“Once this area, roughly a quarter of a mile square, was the Palace of Diocletian…. It is entrancing and there is no other place in Europe like it.” Bill Bryson – ‘Neither here Nor there’
We walked through the centre of Diocletian’s Palace, which is the middle of the old city of Split where all the most important historical buildings of the city are to be found.
The Palace is important as a historical monument because it has survived pretty much intact and is remarkable for the diversity of its buildings, which include an octagonal domed mausoleum, a rectangular Temple of Jupiter, a cruciform lower level of the Vestibule, and circulartemples to Cybele and Venus.
Diocletian became Emperor of Rome in 284AD and set out to reorganise the huge Empire that had become unwieldy and difficult to control. He separated the Empire in two between east and west to make it more manageable and after governing for twenty years became the first Emperor to resign from the job and he built the massive palace for his retirement after abdicating in 305 AD. When it was built one of its four gates led directly to a quay side but an impressive new promenade has separated the Palace from the sea and the entrance is now through the Palace basement and past a row of rather inappropriate market stall vendors.
Inside, the Palace is an eclectic mix of styles and ages and although parts of it have inevitably been dismantled and rearranged by succeeding generations the basic structure is intact and small streets lead from one exciting discovery to another.
The Palace is built of white local limestone of high quality, most of which was from quarries on the island of Brač. The nearby island is famous for its stone which has been its main export since ancient times and has always been highly valued and has been used in some of the most famous buildings in the World including the White House in Washington D.C. Limestone tuffa was taken from the nearby river beds and bricks were made in the nearby workshops of the Roman city of Salona. Some material for decoration was imported, such as the Egyptian granite columns and sphinxes, and the fine white marble for external decoration produced in workshops in Proconnesos, which is the modern day Turkish island of Mamara.
The palace was built not just as a retirement home but as a Roman military fortress with walls two hundred metres long and twenty metres high, enclosing an area of thirty-eight thousand square metres and it is one of the best preserved Roman palaces in existence because after the fall of the Romans within the defensive walls it effectively became the city of Spalatum which eventually evolved and became Split and today it continues to host the old town even though there is some more recent inappropriate construction inside.
The sun was beginning to poke through now so rather than visit the underground basement halls we decided to continue our walk along the harbour and we passed through Republican Square with its elegant buildings painted red and its Venetian architecture modelled on St Marks Square in Venice. From here we passed into some back streets of tiny houses and began to climb towards the city park at the western end of the harbour and with good views back over the city. The clouds were breaking up quickly now and although they remained stubbornly attached to the ring of mountains surrounding Split out to sea it was clearing nicely, the sun was out and we were getting warm.
From the top we could see why Croatia’s second largest city is so important as it occupies a position of strategic significance on the Adriatic. Because of this Split suffered damage during the war and probably the most tragic incident of all occurred in November 1991 when the Yugoslavian frigate named Split fired shells at the city. The damage was insignificant and there were only a few casualties but this was the only time in history that a city has been bombarded by a military vessel bearing its own name.
It was nice in the sunshine and we walked back down to the harbour around the sides of the Palace and back inside through the main gate to complete our tour. We had missed the basement halls last year so were determined to see them today so after a late lunch sitting in the welcome sunshine we paid for our admission and went underground.
The vast rooms were mostly empty but there were some exhibits here and there but what was really interesting was to see just how well the Romans constructed their buildings. We were able to see all of this because they are so well preserved because for more than a thousand years they had been used as a convenient waste disposal and sewage site as residents in the medieval city above simply filled them up with debris and rubbish. As recently as fifty years ago these basement halls were inaccessible but then archaeologists began to excavate and investigate and now when it comes to understanding the ancient Romans they are a very important evidence base for the study of the ancient civilisation.
It was late afternoon so we walked back through the market and caught the bus back to Podstrana where it was hot enough to sit on the balcony and watch the cloud formations out to sea as the sun probed its way through the grey to form puddles of cheerful sparkling reflection on the surface of the sea. The weather continued to improve so later we walked to the beach and watched a good sunset over Split.
In the evening we returned to the fish restaurant close by that we had used last year and began to make our choices off of the menu in anticipation of another good meal. But for some reason I was feeling a bit nauseous and unwell and although I kept this to myself and made an attempt on the shared octopus salad I just couldn’t face the black squid risotto that followed so I had to make my apologies and leave Kim to finish her meal alone. I blamed the fish salad that I had had at lunchtime and feared that I had poisoned myself on the very first day of the holiday. I ransacked the medical kit and went straight to bed and became anxious about being in a strange place and how we might find the hospital later but I needn’t have worried because when I woke in the middle of the night everything had settled down and it had passed as quickly as it came on and I slept contentedly for the rest of the night.