Visit Diocletian’s Palace
When Roman Emperor Diocletian decided to retire, he could have chosen anywhere in the Roman Empire. The building of his vast retirement palace at Split was entirely an accident of geography – it was three miles (five km) down the road from the major Roman outpost at Salona, which in the third century AD was the capital of the province of Dalmatia and in modern-day Croatia is near the town of Solin.
Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, his massive marble palace has been engulfed by 21st-century Split – itself a charming, pulsating city, squashed between the Adriatic Sea and coastal hills. Shops, bars and restaurants cling to the palace walls like barnacles, with several thousand people living clustered within them.
Construction of the Diocletian Palace in the late third century AD took 10 years and at over 334,000 sq feet (30,100 sq m) it has slowly morphed over the centuries into a fortress and town as well as imperial residence. The four gates in the 98-foot (30-m) high walls lead today to a maze of frenetic streets but on passing through the Golden Gate on the northern side of the ruins, it is possible to spot the Temple of Jupiter – Diocletian believed he was a reincarnation of Jupiter, the number-one god in the Roman pantheon. Split’s present-day main piazza, Peristil Square, was in fact the entrance hall to Diocletian’s humungous palace, and plenty of columns, arches and fragments of sculpture remain in place today.
The square hosts live concerts and impromptu a cappella performances as well as the Split Summer Festival in July and August – 2013 sees its 55th anniversary and a joining together with the European Music Summer alongside Slovenia, Italy and the Czech Republic,
Gothic and Renaissance palaces and churches also happily co-exist inside the Roman walls and the daily Pazar produce market takes place in its cellars. The straight lane of Krešimirova still bisects the palace complex from the western to the eastern gate and originally separated the emperor’s private quarters from those of his soldiers and subjects.
The mausoleum where Diocletian’s body was interred after his death is now the Christian cathedral of St Dominus, the patron saint of Split, who was a third-century bishop of Salona. Ironically Diocletian spent much of his life in persecution of the Christians and his body was removed in the eighth century – final destination unknown to this day. Although the great wooden doors of the cathedral are carved with biblical scenes, there are original Roman reliefs taken from the life of Diocletian and his wife Priscia still to be seen around the dome. Climb the campanile for views over Split and across the Adriatic.
Despite the emperor’s best attempts to thwart the spread of Christianity, Salona thrived due to its proximity to his great palace and by the sixth century had become a center of Christian worship. Although the city was utterly destroyed in the following centuries by Slavic invasions, vast expanses of ruins can clearly be seen. The centerpiece of the ruins is the gigantic second-century AD amphitheater; this survived until the 17th century when it was demolished by the Venetians. When fully functioning, the theater held 18,000 spectators. Close by is the macabre mass burial ground of early Christian martyrs killed (probably at the orders of Diocletian) in the amphitheater.
Other remains include a fourth-century basilica, the city gates and stretches of the walls, the forum, public baths and several small churches. The small Tusculum Museum just outside the entrance to the excavations has a useful brochure outlining the layout of the ruins, which have been beautifully conserved thanks only to the dry climate. Several marble sarcophagi and other finds were removed from the site and are now on display in the Archaeological Museum in Split.
Founded in 1820, this museum contains around 150,000 artifacts from the period of Greek colonization of the Adriatic prior to the arrival of the Romans, the Roman and Early Christian periods and the early Middle Ages, as well as a treasure trove of coins.
After exploring Diocletian’s Palace – take a guided tour to make the most of what you are seeing – take a walk along the palm-lined Riva esplanade to grassy Marjan peninsula for sea views. A nature reserve since 1964, some of Split’s best beaches are found here. Climb up the steps from Veli Varos to Telegrin belvedere for panoramic views across the Adriatic Sea to Havr and Vis islands. The nearby ancient Greco-Roman town of Trogir makes for a pleasant couple of hours admiring the mish-mash of Romanesque, Renaissance and Baroque architecture.
Central Dalmatia’s number-one destination for the beau monde, Havr is accessed by ferry from the port at Split. This Adriatic island is strewn with splashes of blue from the lavender fields and has an elegant main town where super-yachts moor up and the restaurants fill up with their super-rich occupants in the summer. Check out the cathedral and Franciscan monastery, stop off for lunch in a welcoming courtyard in the backstreets and then seek out the castle for views over the harbour. A mini-St-Tropez, Hvar Town’s pretty piazza of St Stephen and the winding cobbled streets see major action when the sun goes down and the partying starts – expect a lot of posing, vertiginous heels and highly visible designer labels.
For that all-over suntan and a dose of tranquility, take a day trip from Havr to the micro-islands of Pakleni to seek out hidden beaches and crystal-clear waves. Ferries leave from the 17th-century Venetian Arsenal on the Hvar Town quayside.
Split and Havr feature on several week-long cruise itineraries alongside other islands such as Korcula, laid-back Mljet and the Elaphitis; most of these sailing trips include an overnight stop in Split as well as Dubrovnik, a charming walled city much reconstructed after the wars of independence in the 1900s.