.
On this trip, we stayed in the “No. 1 Palace, Split“, owned by a Croatian couple, Josip and his wife. We met up with Josip in the People’s Square, by the clock tower, where he gave us a little history of how he found the apartment and renovated it, merging ancient charm with modern comfort. His apartment is, hands down, the best lodging I’ve had the pleasure to experience while on holidays. It’s hard to beat, with the original stonework from the Temple of Jupiter making up a portion of the walls, and a terrace with a jacuzzi looking up to the cupola of the church and a traditional bakery literally outside our doorstep. I would visit Split again just to stay in Josip’s swag apartment.
My second favourite thing about Spilt, after sleeping in ancient buildings in the lap of luxury, are the dining options. From rustic family run bakeries to fine dining al-fresco style, this city has it all. The cuisine is mostly Mediterranean, which means menus that focus on freshness and flavour. Nothing but the best ingredients, lightly fried or grilled, served with excellent local olive oil, which in and of itself is a great gift to take back home with you. There are of course, local specialties that break the mold, like “Pašticada”, a Damaltian specialty: braised veal, cooked for hours in an earthenware pot in a decadent plum sauce.
Two particularly memorable places to eat out in Split are Konoba Hvaranin and Augubio Congo. Konoba Hvaranin is known for its Pašticada and the history of the café, which was and is a writer’s den for an illustrious list of Yugoslavian and Dalmatian authors that have sat and its tables for decades. The food here has a home-cooked feel and is absolutely delicious and made with a lot of love and care. On the flip side, Augubio Congo is an upscale, contemporary restaurant located in an ancient courtyard, serving up traditional Dalmatian cuisine with a nouveau French twist. My favourite was the charcuterie and cheese board with a sampling of various delicacies from around the region. Wherever you end up though, the local wines are a must try as you don’t get many opportunities outside the region to sample the best stuff.
Walking through the streets of the city takes you back in time, centuries into the past, with its maze of stone walls and cobblestone streets left almost as they were when first built by the Romans. We went on a walking tour of the city, which gave us some background of the place, from the primary monuments like the Palace and the crypts below to lavish houses in the city with charming courtyards that have been occupied for well over a thousand years. My favourite monument is of course the statue of Gregory of Nin, which stands outside the golden gate at the city’s north entrance. On my last visit I rubbed its toe, which led to a job interview that I nailed a few days later. (It must have been the toe, what else could it be?) The tour gave significance to the architecture of the city, from its large squares to its hidden corners. Of all the complexes I’ve toured, in Greece, Turkey, Italy and the rest of the Mediterranean, this was possibly one of the best. Being able to compare and see the similarities between life then and life now does make history a lot more relevant to the modern tourist.
If you love seeing architecture from antiquity (as we do) but are tired of seeing another pile of badly refurbished rocks, we would highly recommend all of Dalmatia. A truly underrated gem and a place still mostly yet undiscovered; still somewhat off the beaten path.