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Strollers parade along Split's sunny Riva, savoring the breezes along an expansive, cafe-lined promenade beside the Adriatic Sea. On the water, ferries are in constant motion, carrying passengers to and from the resort islands that line the Dalmatian coast. Meanwhile, tourists are browsing the shops or exploring one of the world's most intriguing historic sites -- the enormous 1,700-year-old palace of the Roman emperor Diocletian.
There's plenty of action in this transportation hub of the Dalmatian coast, an attractive and bustling city that I found a nice counterpoint to the more touristy towns along the coast. While most every vessel that plies the Adriatic visits Dubrovnik, Split is most commonly included on the itineraries of luxury lines and/or small, specialty cruise ships.
Add tempting beaches and a fine museum housing some of the best work of Ivan Mestrovic, Croatia's most famous sculptor, and there are many good reasons to spend some time in a town that is too often just a quick stopover on a cruise.
Split is the second largest city in Croatia, with a population over 200,000. Though the big attraction here, the amazing Diocletian's Palace, is the center of the Old City and a Unesco World Heritage Site, Split does not feel like a museum piece. The Old City does offer the narrow winding streets and stately squares that make European cities so appealing. But modern Split, a tourist, shipping and transportation center, boasts plenty of shops and excellent restaurants. It's a good place to sample the fresh seafood, mussels and the good red wine that are regional specialties.
Split is home to a university of 30,000, and half the city's population is in its 20s, so there is plenty of nightlife if you want it, especially near the beach.
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Other Eastern Mediterranean Cruise Ports:
Antalya • Athens (Piraeus) • Bari • Bodrum • Corfu • Crete (Heraklion) • Dubrovnik • Gythion • Haifa • Istanbul • Izmir • Jerusalem (Ashdod) • Katakolon (Olympia) • Koper • Korcula • Kotor • Kusadasi • Limassol • Mykonos • Odessa • Rhodes • Santorini • Split • Varna • Venice • Volos • Yalta • Zadar
The Dalmatian coast has a Mediterranean climate, good for producing excellent wine -- especially reds. The Zinfandel wine we know can be traced back to a Croatian grape called Plavac Mali. Some of the winery names may not be familiar, but one label to watch for is Grgich, which is also known for its fine California wines (winemaker Miljenko Grgich, with his Croatian heritage, actually has returned to the country to encourage updated winemaking techniques). Traminac is another brand for good white wine.
Coral jewelry and marble-like Dalmatian white limestone, used for home accessories, are the best souvenirs. They are found almost everywhere, including shops within Diocletian's Palace. Dolls dressed in native folk costumes are also popular. And did you know that men's ties are said to have originated in Croatia? According to legend, back in the year 1635, a band of Croatian mercenary soldiers came to France to aid King Louis XIII. Their traditional outfits included scarves distinctively tied about their necks. The idea caught on with the French, who called the new style "a la croate." That turned into "la cravate," the cravat or tie we know today. You can take home a sample in distinctive local patterns from the Croata boutique, Mihovilova Sirina 7. See some examples at www.croata.hr.
Croatian. This consonant-heavy language isn't easy to pronounce or understand, but luckily most people do speak English.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Croatia's currency is the kuna. The dollar is worth just over five kuna, so the easiest way to calculate costs is by dividing the kuna amount by five. Check on the current exchange rate at www.xe.com or print out a small and handy "cheat sheet" with up-to-date conversions at www.Oanda.com. Banks are plentiful, but you'll usually get the best exchange rates using your ATM card. Bank hours are Monday to Friday 7:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. to 7 p.m.
ATMs: Banks and bank machines are easy to find all over town. You'll notice several on the street facing the dock and on the Riva.
Where You're Docked
Ships dock right in the heart of the city, five minutes from the biggest tourist attractions. Larger ships need a tender to get to shore, smaller ships will be able to walk from the dock into the heart of town in five minutes.
The street opposite the main dock has cafes, banks, internet cafes, and lots of vendors selling beach towels, hats, sunglasses, newspapers and souvenirs.
The sights of the Old City are within easy walking distance. Cabs for trips to the beach or to visit the Mestrovic Gallery are waiting at a stand right at the dock.
Watch Out For
Taxi prices. If you take a cab, set the price when you get in. Though cabs are metered, you may notice different prices for the same ride unless you agree to a rate in advance. As with any city attracting tourists, be wary of pickpockets.
Diocletian's Palace: This is unique in the world, a grand Roman monument where people still live. Shops, hotels, and cafes co-exist happily with the historic buildings and fragments of columns and arches within the thick walls of this 1,700-year-old palace.
