March 15, 2022. 53°F/12°C
We’re in the Republic of Croatia today (HRVATSKA in the Croatian language), homeland of one of my favourite people: my very dear friend Josie!
Split is just the first Croatian city on our itinerary; after detouring to Venice for a couple of days, we’ll return to Zadar and Dubrovnik.
As we did in Kotor, we booked two tours here: the included city walking tour, and an afternoon tour of the Meštrović Sculpture Gallery and Diocletian Palace.
Croatia’s currency, until they convert to the Euro sometime later this year, is the Kuna, which is divided into 100 Lipa. The Kuna is a local furry marten, and the currency was originally based on the value of that animal’s pelts (not its ”pellets” as our poor Cruise Director was tricked into telling us – eww). The Lipa is a sacred Slavic tree, known to us as the linden. Based on our original cruise itinerary we brought US dollars with us. Since then we’ve purchased a few Euros. We don’t intend to buy Kunas, since they cannot be used – or exchanged – outside Croatia, so hopefully our guides will not be unhappy with tips in USD.
I think this morning’s tour was the best included tour we’ve taken on this trip to date. Our guide, Vedran, was the retired head of the Croatian Tourist Board and is still a lecturer on tourism at the university in Split. His breadth of knowledge – and the stories that he used to share the city’s history – were outstanding.
Most of our tour was in the Diocletian Palace, which is a complex of 7.5 acres, or over 300,000 square feet, that incorporated the Emperor’s living quarters, temples, his mausoleum, and housing for guards, slaves, and servants . The Palace complex takes up about 60% of the old town area of Split.
We entered through the Brass Gate, the only single set of gates to the palace, since they originally opened directly onto the water and could only be approached by boat. The Gold Gate, Silver Gate, and Iron Gate were all double gates with a “holding room” between the two gates in which intruders could be easily dispatched from the towers above.
What was really interesting about the complex was that since its construction between 295 and 305 AD (accomplished in just 10 years using the labour of 90,000 enslaved people from all over the Roman Empire), it has been almost continuously occupied, making it a “living” monument.
Entering the palace is like stepping into history – and yet also not, since the cellar is full of souvenir stalls, and the windows often have laundry drying in them.
Vedran explained that after the palace was almost ruined by attacking Avars in 615AD, the people of the nearby destroyed city of Solin took refuge in the remains and incorporated them into their homes, which to this day sport Roman columns, flooring, and decoration. In that way, our guide said, “the palace saved the people, and the people saved the palace”. Today there are over 1000 people living within the palace walls, in a range of poor (rundown) to middle class (renovated) apartments. It’s interesting that the palace is not a “museum”, but rather just part of the old city.
Because the palace was built on a slope leading to the water, a full stone foundation was built under the southern section, with high vaulted ceilings and huge columns. Those cellars were used mostly for storage; because their floor plan mimicked the palace above, we are able to see the shape and size of many of the rooms which were destroyed.
Areas of the cellar, as well as the main peristyle (a courtyard surrounded with columns) oare now often used as concert venues. The platform from which the emperor would have addressed crowds has acoustics that make it a perfect stage; our guide told us that the opera season in Split opens here, often with Aida or Tosca.
When Christianity was established in the area, many of the decorations, like the 12 sphinxes originally in place around the central square, were destroyed.
Diocletian’s original temple of Jupiter, which he later decided to turn into his mausoleum, was subsequently turned into the Cathedral of St. Domnius in 653 by the first bishop of Split. Anything inside the mausoleum was destroyed including, presumably, Diocletian’s remains since no one seems to know where they are.
The Romanesque bell tower was constructed around 1100 AD. I couldn’t find anything to verify our tour guide’s comment that it was built one layer per century, but extensive repairs were done early in the 20th century to bring it to its current state.
We stopped back at the ship for a light lunch and to shed a layer of clothes, since the day was warming up nicely, and headed out for our second excursion.
The afternoon tour took us to the marble villa and manicured gardens that house the sculpture gallery of Ivan Meštrović, Croatia’s best known sculptor and an internationally renowned artist, architect and writer – our guide kept saying “Renaissance man”. Among many, many other works, he sculpted The Bowman and The Spearman which adorn Michigan Avenue in Chicago Illinois (and which may now be removed as being offensive – our guide suggested Croatia would be very pleased to have them back).
Sadly, our afternoon guide could not hold a candle to our morning guide (think monotone golf announcer vs enthusiastic baseball play-by-play) so when we returned to Diocletian’s Palace we stayed with him only long enough to access the interior of the Cathedral of St. Domnius and get the pictures included above, since the cathedral’s interior was not part of the morning tour.
The bonus was that we got a lovely walk in the sunshine back to the ship, instead of a bus ride, leaving me time to do a quick load of laundry before dinner. (You’re thinking, “laundry AGAIN?” Yup. I need the same pair of long pants and long sleeved tee shirt every day lately, since I packed no other cool weather clothes.)
We took in the evening lecture on Venice, enjoyed a late dinner, and returned to our room so that Ted could sort photos and I could stay caught up on my blogging.