Monday, June 3, 2013

Croatia–Split, a blend of ancient and modern

May 19-21, 2013
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It was a few hours’ drive south from Plitvice Lakes, through the Dinaric Alps to Split, Croatia’s second largest city. The 1500 meter high mountain range, which stretches along the coast for 645 kilometers or about the distance between San Francisco and Los Angles, provides a scenic backdrop for the equally scenic city. Many people think of Split as a transit hub to nearby islands, but it is much more.

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As we approached Split, we saw giant limestone outcroppings, evidence of geologic events 50 – 100 million years ago, in which soft limestone deposits formed when the land once covered with sea and lake water was folded and uplifted against a large resistant block. This was probably once a plateau where waterfalls cascaded like those at Plitvice Lakes.

This time I was determined to navigate us correctly through town and, with luck, to our hotel, Villa Split. The problem was that the hotel was inside the ancient Roman walls of Diocletian’s Palace, and we would have to park somewhere outside and find it on foot. My faith in the Google Maps directions had been severely shaken by the drive into Zagreb, and an issue we had finding House Ivan the day before, but we made our way into town and came to a place that I thought was really close. Thus ensued a discussion about whether to park – there were spaces but we were not sure if we were allowed to park – and where the hotel might be. We decided to park and walk, leaving our luggage in the car.

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One person who I shall not identify was thinking that we were on the wrong side of the old city and took off walking around the outside of the wall, so of course I had to follow. After a few minutes I asserted myself and said, “I think it’s back that way. Trust me. Please.” So we entered the old city and started to wind our way through the narrow passageways. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which direction you are going, because the walls are high. You have to find the waterfront, and navigate from there.

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Fortunately, the walled city is not big. Soon we were on what seemed like an especially narrow street,  making our way past three young people who were having coffee at a small table in the outdoor space, when I looked up and – “Here it is! Villa Split.” There was a little sign on the wall next to an inconspicuous door. One of the young ladies jumped up and said, “Are you my guests, arriving at 6:00?” And so we met the lovely Antonia.

When we told her we had parked nearby but not sure where, and trying to describe the exact place, she was doubtful about whether we could stay there, and offered to come with us to find a good place to park. As it turned out, the place could not have been closer to the hotel, which satisfied me greatly. It was a few steps and a couple of turns away; my navigating was sound. Unfortunately, we hadn’t noticed that the whole row was handicapped spaces.

With Antonia wedged between our luggage and assorted junk in the back seat, we began driving the side streets while she gave tentative directions, looking for parking. We asked her if people usually just walk in Split and she said yes, many people walk. She does not use a car. Eventually she suggested we park in a lot. Although we would have to pay, it would be safer. There isn’t a lot of crime in Split, but the streets are narrow and the chances of anything happening to the car were less. We didn’t mind paying at all.

Croatia - Split (162)Now we just needed to find the parking lot. “I am so sorry,” Antonia kept saying, “for not giving you better directions. I am not used to being in a car.” We turned down a street that I thought was too soon and, sure enough, Antonia said “Oh! I made a mistake! I am so sorry!” We had to turn around. I absolutely LOVED her. Even she was confused – a local! We eventually found the parking lot, which was just a few hundred meters outside the wall.

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Back at the hotel, as she showed us up the stairs, Antonia explained that because we were within the original walls of Diocletian's Palace, the hotel is very narrow, but three stories high. Our room was on the second floor. Newly renovated, it featured nooks where the original wall was exposed.

People have lived continuously within these walls for centuries, and the palace has undergone many changes which actually add to its allure. The original palace was built at the turn of the 4th century. Diocletian was a Roman military commander who rose in power to become Emperor. During his reign the Roman Empire was stabilized, and he led a wave of religious persecutions against Christians. Remarkably, after a reign lasting 21 years, Diocletian voluntarily chose to retire in 305, abdicating the throne and living out his days in the palace in Split. To his great sadness, the Empire fell apart under his successor Constantine and although it is believed that Dioclecian is one of the few Roman emperors to die of natural causes, it has been postulated that he may have taken his own life, in illness and despair over the fate of the Empire
Croatia - Split (153)Antonia was delighted when Mark told her that his father was from Split, and she gave us some tips on things to do and places to eat – and to avoid. One of the best restaurants in town, she said, was the small trattoria right next to the hotel, Bajamonte. Also, we must climb the bell tower of the cathedral for the wonderful views, and Marjan, a large wooded nature preserve which locals call “the lungs of Split,” rents bicycles. Our itinerary was set.

The old cities of the world are filled with museums, and there are centuries’ worth of rulers, religions, and relics to learn about. A person can become caught up in the minutiae of facts, trying to locate every interesting architectural detail and identify every actor and his evidence. There were many tour groups that we passed as we walked around, and I sometimes wondered if I should be studying everything more closely, rather than just looking and taking photos. But I decided that it was OK, I had the general idea of everything, and in a way it’s more fun to come home with the photos, go back to the guidebook, and identify where we’ve been.

