Visiting Split With A Small Dog – Part 1
I have a confession to make, Dear Reader: I prefer small towns. For all the accolades that the “big ones” get — you know, Paris, Toronto, Rome, and the like — well, I tend to favour the smaller, more human scale places. We prefer stops like Plovdiv, Sienna, Dubrovnik, or even itty bitty little Oia on Santorini island in Greece. Because in big towns, we quickly feel overwhelmed by the crush of bodies, the hustle and the bustle, the need to commute rather than have the option to walk to where we want to go. Big towns and cities and bigger, faster, noisier, and dirtier. Not to mention the big cities often have inflated prices and well established tourist traps.
Croatia, however, surprised us with not one, but two exceptions: Zagreb, Croatia’s capital, and Split, Croatia’s second largest city. Both cities are incredibly approachable and enjoyable for extended periods of time. Especially Split. Visiting Split with a small dog turns out to be a pretty amazing experience.
The Marina and Promenade
Our first glimpse of Split was from the Adriatic Sea. It was the last stop on our Dalmatian Coat sailing trip. The Split’s big marina is just a little to the west of the old town.
Split’s promenade extends all the way from the marina to the old town. It is exceptional by any standards — hands down, the most pleasant promenade we have ever enjoyed. Not only is “the Riva,” as the locals call it, insanely long, connecting many neighbourhoods that hug the coastline, it’s also achingly beautiful. From the more modern side near the marina, with glass cubic restaurants and built in concrete art and seating, to the more traditional end into the old town, with well-polished marble stone, palm trees, and plentiful cafés and restaurants.
You can easily spend several hours just enjoying the promenade. The skies shifting over the Adriatic, and the small boats and super yachts competing for a spot to dock will entertain for a while. The popcorn vendors, and the local puff pastry balls and crepes being sold alongside local crafts in little stalls will keep you busy. There is always something going on the Promenade, day or night, and pets are allowed everywhere, to roam or to sit at a patio — even off-leash.
Once we got our bearings and made our way to our lovely, little apartment, just outside and to the north of the old walls of the ancient town, we dropped our bags and went right back out to make our way to the most famous part of Split.
It’s impossible to miss Diocletian’s Palace. It’s surrounded by massive walls on the north and east sides, has an enormous and intimidating sentinel on the north side, The Golden Gate, watching over the palace’s main entrance.
Before entering the Golden Gate, the statue of Grgur Ninski (or Gregory of Nin), waits for you. You can’t miss it: the statue is HUGE!
Grgur was the first archbishop of Split, holding office early in the 10th century. Grgur, despite being of the church, was openly opposed to the Pope and the official hierarchy of the church. He believed that religious services should be accessible to all people, so directed that Croatian church services would be held in the Croatian language. Grgur’s decision is credited for strengthening Croatian language and culture and strengthening Christianity in Croatia.
Grgur’s statue was made in 1929 by local, famed sculptor and architect Ivan Meštrović. Despite having a scowling face, Grgur’s statue is said to bring you good luck. So don’t forget to rub his toe and make a wish!
Past the statue, you can walk through the Golden Gate entrance, pass by the guards in Roman costume, and enter the palace, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Do take a moment to find the tiny little church of St Martin. It’s not always open, but we got lucky and bumped into a nun with the keys, who — after getting a good cuddle from me — let us in the church one at a time. This tiny little church is built above the Golden Gate in the corridor that connected to the emperor’s private quarters, so you’ll have to look up to find it!
As soon as you step into the Diocletian’s Palace, you’ll realize you’re in a unique environment. The “palace” isn’t a building. It’s not a castle or manor or fort. The palace is, in fact, a full-fledged city. It’s 30,400 square meters (99.74 square feet) of shops, alleys, churches, museums, restaurants, apartments, boutiques, and more. It’s also home to about 3,000 people.
Dating back to the 4th century AD, the palace was built for an exceptional man: the Roman Emperor Diocletian. The reason for the city is globally unique. You see, after 21 years of service, the emperor retired! Just to be clear, in those days, that never happened. Emperors either died in battle, from illness, or were deposed or murdered. But to retire? That was unheard of! To then build an entire city as a palace to enjoy during said retirement? To expand that palace to accommodate refugees from Salona (circa 614) displaced by a war with the Avars … unique.