The word "palace" doesn't adequately describe the walled enclave built as a retirement retreat by Diocletian, the Croatian-born last pagan emperor of Rome. It covers nearly 10 acres and includes the emperor's apartments, villas, several temples, four gates, 16 towers and a military encampment, plus housing for a retinue of soldiers and servants. It took 20,000 slaves 10 years to build. If you don't take a ship's guided tour, hiring a local guide is the best way to get the full magnitude and history of the complex. The guide office is found in the big open central square of the palace called Peristil.
Diocletian died in 316, 11 years after his palace was completed, and other Roman emperors followed him, but things changed in 612 when 60,000 refugees from the nearby town of Solona fled to live within the walls, seeking refuge from Slav invaders. Over the years, under successive rulers, the palace evolved into a city. But important historic sights remain. The Temple of Jupiter, later converted by Christians into the Baptistry of St. Peter, contains a sculpted figure of St. Peter by Croatia's great sculptor, Ivan Mestrovic. The elaborate domed Cathedral of St. Domnius, built as Diocletian's mausoleum, was converted to a church in the 7th century and a tall bell tower was added in the 17th century. The vast vestibule that served as an entry to the emperor's apartments remains, and is often home to singers or guitar concerts. The cellar, the best preserved part of the complex, is also important to visit as it shows the outline of the original layout, which has been greatly altered over the years and also clearly demonstrates the skill of the stone masons who built walls that are still strong today.
Riva, the city's famous promenade beside the sea, is fresh from a $12 million renovation completed in 2007. A competition was held to find a design to give a modern look without spoiling the traditional feel of the Riva. Outdoor cafes line the inside edge of the walkway. Clever new awnings can tilt to provide shade according to the angle of the sun, or move upright when not needed, forming a contemporary accent to the walk. The Riva is busy all day, but most popular at night, when everyone in town seems to come out to see and be seen.
Marmontova Street is a pedestrians-only byway intersecting the western end of the Riva where you'll find the high-end shops of Split, including some familiar international labels like Tommy Hilfiger and Benetton. Along the way you'll pass the busy Fish Market with buyers haggling over prices for the catches of the day. At the end of the street is the Trg (Square) Gaje Bulata where you can't miss the handsome Croatian National Theatre, painted a bright yellow.
Bring your camera for some colorful shots of local life at the Green Market, a big, lively open-air market at the east end of Diocletian's Palace. Locals come here every day to shop for clothing and fresh fruits and vegetables. Plenty of souvenirs are for sale as well.
City Squares: Walk out through the west gate of the palace and you'll come to the Narodni Trg, or "People's square," the old city's main square. It was once known as "the square of the ladies," where wealthy daughters promenaded hoping to attract an eligible beau. One of the fine buildings on the square is the former city hall, a 1906 art nouveau building in Venetian style. Head toward the Riva and you'll come to Brace Radic Trg, the Fruit Square, a smaller medieval square anchored by a sculpture of the Croatian author Marko Maruli by Ivan Mestrovic.
Those lucky enough to visit during the Split Summer Festival from mid-July to mid-August
will enjoy opera, ballet and drama performed in the magnificent Croatian National Theater and outdoors in the city squares. Operas such as Aida are a special treat performed in the Peristil, amid the Roman ruins.
Been There, Done That
The lively beach at Bacvice Bay, in a sandy cove 10 minutes walk east from the dock area, has changing facilities, showers, and umbrellas to rent, and there are plenty of cafes and a hotel around. If you need a beach towel, the stands opposite the dock will sell you one. The clubs around the beach draw partying groups of young people at night.
Discover the great sculptor Ivan Mestrovic. Born in 1883, the son of Croatian peasants, he found great fame during his lifetime, especially for his religious figures. Unhappy with the Communist government in his homeland, he came to the United States to teach at Syracuse University in 1947, and later moved to Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, where he died in 1962. Along with his many important statues in Split, Americans may have seen his Indian figures, The Archer and The Bowman in Grant Park in Chicago, and many other works in U.S. museums. Mestrovic was honored with a one-man show at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
The Mestrovic Gallery, located in his former palatial summer home, shows dozens of sculptures in bronze, marble and wood. A visit begins in the outdoor sculpture garden, moves up a grand staircase into the columned home and its themed galleries, accented with painted walls in changing colors. A final stop on the terrace offers views of the Adriatic Sea and its offshore islands. A short walk away is the 16th century Kastelet, a summer house on the property, remodeled by Mestrovic to house his Life of Christ reliefs.