Croatia - Split (64)Really, we were there to mingle with the locals who were, after all, Mark’s people. Mark was interested in shopping. We’d noticed that Croatians are big and tall, with big hands and big, blessedly big, feet. Split is known as a shopper’s haven, with an especially large number of shoe stores, some of which were bound to have a shoe that would fit Mark’s size 13 EEEE feet. We went out window shopping and to get the lay of the land, stopped in at a little bar to sample the local Croation red wine – it’s good! – and then took a walk down to the waterfront. As always, we were drawn to the harbor to look at the boats. It was a beautiful evening, with the setting sun illuminating the city and the sea, the clouds and the distant mountains, in pink and lavender.

We finished the evening with dinner at a place along the waterfront called Fife, recommended by Antonia, where Mark had the first of a series of gnocchi platters, and I had the first of many seafood risotto dishes that we would consume on the trip. We topped it off with sladoled, Croatian ice cream that’s just as good at Italy’s gelato, which we got just a few steps away from Villa Split.

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The next morning, we were up bright and early to walk the streets of the palace before the cruise ships and tourist groups descended, and to climb to the top of the bell tower of the Cathedral of St. Dominus, the oldest cathedral in the world.
It was a beautiful, sparkling morning with no sign of the clouds of the evening before. We found the tiny steps on the side of the tower, and began our ascent. My, it was narrow! Emerging from the claustrophobic stone stairway, we could see the metal stairs that wound around the bells going up, up, up. Always one to enjoy a bit of physical exertion, I forged on and then – suddenly – I was seized with a feeling of dread. The tower was gaping above me, yawning below me, and I realized that I didn’t like it. With an unreliable sense of balance, I briefly envisioned what would happen if I lost my footing and somehow ended up tumbling down the center. I resisted the urge to turn around and head back down, telling myself that I’d made it this far. Sure, going down is the harder part for me. So, why not put it off, and keep going up? There’s some good logic for you.

It was worth it. The views were spectacular, and while we were not alone up there – I wouldn’t necessarily want to be – it wasn’t crowded. Just like the Segway, climbing the tower is not for everyone. And the trip down wasn’t as bad as I imagined. I didn’t peer down over the railings, and I didn’t much like it when younger people came down behind me and wanted to pass. But it was so worth it. And Mark documented the descent.

We spent some time wandering around the ancient temples, sculptures and staterooms of the palace. There are museums, but we didn’t enter, preferring to browse the outdoor markets and the trinket stalls in the cellars. We were there to mingle with the locals. Although there wasn’t time to research Mark’s grandfather, we were getting a good feel for the place where he was from.

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We also explored the other end of the waterfront, to check out the ferry docks for the next day so we would know what to do. The “Riva” is the main waterfront strolling place, where you can sit, enjoy a café or other beverage, and see and be seen

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Croatia is 86.3% Catholic. Mark and I were both raised in Catholic families, and I was educated by nuns in elementary and middle school. One of my favorite pictures is this one. I wanted to capture this nun going about her morning business, so I snapped a photo despite the graffiti marring the wall by her head. Then, when I downloaded and looked at the photo, I had a thought. I looked up the word inside the heart and, sure enough, it’s the Croatian word for “Jesus.” No wonder she has that placid smile on her face.

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In the afternoon, we stopped outside Villa Split for some refreshment, and were hosted by Antonia, her colleague Ana, who is equally young, gorgeous and helpful, and the owner of Villa Split, Philip. Philip told us that they opened the hotel last year, and are still working to renovate the kitchen and back yard, working with the government to identify any antiquities that they may uncover. Meanwhile, Villa Split cooperates with Bajamonte to provide breakfast to guests. Philip also told us that his family business is poultry – essentially, an egg farm. But he is more interested in the hotel and hospitality business. 

Croatia - Split (154)After a couple of fortifying beverages, we went for a bicycle ride in the Park suma Marjan, a peninsula jutting out into the Adriatic west of Split. We rode a paved but deserted road into a beautiful forested upland where we stopped at a little church, Crkvica St. Jere, and I spied some beekeepers working behind the church. We also had great views of the small harbors below, and it was a good workout.

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That evening, before dinner at Bajamonte, we decided to return to our little bar and have some more of the Croatian red wine. There was a handsome young man behind the bar who hadn’t been there the previous night. He was a diver with the Croatian Navy, and he and Mark struck up a lively conversation as Mark talked about his long career, and Josip talked about his work. I was happy just to watch and listen.

The next morning, we walked through the markets. I loved the colorful early morning fish market in the Old Town Hall, and just outside the Golden Gate of the Diocletian’s Palace was a huge market with vegetables, meats, cheeses, honey, lavender, and all the usual clothing, shoes, bags and other items for local shoppers and tourists alike.

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Then it was off to the ferry for Brac. It was hard to say goodbye to Antonia, Ana, and Philip. So hard, in fact, that Ana insisted on accompanying us to the ferry, to be sure that we found our way to the right one! As I was following behind her and Mark on the way to our car, I realized that she is taller than he – which means that she is over 6 feet! But despite how much they appear to eat, and all the delicious food in their country, the Croatians are not generally overweight.

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Maybe we can attribute that to the almost near absence of American-style fast food restaurants, at least where we were.
Thanks for reading this long story! P.S. We came away from Split with several pairs of shoes.


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