My initial reaction to Split was a bit cold. I drove into the city near the morning rush hour, found my way to an apartment that was not only entirely different from the one I thought I had booked online but was absolutely filthy, and I managed to time my arrival into the city’s famed palace at a moment that seemed to synchronize almost perfectly with a moment that several cruise ships disgorged a horde of people fully committed to walking six abreast in the narrow city streets. I joined a walking tour that was one of the most underwhelming I have experienced and began to wonder if Split was going to live up to the hype.
Not only that, but I managed to break a lovely bottle of wine I had been carrying since the wine festival in Ljubljana. A foreboding beginning to the trip, to be sure.
I headed back to my filthy apartment (one I would exchange for an absolutely delightful hotel near the city center the next night) for a brief nap and regrouped. Feeling recharged, I headed back to the center for six hours of wandering that evening and found myself entirely charmed by the city.
The most interesting feature about Split is that its center was formerly the palace of the retired Emperor Diocletian and many of the same walls that once housed the Emperor, his staff and servants have remained exactly in place for 1700 years. Instead of the wide pathways that marked the old place, the center today is filled with winding streets, dead ends, and alleys that have been converted into shops and homes for about 3,000 people.
And it’s wandering through those winding streets where Split becomes its most magical. In the course of the evening’s walk, I encountered countless cafes and coffee shops with little of the aggressive touting that takes place in other touristic areas, singers rehearsing for a public performance in a dead end street near the square where they’d later perform, and small scenes of the lived life of the people in their neighborhoods that blended Roman, medieval, and Austrian architecture.
The next morning, seeing a forecast of only four-five hours of sun, I rose before sunrise to see many of those same spaces transformed into quiet, empty areas perfect for photographs and solitary wandering. The Cathedral, bell tower, and Temple of Jupiter, all almost entirely empty other than me, offered spectacular views and even a bit of quiet.
Finally, I climbed the hill just on the edge of the medieval part of the city to get the iconic view of the old town and its harbor.
As it turned out, once I got rid of my rental car (driving in European cities, even small ones like Split, will never be something I enjoy) and decided to embrace wandering the city, I had an incredible experience. There were no stars on Google Maps to chase, no destinations to unlock, just a city to wander, led by whatever whim led me down one street or another. Thus far, that has seemed like the ideal way to explore Croatia: while each city seems to have its few central sights that must be visited, the best parts of Pula, Rovinj, Zadar, and Split have been uncovered by wandering, not seeking out destinations.
Off to Dubrovnik tomorrow!