This museum is a rewarding stop for anyone who admires great sculpture and also the chance to see the Marjan Peninsula, a hilly spit extending from the center of the city with secluded beaches and hiking trails. The museum is open Tuesday to Sunday 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. from May 15 to September 30, the rest of the year until 4 p.m., 3 p.m. on Sundays. Admission is $6. Audio tapes are available in English. It can be reached via the No. 12 bus, leaving in front of the St. Francis church on the Riva. Bus fare is around $1.50. Taxi fare is about $15 each way.
If you want to learn more local history and lore, visit the Split Archaeological Museum (Zrinsko-Frankopanska 25). Among its many artifacts, it boasts many religious objects brought by the people who fled to the palace from Salona during the invasion in the 7th century as well as a collection of ancient coins. Croatia's oldest museum, founded in 1820, it is currently housed in a fine early 1900s building a 10-15 minute walk north from the center of the Old City. Hours are Monday to Saturday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., and admission is $5. Another museum that may be of interest is the Ethnographic Museum, where the colorful folk costumes of the region are displayed. It is found on the upper level of the palace complex at Severova 7. Hours are Monday to Friday 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., Saturday to 1 p.m. from June to mid-September and until 2 p.m. the rest of the year. Admission is $2.
Ferries depart regularly for the beautiful Croatian islands in the Adriatic Sea and fast catamarans offer day trips to Hvar, Komiza, Bol and Vis. For current information, see the tourist office in the Peristil, the central square of the palace.
Restaurant Boban (Hektoroviceva 49) has long been considered one of the city's best for Croatian fare, which means good seafood and grilled meats, and some of the best Croatian wines as well. Entrees: $12-$30.
Restaurant Tifani (Hotel Peristil) offers a standard sounding menu, but employs a young chef who does creative things with it. Entrees: $16-$24.
Sperun (Sperun3), a five-minute walk away from the busy tourist zone, is an appealing small cafe with excellent seafood. Try the grilled tuna or the squid. Entrees: $10-$16.
Buffet Fife (Trumbiceva Obala 11), not far from Sperun, is the popular budget choice for fresh fish or pasta. Dinner for two, with a glass of beer or wine, is under $25.
Restaurant Adriana (Adriana Hotel) is the only place on the Riva with a full menu. A tad overpriced, but attractive and a great spot for people watching. Entrees: $12-$18.
Restaurant Gradska Kavana (Narodni Trg 2) has a big outdoor terrace in People's Square, the perfect place for lunch while watching the world go by. There's a full menu as well. Entrees: $8-$14.
Pizzeria Galija (Tonciceva 12), close to the Fish Market, is one of a host of pizza places offering good Italian food at good prices. This one has a brick oven and bench seating at heavy wooden tables. Entrees: from $6.
Luxor (Peristil), a cafe with lavishly painted ceilings right in the heart of the palace, is just the place for a cup of coffee, a cold drink, or a light lunch. It has racks of foreign newspapers, so you might be able to catch up with the day's news.
Staying in Touch
Several Internet cafes are located on the street opposite the dock and around the Peristyle square. One convenient spot is Internet@Caffe (Poljana Grgura Ninskog 9), just inside the west gate of Diocletian's Palace. The gate is found on Hrvojeva, a right turn from Riva, just past the Green Market.
Trogir: This is a delightful, medieval island town, with wonderful old stonework and a noteworthy 13th century Cathedral of St. Lawrence. Trogir is virtually a living museum, has been named a Unesco World Heritage site and is the most popular excursion from Split. Some tours also visit the site of Roman Salona, one of the most important excavation sites in Croatia. Others add small picturesque Dalmatian villages such as Burni, where hosts in national costumes serve refreshments and perform traditional songs, and Sibenik, a town with ancient city walls and the grand Gothic Cathedral of St. Jacob.
Krka National Park: Coach tours head from Split to the Karst Sibenik region and the famous Krka river waterfalls situated in the Krka National Park, with 17 natural cascades -- including Skrandinski Buk Waterfalls, the highest falls in Europe. A path wanders around the falls for those who want to explore further.
Canoeing or Sea Kayaking: Active travelers can sign up to go sea kayaking in the calm and beautiful waters near Tragir, or for trips canoeing the scenic Cetina River, featuring steep cliffs, waterfalls, and with level 1 and 2 rapids.
For More Information
Croatian National Tourist Board: www.croatia.hr
Split County Tourist Board: http://www.dalmatia.hr/
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--by Eleanor Berman, the author of over a dozen travel guidebooks, a frequent contributor to major newspapers and a particular fan of river cruising.