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Splitting the Day in Croatia

Last two cities on our visit


Roman carvings adapted to be part of the decoration of a Christian church (formerly the Roman Emperor Diocletian's tomb)

On our final day of sightseeing in Croatia, we would drive from Dubrovnik, stop in Split, and then continue on to Zadar for the night. The following morning would simply be our drive back to Venice, so this was our last day to chance to see things. Hopefully, we'd have enough time to see places we'd picked out in both cities, but we weren't 100% sure how long it would all take.

Split is Croatia's second largest city after its capital of Zagreb. The city grew up around a seaside palace that the Late Roman Emperor Diocletian built for himself there. He was a native of Illyria, as that region was called by the Romans. After seizing control of the empire, he stabilized it with a new idea. The empire was too big for one person to rule effectively, he decided. There were too many invading barbarians, and giving lots of troops to generals often led them to launch their own coups to take over. Since, the emperor couldn't lead the army in two places at once, what Rome needed was two emperors. So, he split the empire into Eastern and Western halves, giving his trusted friend Maximian the other half. Then, he decided to fix the succession problem by having each emperor, or Augustus, name a junior emperor (a Caesar) as their successor. So, Rome went from one emperor to having four of them! However, even my middle school History students can spot the problem with the Tetrarchy: It requires four leaders willing to share power. Although Diocletian reigned for more than two decades, the system fell apart after his death.

The walls of Diocletian's palace became a part of the medieval city of Split

Diocletian built his palace in Split on the model of a legionary marching camp. It was walled, square, and bisected by an East-West and North-South road. Since it was a permanent settlement, he built temples, offices for his administration, and even a mausoleum for himself when he were to pass away. The palace was kept in use by his successors, but did not grow into an actual town until centuries later. When the nearby town of Salonica was sacked by invading Avars, many residents of the town fled to the walled palace and took up residence behind its compact walls. Around this nucleus, a medieval town grew -- renovating the palace to turn it into homes, and the temples into churches. Humorously, Diocletian -- who had persecuted Christians mercilessly -- was even evicted from his mausoleum and its squat octagonal structure became a church. Had he known, I'm sure he would have rolled over in his grave! Sorry, couldn't resist that one...

The area in the center of town called the Peristyle has rows of Roman columns that were formerly part of ancient temples

The core of Split is a curious mixture of Roman and Medieval relics. In some places, like the Peristyle, you can easily see the Roman side. Rows of columns enclose paved courtyards. The four gates piercing each wall look like Roman ceremonial entranceways. In other parts, Split resembles the jumble of Medieval homes and churches, with terra cotta roof tiles. You can see the walls, though, that enclose the square core of the palace grounds. For the best view, we climbed the church bell tower attached to Diocletian's former mausoleum. Here, you could clearly see the walls delineating the original Roman square.

The walls define where the original medieval city built around Diocletian's Palace grew up

I found Split to be a bit disappointing, though, like it was neither fish nor fowl. Not Roman enough for me to lose myself in that reverie. Nor was it medieval enough, I guess, being a living breathing city. People still are crammed higgedly-piggedly in every nook and corner in Split. So, perhaps the coolest thing about Split is simply the idea of it. Refugees cramming a former Roman emperor's retirement palace, squatting in it, building new walls to subdivide it into homes, and then having this metamorphosis grow for centuries into a thriving town. And though it is free to enter the "palace," you are charged for every sight -- bell tower, churches, and the cavernous substructure underneath. It was interesting to wander around the town and see the various courtyards, balconies, etc., that had been added on as the town grew. After only about two hours of sightseeing, we were ready to leave and drive on to Zadar.

The ceremonial gate leading to the former Venetian, walled seaside town of Zadar, Croatia

We were staying at the same apartments/hotel as our earlier night-time stop here. Many of the "hotels" in Croatia are called apartments, instead. Considering you can rent them for one night to one week to one month, I'm really not sure why they are not called hotels. Perhaps it is because the owners do not staff a desk 24 hours a day. Instead, they will contact you to see what time you are arriving, so they can meet you and check you in. Although that may sound like poorer service, the Apartments Lavandula in Zadar were the nicest placed we stayed in during our spring break trip to Croatia and Venice. The staff we met were professional and helpful.

The Byzantine-style Church of St. Donatus with fragments of the Roman forum in the foreground

After checking in, we walked into the Old Town part of Zadar. This town was a pleasant find. Compact and easily walkable in the Old Town, it had a number of quality sights. Like Dubrovnik, it is a walled, seaport with roots in the Roman times. My favorite sight was probably the Byzantine-style, 9th Century Church of St. Donatus. It is a wide, cylindrical stone building nestled amidst the ruins of Zadar's Roman Forum. Column fragments, capitals, and even tombstones are spaced in rows in a grassy area adjoining the town's main square. I liked how the city kept them out in public for citizens and visitors to see every day and enjoy. Yes, they'd be better preserved in a museum, but here they get so many more visitors. Behind St. Donatus was the bell tower of the town cathedral. Unfortunately, like most of the other sights in town, it was closed for the evening. We did get to walk around and photograph the exterior of the churches and towers, so all was not lost. It was a cool, pleasant evening and the sinking sun bathed the stones of the buildings with a golden glow.

The bell tower of Zadar's Cathedral that we were hoping to be able to climb, but alas, it had just closed

One curiosity that made Zadar a YouTube sensation is the sea organ. An incredibly clever person designed a network of pipes connected to the ocean, with hollow organ-like passages leading up to the point where the town promenade meets the sea. The effect is that as waves push into the tubes, they force the air up through the openings like an organ. The waves do not strike the tubes in a regular or repetitive pattern, so you get a variety of sounds issuing forth from the pipe chambers as you set and look out to sea. In effect, the sea is playing music for you! What's more, a circular area of solar panels next to the tubes soaks up the sun's rays throughout the day, converting them into electricity. At night, this circular area lights up. Sensors in the pipes relay the information to the display, which appears to assign a different color to each new wave pattern that comes in. So, not only does the sea provide music for you in Zadar, it also gives you a psychedelic dance floor to enjoy it upon (with a little help from humans)!

Zadar's Sea Organ at night, with different colored lights representing each new wave that strikes the organ tubes

As night fell I definitely felt I could have used more time in Zadar. I would not give up Dubrovnik to visit it, but I actually enjoyed diminutive Zadar more than sprawling Split. I would love to have gone through its city museum, climb the bell tower for a view of the walls and ancient town on a sparkling day, and explore its churches. I knew my time in Croatia would be short from the planning stages, though. Spring break is only a week, and with poor connections and expensive flights dictating our use of Venice as a departure and arrival point, the time was cut even shorter. However, Croatia lived up to my expectations. It was worth the decades of waiting to enjoy its sun-soaked coastline and its Roman and Medieval relics. Though I didn't have all the time I hoped, Croatia waited for me before. Her charms will still be there when I return!

The Captain's Tower, part of Zadar's fortifications, and the ancient wells that provided water to the city

Posted by world_wide_mike 12:47 Archived in Croatia

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