Friday, 7 October 2016

Our Vacation in a Crumbling Roman Palace

And I'm back! Sorry for the radio silence readers – I've been in Croatia for 10 days and today I’d like to take you on a journey around Split. This is Croatia's second biggest city, which tends to be one of those places people are 'just passing through' on their way somewhere else, but there's actually a lot to do and plenty of treasures to discover.

We stayed in this beautiful Airbnb studio apartment in an old stone house with a coffee machine, an amazing shower and close to everything - all for £68 a night. 

Daily life in Split is played out within the crumbling walls of an ancient Roman retirement village – Diocletian's Palace – built in AD295 by the forward-thinking Emperor, 10 years before he planned to ditch his chariot... A wander along the Riva, Split's shiny harbourside esplanade, it's easy to see why Diocletian fell under its spell – although impossible to imagine a Tarmac road once ran through it in the 60s... but look at those cars! Like back then, it's still the place to saunter, see and be seen at the centre of city life.

We walk through the bronze gate – one of four around the palace walls – for our first taste of Diocletian's world, down into the dank basements of his former palace. We're in a vast subterranean world filled with huge, labyrinthine halls once used to make wine and press olives... and store rubbish dropped through tell-tale holes in the ceiling from the palace rooms upstairs, according to our guide. 

Up a steep staircase at the far end, you blink as you step out onto the palace's sunlit central courtyard, where Diocletian dressed in his purple robes, addressed his people. 

I started to get a sense of the palace's size, but couldn't help wondering why it was so gigantic, until I learned about his 1000 staff (the mind boggles...) and then there's the space for the octagonal-shaped Cathedral of St Domnius with its ornate bell tower – originally built as Diocletian's on-site mausoleum

If you happen to be superstitious, it's hard to resist making a wish and rubbing the big toe on the city's famous bronze statue of the famous Croatian bishop, Gregarious of Nin, a modish work whose creator, sculptor Ivan Mescovic, was the first living artist to have a one-man show at New York's Met Museum.

So off we went with luck on our side, venturing away from the palace's magnificent sights and crumbling walls, up Marjan Hill on the Marjan Peninsula through sweet-smelling pine forest into a secret magical world... the pretty Cafe Vidilica, with sweeping views of the bay, and... a totally random "photo booth".

It's here tucked behind the cafe we discover a hidden treasure – a remarkable 16th-century Jewish cemetery set among trees and aloes, and filled with beautifully unscripted grave stones.

It would be easy to stay here for hours, absorbing the history and searching for clues into  bygone life in Split, but we had more exploring to do in the city's maze of cobbled streets filled with shops, bars, cafes and restaurants.

We discover a shop with a beautiful and distinctive rich green old shopfront and familiar name (remember that gravestone – Vid Morpurgo?). Turns out Vid, a cultural pioneer and publisher and member of Split's Jewish community, played an important role in Split history, his heritage living on in one of the city's – if not Europe's – oldest bookshops, Morpurgo's on People's Square. 

When it opened in 1860, this tiny but curious shop overfilled with dusty books, was once the centre of Split's cultural life in its time; its owner, Vid, recognised as the first person to write a Split guidebook, in 1912. Today, it's owned by the Pisac family – Pisac means 'writer' in Croatian (who knew?) – who try to maintain its roots, painting it green to celebrate the style at the time it opened.

Thirsty work all this curiosity hunting, so we stop for a glass of Split's finest table wine – only £1.40 for a huge glass – and a traditional dinner at a quirky place, called Vila Spiza. Inside it's a cosy mish mash of random furniture at a bar set around an open kitchen. You feel at home watching the chefs cook up cheap and tasty Dalmatian dishes.

Luka's is the best place for a post-dinner sugar fix. It's a new ice cream parlour owned by a Polish guy living in Split, making an impression for his exciting homemade flavours  – rose, blueberry and cinnamon, mojito...

Back on the Riva, we find a bronze scale model of Split and spend ages trying to hunt out our favourite buildings and discoveries. 

Who says Split's just a jumping off point? It's a city full of buried treasure.

Follow us onto Hvar, the Croatian party island with a difference, next week...