One of the great things about travelling to Europe is the deep history that is everywhere. The way it is intertwined with modern life. Split was such a prime example of this. It felt like walking around an open air museum. Before arriving in Split, I actually wasn’t that excited about it. Dubrovnik is so majestic and iconic and the islands were what I was most looking forward to, so Split just seemed like a place I was going for a quick stop over before heading out to Hvar, but I was really pleasantly surprised.
While there really isn’t much to do in Split beyond spending maybe one day, it was very very cool.
The city of Split, is literally built in to the walls of Diocletian’s ancient Roman palace. Diocletian was the only Roman emperor to ever step down from office. In 284 AD he started the project of building his retirement palace on the Adriatic sea (what would become Split.) The old town streets are all white marbled. Hard to not feel like Roman Royalty while wearing my lace up gold sandals.
After the fall of the western Roman empire in 476, the palace was abandoned, and remained that way for a hundred years. In the 7th century, a mountain settlement called Salona was invaded by the neighboring Slavs and Avars, causing the inhabitants to flee. They walked for days until they finally found Diocletian’s abandoned palace. The Salonians took shelter in the basement chambers of the palace. After time, as the refugee population grew, they began to turn the ruins of the palace into their new town, building houses and shops in to the city walls. That is how Split has evolved in to what it is today. The entire town is a museum filled with ruins, columns, and ancient hallways. I think this is one of the most interesting city evolutions I have ever read about.
The basement chambers were my favorite part. It was so eerie, but you can imagine what it would have been in it’s heyday. You can see the rooms the Salonian refugees first took shelter in when they arrived in Split. It is also said that Diocletian’s quarters were in the basement, but he slept in a different room every night because he was so paranoid of being assassinated. He also supposedly had the basement constructed to cause loud echoes, so that he would be able to know when someone was approaching.
Dubrovnik, only 230 kilometers away from Split, has a very different history. The original theory of how Dubrovnik was founded was that in the 7th century, when two settlements separated by a narrow channel eventually merged in to one, filling in the channel to become what is now the main street of the town. Modern discoveries, however, contradict this theory and point to the fact that the city may, in fact, date back much further than the 7th century. This modern theory is that Dubrovnik was originally a Greek settlement. This theory has been bolstered in recent years, by the recent discoveries of Greek artifact nearby. Also, fun fact, the Dubrovnik city walls have never been pierced. They have withstood many sieges over the course of history.
Despite the competing stories of Dubrovnik’s beginnings, the city flourished as it aged. The old town as we know it today was completed in the 13th century and is virtually unchanged to this day. The city streets are all solid white marble, which is beautiful in the evening when it gives a faint reelection of the sky. The city is filled with regal stair cases, majestic churches, and beautiful narrow streets. Dubrovnik became not only a city, but it was it’s own autonomous empire for 700 years. It sailed merchant ships to Turkey, India and even had relations with the English court. Dubrovnik’s independence came to an end in 1806, when Napolean entered the city.
…but all of that is ancient history.
If you visit Croatia today, you will see the beauty of the ancient architecture, but what you will really feel is the more recent effects Yugoslavia, and Croatia’s war for independence. Growing up, we didn’t hear much about the war and genocide in Yugoslavia, and it is a bit of reality check when you are talking with someone in Croatia and they casually mention their time in Dubrovnik during the war. Dubrovnik received a considerable amount of shelling. The city was bombarded by land and sea and received a large amount of damage, but the citizens quickly rebuilt. You can’t even tell that this city was once under heavy fire. Today, there are maps marking which parts of the city received the heaviest first during the war. The War Photo Limited Gallery was a great collection of war photography from Dubrovnik’s siege.