The palace was built to accommodate the nobility in one area. The remainder — and largest — section of the city was for the garrison permanently stationed at the palace and the huge population of slaves, servants, and businesses that supported it all. The city also housed the emperor’s memorabilia collected over his 21 years of plundering under the Roman banner. You can still find bits here and there, like the beautiful Egyptian sphinx near the main cathedral.
The palace is a maze and a fascinating place to roam. I was often off-leash since the whole area is entirely pedestrian. I was picked up from time to time when it got a little crowded, but otherwise, I was free!
You can walk for hours and still discover new little secret spots. We also loved how the old and the new just seemed to overlap. It was most obvious in the grocery store where the wine section was under an old archway supported by beautifully decorated columns, or in the bank, where an old pillar just, well, stood there, for folks to enjoy and walk around.
There are great walking tours you should take if you can. Or you can grab the self-guided tour map at the little tourist office in the inner courtyard known as the Peristyle.
The most impressive area of the palace for us was the Peristyle, a central inner courtyard that every little street seemed to lead to. You can clearly see years of architecture piling up on itself. You’ll find finely carved columns over rougher bulkier plinths. You’ll see the access to the private emperor’s palace, but also the cathedral that was built just after the emperor’s death as the church — long kept out by the emperor — sticks it to the emperor by building a cathedral right next to, and looming over, the emperor’ss tomb!
We climbed the cathedral tower. It’s not for the faint of heart. Mom does not normally suffer from altitude issues, but with steps with open risers, very little railing, and a steep climb, even Mom’s heart started racing like crazy. Dogs are not normally allowed but once you get your ticket, if you have a stealth bag, it’s not difficult to sneak in (at your own risk). I went up safely and snugly, harnessed inside the sling bag at Dad’s side.
After coming back down from the tower, we had a fun day discovering the history and culture of the palace. We stopped at a famous restaurant and café in the Peristyle where you can sit on pillows right on the steps and enjoy a meal or coffee and dessert.
And then we enjoyed the live performance of local male singers who, singing a cappella, perform klapa — Dalmatian folk music. The songs are about life on the sea, loves lost and found, eating and drinking, and the country. This activity, which delights Croatians and visitors alike, is on UNESO’s intangible heritage list.
The Rest of the Palace
We did many a hand-off so the bipeds could see things such as the Baptistery of St. John, a small but beautiful building that once was the temple of Jupiter. There was also the Church of St. Dominic near the Silver Gate on the east side.
And, then, of course, there’s the renowned and wonderful Main Hall that is entirely underground. There’s much shopping to be had there at any time of day! From there, you pop back out through the Brass Gate onto the Riva on the south side of the palace.
To the east, you’ll want to take time to visit the Split City Museum. As long as I remained in the bag, I was welcome to tag along. It’s about $3 to enter and well worth the price if for no other reason than to get a feel for what living within the palace might have been like for the nobles.
Don’t forget to walk where the actual palace was. We almost missed this section in the south-west part of the city.
Then head off to the west where you will find the lovely People’s Square. This is where you’ll find the beautiful Renaissance town hall. In the 15th century building, you’ll find a rotating art exhibit. When we went in, there was no fee and I was allowed to join in the fun. Local art students had work on display.
What I really enjoyed, however, was the view of the square from the Gothic windows above.
The People’s Square is also where you’ll start to see Venetian, Auto-Hungarian, and Turkish influences in the architecture rather than the more ancient Roman influence in the palace. The non-Roman influences are even more obvious when you pass through the Iron Gate in the west and look beyond, where Spilt started to grow into a full fledged city rather than a summer palace.
But you know what, Dear Reader? I think I will leave you there. I’ll save the west part of the old city, which includes the Brace Radica Square, not to mention the amazing park at Marjan Hill, for next week. I don’t want to overwhelm you with too much information. Visiting Split with a small dog is absolutely worth a part 2! (For over 200 pics go to my photo album on Split on my FB page!!)