Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Split: The Emperor's New Digs

Split, Croatia (Split, Hrvatska)
Viewed from the sea, Split looks like a perfectly normal coastal Croatian town. Yet behind the palm trees and new plaster lies a Roman behemoth: Diocletian's Palace. 
No amount of online research could prepare me for what the palace turned out to be. I thought, as with many Italian cities, the palace would either be crumbling ruins or a standalone building of grandeur that had been heavily modified over the centuries to enable it to remain inhabitable. What I did not expect was a collosal Roman compound that the modern Split had been built atop. It's not the size of a typical palace - it is huge and the entire historic city centre is within the outer walls. Diocletian's Palace is the beating heart of Split, living on through ever-changing constructions. 
You'd just be walking along when you'd see a café with outdoor tables arranged in what may have once been a courtyard or even the inside of Roman Emperor Diocletian's bathroom facilities. The fascinating thing is that there's hardly any information provided, unlike many historical sites. When you then realise that the palace was completed in 305AD, it becomes quite mind blowing how long it's lasted. 
The northern wall alone shows many layers of time. Large arched glassless windows have been bricked to form a more standard rectangle shape for modern shuttered windows. Remnants of extra walls are now jagged stones sticking clumsily from the flush brickwork. 
We had taken a brief peek on the way through to Hvar, and decided that early morning would be the best time to venture out into Split again, as once dawn fully breaks the city teems with tourist life. The morning in question brought a gentle drizzle, so we donned our hoods and umbrellas. While shielding the camera from damp, the umbrella's edge dipped into frame mimicking our drooping eyelids. 
At the base of the tower we spotted a familiar figure - beach Santa Claus. We had to double take when we saw him the day before in Hvar Town. Clearly Santa's on a little summer vacation, replacing heavy boots for jandals but keeping the hat on to remain professional. 
One sight we specifically wanted to enter was the Temple of Jupiter, a fifth century Roman temple with an impressive barrel vaulted ceiling. Upon arriving at the listed opening time (8am), the doors were locked tight. We decided to wait ten minutes before giving up, and with only a couple of minutes left on our meter an elderly gentleman rocked up with a newspaper and coffee and was so surprised we were waiting there that he allowed us to enter for free. (This was after he unlocked the great double doors with a massive metal key that must have been a few centuries old.) 
The hollow altar in the centre of the small room was brimming with coins of every size and element. 
Around the outside, the altar was ringed with symbols not commonly associated with those of the Romans. The man, who was then setting up his chair and ticket desk, explained that the altar was a later addition when the temple was converted into a church in the eleventh century. 
The sun was starting to break through the clouds as we wandered back to our apartment, the streets glistening under the feet of locals heading to work and sleepy-eyed tourists seeking their coffee fix. It was only later that I learned that Emperor Diocletian had built the palace at Split as it was near his home in Salona (Solin), while being fronted by the sea. This was important, as with such a tumultuous area as the Croatian coast, he needed to be able to escape by boat quickly if things turned ugly. Interestingly, he was the only Roman Emperor to voluntarily step down from his title. His health was failing him and instead of ruling til his last breath, he spent the rest of his days tending to his garden. (Side note: after checking out we overheard some local youths saying "Boom-shakalaka!", "No, boom-shakalaka to you!" in passing. No idea.)
On our departure, the thunderstorm that was promised by the weather forecast finally arrived and our car was pelted with heavy raindrops. Our destination was Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but before leaving Croatia we picnicked at a strangely dry rest stop along the coast. The clouds that were rolling in from the Adriatic held the threat of more rain so we gobbled up our Toblerone quickly and made for the border. 

Today's post was almost called: Ho ho ho, Merry Splitness! (or Santa's Little Caper)