We finally made it to Croatia a whole 24 hours later than we’d previously expected, due to a ginormous thunderstorm that had been rumbling all over Europe, and when our plane glided down over the bright Mediterranean Sea and touched down at long last at Split airport, I heard my pal Rachel sitting in the row behind me give out a ‘Yessss!!!’ in pure victorious relief that we’d actually reached our destination. It had been a very strange twenty-four hours, I’ll tell you that for free. Although this rumbly old storm had thwarted our plans to visit Dubrovnik, it did mean that we’d be spending a couple of extra days in the ancient Croatian seaside city of Split, which actually turned out to be a jolly good time all around.
A port city cradling the Adriatic Sea, ownership of this beautiful place has changed hands many a time throughout history, from Greeks and Romans, to Byzantine and Venetian, and evidence of all these so called ‘owners’ can be seen in the city’s architecture, basically everywhere you look. Eventually Croatia became part of socialist Yugoslavia, and you can catch a glimpse of those socialist times in the gigantic concrete housing blocks as you leave the city. It all seems pretty mental to me, you guys, however after the Croatian War of Independence was over in 1995, tourism steadily became kind of a big deal for this part of the world. And once Game of Thrones started filming in hotspots all over the country, things really exploded.
Wander the streets of Diocletian’s Palace
Perhaps what Split is most famous for is Diocletian’s Palace, built by the Roman Emperor Diocletian in the 4th century AD, technically as his retirement home would you believe it!? I hadn’t done a whole load of research into the palace and naively thought that this UNESCO World Heritage location was like most palaces in the world- that you’d have to buy a ticket to enter and you’d have a stroll through the rooms holding various artefacts and learning lots of stuff. Well no way Jose, that is just not the case with this particular palacio.
Diocletian’s Palace is a living, breathing part of the old town of Split, filled with restaurants, shops, and around 3000 actual real life residents. Although there are walls surrounding it, meaning you can only enter on foot (there wouldn’t be room for cars to enter even if you wanted to drive in), there’s no actual gate, ie the Palace never closes. Although there are churches and temples inside, some of which obviously do have opening and closing times. Wandering these narrow cobblestone alleys is full on magical, and we were lucky enough to stay for one night in an apartment within the palace walls…although it’s true that we were woken up at the very first crack of dawn by the clattering of the cafe opposite us opening up, and the subsequent gathering of the locals for a 6am coffee, it all just added to the beauty of the experience in my opinion! If New York is the City That Never Sleeps, then Split is the City That Doesn’t Even Know the Meaning of the Word Sleep.
I am quite the twenty-nine year old grandma, and have never watched a single episode of Game of Thrones, however for those die-hard fans out there in the world, part of the show was filmed within the palace walls. Whether you’re here because of the TV show or not, there’s no denying that walking through these streets transports you right back into some other worldly part of history, and I am all about this kind of place.
Don’t just wander in the daytime
As we were visiting Split in late July, it was peak time for not just tourists, but more specifically cruise ship tourists. The city was heaving with people during the daytimes, a great number of whom who were clearly passengers from the ships docking in the port. Nighttime in an ancient city is just as magical if not more so, than the day, and this was also the time that we stumbled across many an unexpected scenario.
Split Summer Festival was taking place while we were in the city, which meant that there was no shortage of events going on all over the place. One evening we ran into a performance of Croatian folk dancing next to the harbour which was just about the most exciting thing I’d seen on the whole trip (second only to my pal Rachel’s performance of Baby Got Back in a Budapest karaoke bar), involving a great deal of whirling, shuffling and jumping, accompanied at points by a whole band and at other moments by just one man on a stringed instrument which looked as if it was played with an actual saw, calling out commands in a matter-of-fact but highly joyous fashion. I was ASTONISHED.
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Another night as we wandered along a particularly narrow alleyway with just the pools of light from the restaurant doorways to light the way, there was a sudden flurry of movement ahead of us as a group of what appeared to be Ancient Egyptian guards crossed our path and vanished down an adjoining alley. Naturally the best thing to do in this situation was follow the Egyptians. It turned out that there was a performance of Aida being performed in the open air of the Peristyle (the central square of the palace, where Diocletian would meet his subjects), which I would say is surely one of the most fitting and majestic places for a performance of Aida. From one end of a dark archway being used as the stage left entrance, we could hear the entire chorus of the opera company echoing back to us, and glimpse ballerinas floating their way en pointe across the stage. What a time to be alive! This was interrupted savagely by a bird targeting us with a grenade of its own poo. Time to go home.
Hit the beach
Split has tonnes and tonnes of beaches, the most popular with locals and tourists alike being the sandy haven of Bačvice, right near the centre of the city and only a short walk away from the harbour. I took a stroll here one afternoon and found that although it’s a beaut beach, it’s also unsurprisingly quite the crowded one! Bars and clubs aplenty are located nearby, and Bačvice really is the place to be seen out and about in the evening as well. We were told that there were quieter and more secluded places for a swim in the sea if you head to the areas surrounding Marjan hill, however we didn’t have time to fit in a visit here. Next time, my pals, next time!
Eat…a lot. Like, a lot a lot
Something that I think is vital to a visit anywhere in the world, is tucking into as much of the local cuisine as you possibly can. As Split is on the Dalmatian coast (Dalmatia is the name of this particular historical area of Croatia. We did keep our eyes peeled for Dalmatians the whole time we were there, but never managed to spy one, alas), the food around here involves a whole lot of fish and seafood, with a strong Mediterranean vibe from their olive oil, garlic and use of herbs like rosemary and parsley.
