When retired Roman emperor Diocletian was asked to leave his beloved Dalmatian palace to return to the Roman throne, he replied:
"If you could show the cabbage that I planted with my own hands to your emperor, he definitely wouldn't dare suggest that I replace the peace and happiness of this place with the storms of a never-satisfied greed."
It's not everyday you get to spend a night in the palace of a Roman emperor. Or dine on the doorstep of his private imperial quarters. Well, unless you are a resident of the old town of Split.
Balmy breezes, Roman-era temples and beheaded sphinxes - what's not to like?
The unofficial capital of central Dalmatia, known for its glowing coastal light, sporty people and of course, the best preserved ancient Roman palace in the world, Split is definitely one of the most dramatic cities I have ever visited. I can't think of any other place I've ever been to that made me feel like I was walking straight into the set of a epic film - except, all the spectacular Roman buildings surrounding me were real!
It's also probably one of the most underrated cities I've ever been to - trawl through most guidebooks on Croatia and the city is described as the poor cousin to Dubrovnik, with the implication that it is almost just a hopping off point to the many islands dotting the Dalmatian coast.
But how can a living, breathing Roman Palace - strewn with towering pillars, cathedrals and faceless sphinxes - not be interesting? If there was ever a place to imagine what a real-life Roman city looked like in its heyday, Split would be it.
I turned up at Split for a firsthand taste of the region's famed sheep's milk cheese, crisp island wines and hearty seafood stews that typify the rustic fare of the konobas - local taverns sprinkled all across the coast. I have to say, the reality lived up to the anticipation.
Emerging from the palace's stone basement (which forms the atmospheric entrance to the city from the southern waterfront promenade - Split's famous Riva) I was greeted by the dulcet tones of one of Split's most famous a cappella groups or klapa practicing just outside the entrance of the Hotel Vestibul - a thoughtfully restored nobleman's palace on the threshold of the emperor's private chambers, and my home for the night.
Dalmatia's a cappella singers are probably the most soothing soundtrack for a meal in Split - they add just another surrealistic touch to an already magical setting. A klapa often sing songs that originated in sailors' laments over the long separation from their wives while at sea. The practice began with groups of friends (which is what the word klapa literally translates to) singing at the end of an evening in underground wine cellars that offered great natural acoustics.
In Split, klapas serenade the crowds milling through Diocletian's Palace every evening, using the main vestibule (located just besides the entrance to my hotel, hence the name) as their stage. Guests like me checking in during the early hours of the day are often lucky enough to listen to their melodious morning sessions while enjoying a macchiato sitting outdoors in a cozy little piazza.
After the quick pick-me-up, I decided to get a head start on the day's eating (or rather drinking!) I made my way to the top of Boticevo Setaliste, a stairway that winds up the hill to Marjan - the green lungs of the city - for a bird's eye view of the old palace town, the atmospheric Veli Varos neighbourhood, bustling Split port and luminous blue waters of the Adriatic lapping them all.
The viewing gallery at the top is probably the best place to reward yourself for the climb with a chilled glass of Zlahtina at the Vidilica Cafe. The dry white wine is the perfect accompaniment to the glowing vista of stone houses and characteristic Dalmatian red roofs below.
For a first taste of Split's local cuisine, I headed to Konoba Matejuska, just a short stroll back down the hill, on the recommendation of a local Split resident. After attempting (and failing) to decipher the menu, I decided to go with the patron's helpful recommendation for two choices from the dish-of-the-day list - a tender piece of octopus stewed with chick peas in a rich gravy of fish soup, white wine, garlic and tomatoes called "brodetto", and an equally flavourful dish of perfectly cooked calamari in a similar tomato and white wine sauce, all sopped up with thick hunks of bread. The tavern served its own local grape straight from the barrel and to finish, I picked a honeyed glass of local fig liqueur.
Inspired by the sea - a late lunch at a rustic konoba in Split
Belly stuffed it was time to head back to the old city centre to walk off lunch - in anticipation of dinner!
The old city has an intimately cosy feel at night. Set in a cruciform pattern along two main streets bracketed with four gates and surrounded by windy lanes, almost any one you pick leads you straight back to the heart of the Palace - Split's central square or Peristyle. The square is lined with columns of Egyptian marble (the pillars that give the Peristyle its name) and is crowned with the cathedral of St Duje - ironically, a structure built as the mausoleum of Diocletian, one of the worst Christian persecutors in history, only to end up as the resting place of one of the martyrs he beheaded.
After a wander around the palace, it was time to taste my way through some more Dalmatian favourites. For dinner, it seemed only natural to head back to my hotel for a meal at the appropriately named "Diocles" restaurant. Tucked away around the corner of the main vestibule that marked the passage between Diocletian's private quarters to the stately central square, if you ever want to feel like you were the king (or queen) of your own little world (or, in this case, grand palace!) a table at the Diocles is definitely the way to go.
The meal was a medley of coastal delicacies, with a personal highlight being a dish of anchovy carpaccio - meaty little anchovies offset by a sharp, sweet tinge of balsamic dressing.
Another winner were lightly breaded slices of Camembert - perhaps the most successful version of this dish I have tasted to date - with airy centres and a golden crumb that was perfectly complemented by roasted parsley and a luscious cranberry marmalade.
A plentiful platter of seafood - scampi, grilled squid and fish - accompanied by a full-bodied Posip white wine (definitely a good pick by the sommelier) meant I, for once, had no room for dessert.
To walk off the damage done at the table, it was time to stroll down the Riva and take in the beautiful port from a perch along the promenade - the air crackling with the electricity of an impending storm and flashes of lightening sparking both the sky and the sea below.
I can begin to see why Diocletian preferred this spot with its cabbages over the throne of Rome.
When in Split
Eat: The scampi along the Dalmatian coast is universally superb, especially when tossed in a flavourful sauce of tomato, garlic and wine and eaten - messily - with one's fingers. Heaven!
Drink: Look out for Posip - a full-bodied white from the island of Korcula - my favourite find while in Croatia, with a rounded finish that brought together the flavours of citrus and tropical fruit. Best served with aforementioned scampi and its other sea cousins.
Buy: I didn't manage to buy a CD from lack of time, but I could easily imagine spending an afternoon listening to the rich, velvety voices of Dalmatia's a cappella singers.
Stay: A member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World group, the 11-room boutique Hotel Vestibul Palace occupies a fantastic location. Tucked into a quiet corner in the private heart of Diocletian's Palace, a room here lets you have your fill of the old city and then roll straight into bed - without the sound of continuing revelry wafting up to your window.
Another great reason to stay here? The rooms and suites retain sections of original, exposed Roman-era walls that are atmospherically lit up at night, adding an unbeatable sense of place that would be hard to find anywhere else in Split.
Thoughtfully restored and maintaining a spartan contemporary scheme of black and tan which works well with the original architectural highlights, the luxurious elements in my suite - like the elevated mezzanine "bedroom" - popped even more when set against the stark feature wall.
The hotel is managed by a small group of predominantly local staff, which gives it a warm and authentic feel. At breakfast on the morning of my departure, I could see people walking into work, greeting each other and the guests in a familiar fashion - a refreshing change from the sometimes stiff service at more well-choreographed operations.
My favourite bit of the hotel had to be the split-level room and suspended gallery - truly conducive to floating off to bed!
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