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Croatia's Past Lives on in Modern-Day Split

Visitors to Croatia can sample old and new in a relatively small area.
BY RICK STEVES Published: July 1, 2012

While most of Croatia's coastal towns seem tailor-made for tourism, Split is real and vibrant. Lounging alongside the Adriatic Sea on the famed Dalmatian Coast, Split is Croatia's second-largest city (after capital Zagreb), making it a bustling metropolis, serious port city, major transit hub, and top sightseeing destination all rolled into one.

Split has all the trappings of a modern city.

But a close look at the surviving facade of the Roman palace fronting its harbor reveals its ancient roots. In the fourth century A.D., when the Roman Emperor Diocletian retired, he built a vast residence for his golden years here in his native Dalmatia.

When Rome fell, the palace was abandoned. Eventually, a medieval town sprouted from its abandoned shell. And, to this day, the maze of narrow alleys — literally Diocletian's hallways at one point in time — makes up the core of Split. Today's residents are actually living in a Roman emperor's palace.

Back in its heyday, the harbor front was Diocletian's back door. There was no embankment in front of the palace, so the water came right up to the door — sort of an emergency exit by boat. Just inside this gate, visitors can explore a labyrinth of cellars that once supported the palace. Rediscovered only in the last century, the cellars enabled archaeologists to derive the floor plan of some of the palace's long-gone upper sections.

From the cellars, a grand underground hallway, now used as a shopping arcade, leads outside to the Peristyle (Split's main square) and Diocletian's vestibule, the dramatically domed entryway to the emperor's private rooms.

These days, this grand space is often home to an all-male band of a cappella singers performing “klapa” — the quintessential Dalmatian folk music. These songs of seafaring life, of loves lost and loves found, stir the souls of Croatians and visitors alike.

Overlooking the Peristyle, Diocletian's mausoleum once dominated the center of the palace complex. Much of the original Roman building survives, including the impressive dome, columns and capitals, and fine carved reliefs.

Diocletian was notorious for persecuting Christians. But a thousand years ago, his mausoleum was converted into the Cathedral of St. Dominus. And so, ironically, what Diocletian built to glorify his memory is used instead to remember his victims.

A few steps away is a temple dedicated to Jupiter. Roman emperors often made themselves a god. Diocletian was Jovius, son of the top god, Jupiter. People kissed his robe; he was like a deity on earth.

About the time the mausoleum became a cathedral, the temple was converted into a baptistery, housing a huge 12th-century baptismal font large enough to immerse someone (as was the tradition in those days).

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