Diocletian’s Palace, located in Split, Croatia, is a UNESCO World Heritage site that dates back to the 4th century. I visited during a hiking expedition in Croatia. My favorite Croatian encounter occurred when I met a small grey cat sitting inside the Roman emperor’s palace.
Although he did not deny me passage to this historic site, he did refuse a caress. He bears an eerie resemblance to the black granite Sphinx standing guarding at the cathedral’s entrance. The statue was imported from Egypt in 1500 BC.
It is 730 am. Entering the harbor via The Riva, I step through an unadorned doorway. The kiosks have not yet opened for business. The Queen Victoria cruise line has not ejected its passengers onto the seaside streets. The weathered grey stone hallway is dim and deserted. I can almost imagine this palace bustling with Roman slaves.
It took Roman emperor Diocletian 10 years to build the palace with its statuesque columns in the Roman courtyard and 220 rooms. It measures 38,700 square feet. The white marble came from the Island of Brac (as well as Italy and Greece). After his death, Diocletian was interred in the octagonal mausoleum. The Christians converted to a cathedral dedicated to Saint Domnius in the 5th century. Over the centuries, the Palace was renovated and expanded. It also includes a cathedral with a watch tower that provides a sweeping view across the harbor and sea to Croatian islands (and early warning of attack). But this is not a dead or mummified museum. It is a living breathing organism in everyday Split life.
Over 3,000 residents call the palace home. I found evidence of little apartment buildings tucked onto skinny lanes that run serpentine down the length of the palace. Laundry is flung over a line that stretches out a window. Bikes and toys lean against walls. It is ridiculously easy to get lost in the palace as it has four separate entrances named after precious metals—the Golden Gate, the Silver Gate, the Bronze Gate, and the Iron Gate. There is no fee to wander through the palace although you do have to pay a fee to see the underground palace sub-structures. This reveals how goods delivered at the harbor were transported through an underground system.
You also will be charged to climb the Romanesque belfry at the cathedral to survey the old town. It can feel perilous at parts where you look down especially when you learn it collapsed and had to be rebuilt in 1908. (Two young men dressed as Roman legionnaires also may insist on a fee if you want to pose with them. A lot of tourists surreptitiously took their photos.) Coming out of the palace, I find Split is already waking up at 8 am. The Green Market reveals scores of farmers selling their produce on tables lined in a row. Two men swing a string of garlic bulbs threaded together. The aroma wafts in the air. The entire square is filled with the farmer’s market. Cabbages nestle up next to tomatoes, onions and bulbous peppers. A giant cantaloupe is sliced into a smiling wedge. Yellow and red apples, dark plums and fat bunches of grape gleam in the sunlight. The veined greenish-yellow grapes taste as sweet as honey.
I watch with fascination as old and young residents of Split line up with their plastic and cloth bags to buy their fruits and vegetables. It is clearly a time for neighbors to stop and talk or haggle with a vendor. The seats at the coffee shop quickly fill up with older men stopping for a cup of white coffee or espresso. Split also boasts the fruits of the sea, so I went looking for its Fish Market. Lined up side by side, I find tables filled with freshly caught monkfish or sea bass for tonight’s dinner. And if you are simply visiting Split, you can find fish freshly grilled in the town center in the evening to buy. Just bring your roll purchased at the bakery. And you might find a little cat who would like to be your dinner companion.