For seafood we headed for a square near the fish market where we were told we’d get some full on amazing fish dishes, and chose Restoran Bajamonti which was an absolutely ideal choice. Whether just freshly cooked fish on its own with vegetables, or brudet- a type of fish stew- the food here was delicious. Oh my goodness me. We watched a table next to us gasp in amazement as their waiter expertly carved up a freshly cooked fish for them, and the cherry on top was the fact that each table is provided with their own button to call their waiter with. When we decided to make a few boomerangs of me pressing our button a couple of times in awe of the whole situation, our waiter who was a real jolly lad came past on the double and declared-
“You press it again, I kill you!”
Well there’s no arguing with that, is there, and both of us nearly died laughing.
Pasticada is a delicious traditional dish which I loved, consisting of beef marinated in wine vinegar then cooked in a red wine sauce and served with gnocchi. And although we didn’t get to try it as you need to order in advance, peka is a dish of any kind of meat or even an octopus or two, baked with vegetables in a pot with a bell-shaped lid and cooked for several hours. One day I shall be back to sample that delight. Pršut is a type of Dalmatian smoked ham (like prosciutto), which is absolutely AMAZING, and it didn’t surprise me after tasting some of that smoky delight to know that Croatia and Italy are in a mild battle over who truly created smoked dried ham first. This stuff is DA BOMB.
Drink Croatian wine
Croatians are full on proud of their wine and have been producing it since the Greeks brought the idea of vineyards to the country in the 5th century BC. (So clearly, these Croatians really know what they’re doing.) Although the majority of Croatian wine is white, red wine is produced along the coast of the country and we obviously felt the need to sample both. I mean, why wouldn’t you!? When we went to Hvar Island after our first few days in Split, we were overjoyed to discover some vineyards one day whilst cycling around the countryside, and this just added to the whole experience.
In other beverage news, one of our AirBnB hosts left a selection of homemade rakija for us to try. This is strong stuff, and although I’d already tried it whilst visiting Serbia, this time we had a whole selection of flavours, my favourite being orahovac, or walnut. Don’t get me wrong, you can find rakija in bars in Croatia, but if someone offers you a taste of their homemade stuff, you should most definitely oblige.
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Risk death by climbing the tower
Saint Dominus Cathedral in the centre of Diocletian’s Palace is a Catholic cathedral housed in what was once Emperor Diocletian’s Mausoleum, although it’s officially been a Cathedral since the 7th century BC. The Cathedral is absolutely beautiful, and also houses a whole load of stunning religious artefacts, however for me the most wondrous part was the adjoining bell tower. I say wondrous, but it was simultaneously absolutely terrifying.
The further up the single winding staircase you go, the more dramatically the wind roars through the open stone sides of the tower, and there is nothing there to really stop you from plummeting out of these as you climb your way up. About two thirds of the way from the top, I realised I was completely overcome with fear and stood clinging the handrail and trembling in frozen heart-stopping fright. It was all a bit awkward to tell the truth, but as at that point I was completely going it solo, I realised I had no choice but to force myself onwards and very slowly upwards. The view and sense of accomplishment I was rewarded with once I tentatively stepped onto the top level of the bell tower was worth it. Just about.
Talk to the locals
One of the aspects of our time in Croatia that struck me the most, was how friendly, helpful, and absolutely hilarious the people are. This is one warm and hospitable nation, from the hosts of our three separate Airbnbs who readily leapt to assist us with anything we needed, (be it assistance, advice or a funny story), and waiters in restaurants, to random strangers in the street. As I was attempting to figure out which vegetables to buy in the supermarket one morning, a toothless but twinkly-eyed old lady of approximately 93, no exaggeration, began chattering away in Croatian to me, although it was clear we barely understood a word each other was saying. With the help of the woman behind the counter we had a very stunted conversation which culminated in me saying- “your country is beautiful! I love Croatia!”
To which the lady replied- “I love queen of England! And I love you!”
And I gave a gracious “Hvala!”
And that was that. Exchange complete.
What an absolute gem.
My one regret- Froggyland
On a very incredibly serious note. After googling ‘things to do in Split’ we were stunned to discover that one of the top tourist attractions is a place called ‘Froggyland.’ Not far from the harbour in the Old Town, to put it bluntly Froggyland is a 100 year old collection of stuffed frogs, arranged into human scenarios like sitting in a classroom or at the dentist. Seems macabre but after reading the reviews which on Tripadvisor which had me dying of laughter when they read like this selection-
“Everything about the trip [to Froggyland] was the best thing in life. Everyone that gave a review of less than five stars is a liar – shame on them.”
“This experience has truly changed my life. After 23 years on this planet, I now know what true love is. I love stuffed frogs doing people stuff and I feel like I should shout about it.”
“From participating in team sports to (albeit rudimentary) healthcare, I can easily see why UNESCO gave the museum a world heritage listing.“
I was sold on the idea of Froggyland. But alas, pals! We ran out of time! Trips out of the city to Klis, Krka and Trogir, and then onwards to Hvar, meant that Froggyland is just one of those hidden gems that for me at least, will remain a mystery a while longer.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW BEFORE YOU VISIT SPLIT
- Currency in Croatia is Kuna, and 10 Croatian Kuna = approx €1.35
- The buses from the airport to the city are scheduled to depart 30 minutes after each inbound flight. They leave from just outside the terminal, and take passengers to the ferry port in the centre of the city. The journey lasts around half an hour depending on traffic, and costs 30 kuna each way (or sometimes the bus driver will accept €5 if you’re lacking in Croatian cash). Buy your ticket directly from the bus driver.
- If visiting during the high season- July and August particularly- be prepared for massive crowds!
- Of course, Croatian is the first language, however English is also widely spoken particularly in a city as touristic as Split.
- If you get tempted to eat at one of those restaurants along the harbour-front…for the love of god DON’T DO IT. Find a local restaurant or taverna instead.