Split – one traveler’s tips
Wednesday, June 27, 2012
Overview – Split is a large city in Croatia with about 350,000 people living in the metropolitan area, fewer inside the city walls. It’s a mecca for visitors interested in history and art and, given its location mid-way along the Dalmatian Coast, as that part of the country is known, it’s a draw for people taking ferries to the islands or to Italy. We arrived in Split after sailing in the Kornati, the beautiful, barren islands that make up the national park off the coast of Croatia near Sibenik. The city seemed big and bustling in comparison to where we had been, but within a day we had a basic understanding of the maze of streets and alleys in the old city and could navigate the the help of a map.
Diocletian’s Palace – The old city has grown up inside the very large palace built on the edge of the Adriatic Sea by the Roman Emperor Diocletian in the early 4thcentury. The palace was abandoned by the Romans, and successive waves of people who later dominated the area built inside the walls – imprints of the Venetian and Austro-Hungarian empires are very much evident. The result is a fascinating layering of styles that earned Diocletian’s Palace a spot on the list of UNESCO world heritage sites.
Luggage – a word to the wise – We deposited our rental car near the bus station and walked from there to our room inside the old city. If you are staying in the old city, be prepared to carry your luggage. There is no vehicular traffic inside the city walls and cabs and buses can only get within a few blocks of the perimeter before you’re on your own.
Guide – The personnel in the tourist information offices are well-informed and pleasant, and speak English well. Some of them also work as private guides, and we had an excellent experience with Vjeran Mlacic. He gave us an orientation to the history of the city, starting with Roman times and continuing to the recent war, and he directed our attention to architectural and artistic details we would have missed on our own. There is a lot to see, and having an expert guide ensures that you understand the critical points in this city’s evolution from palace to colony to what it is today – the second largest city in the Republic of Croatia, after the capital Zagreb. Book an appointment with Vjeran by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. You’ll have to ask about rates as they depend on the number of people in your party.
Art – The Gallery of Fine Arts is stunning. The building, located outside the Golden Gate on the northern perimeter of the old city, used to be a hospital and has been beautifully adapted to show centuries of Croatian art. You’ll discover Croatian artists from the Gothic era to the present – they’re all excellent and deserve a wide audience. Plus, you’ll see outstanding works by the world famous Albrecht Durer, Egon Schiele and George Grosz.
We’re very glad we took the advice of an American we met who now lives in Split and visited the Mestrovic Gallery. It’s about a 30 minute walk out of the old city, but you can take the bus. The famous Croatian sculptor Ivan Mestrovich designed the building as his home and it now houses his work, both inside and on the lawns. Across the street is the church complex that shows his religious wood panels (one ticket covers both). When you’re there, say hello to the gracious young woman in the ticket office who shared her umbrella as we walked to the bus stop in the rain.
Lodging – Booking an apartment is an alternative to a hotel – usually less expensive and includes a kitchenette. We found ours on Trip Advisor but the owner has his own website as well – http://kaletaapartments.hr. The apartment shown as #3 on the website, where we stayed, is on a small alley and is quiet. You’ll have to ask about outside noise levels for the others. As in Dubrovnik (see blog post of 6/15/12), noise from the cafes and bars outside your window can be bothersome.
Stop in to the Vestibul Palace Hotel near the newly renovated Ethnographic Museum. It’s a small and elegant boutique hotel beautifully integrated into fifteenth century surroundings. You can have a meal or a drink, or ask for the personable manager Branimir Poljak and book a room.
Music – On your way to the hotel, hope that the klapa singers are performing in the domed area known as the vestibule. Klapa is a style of close harmony singing, considered an art form along the Dalmatian coast. The singers give impromptu serenades throughout the day, hoping you’ll buy a CD, and you can hear them here on YouTube.
Food – For a modest meal, eat pizza at Maslina or Galija. Maslina is difficult to find – it’s off Marmontova, down an alley and tucked behind another building – but well worth the hunt. Along the way you may see sandwich board signs with arrows to help you find it. Galija is on Tonciceva, just past the fish market on the western side of the old city, and also good. They have thin crust pizzas with a wide choice of toppings, including a number of seafood items.
For seafood and pasta, we were partial to the family run restaurant Bajamonte on Bajamontijeva in the old city. It has a casual, fun atmosphere – the kind of place where you might be asked to share a table with a stranger, as we were. They serve fresh fish and sell out of some things early, but whatever you have will be good, judging from our meal.
Overall, Croatia is not known for its pastry, but we found an exceptional place called Croissant. It’s on Kraj Sv. Marje, a jog to the right off Narodni Trg, at the narrow end of the square where the facades are painted dark green. The owners used to live in Alsace, France and they returned home with the technique for making thin and flaky dough. You can pick up croissants in the morning and head to any café to eat them with your coffee. (Most cafes don’t serve breakfast food and don’t mind if you bring your own.) If you prefer something savory, try a piece of a creamy leek or mushroom tart, and return later for a sandwich or (my favorite) a slice of berry and sweet cheese tart. Coffee is available in cafes in many forms, mostly espresso based. If you like cafe latte, order the Croatian equivalent – bijela (white ) kava (coffee).
Getting there – We traveled back to Dubrovnik on a public bus. The run from Split to Dubrovnik is about 5 1/2 hours, and we’re glad we chose that option rather than flying because the scenery on the coast is magnificent and well worth seeing. Since you need to buy your ticket in advance, you might as well do that a day or two earlier than your travel day so you can ask for a seat on the side of the bus that will have the view of the sea (right heading south, left heading north) or at the front. Sadly, there was a recent fatal bus crash, on a different route but still a reminder of the hazards of traveling on narrow, winding roads. I’d suggest traveling during daylight hours.
As for most places that attract tourists, try to visit Split in the shoulder season, before mid-May or after mid-September, when you’re likely to have warm (80s) but not hot weather and a quieter city.