A Walk Through Diocletian's Palace

Diocletian's Palace: Historical city within a cityThe Croatian city of Split is in the heart of Dalmatia and boasts a history of hosting - or defending against - the likes of the Greeks, Romans and Slavs at various points throughout the last few millennia. It lies as a jewel in the Adriatic, as yet still largely undiscovered by the glossy travel agents’ pamphlets and tour guide hounds. That is rapidly changing, however, as is the case in all of Croatia. It’s a kick-off for all the sprinkle of islands that lay within easy reach by ferry: Hvar, Korčula, Brač and Vis, to name just a few. One of the most famous people in the city's history, who wasn't actually born here, was Gaius Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus Augustus, or known to us simply as Diocletian. He built the palace here on the waters in preparation for his retirement in 305 ACE. This was an unusual move, as no Emperor had ever considered retiring, or had even made it to retirement before being done away with in some gruesome fashion. But against all odds he did retire to the Grand Palace that faced out to spectacular views of the Adriatic, where his hobbies included growing cabbages and persecuting Christians in the purpose-built dungeons below. If you have only a day to spend in Split, it’s worth spending most of it wandering the palace, for one reason: it is arguably the best preserved roman structure still standing in the Mediterranean.

A good place to start is from the northern part of the palace, which actually seems as if you are entering from the rear. When the palace was constructed, waters from the Adriatic lapped directly at its southern side - where now runs the famously refurbished esplanade - and it was only accessible by boat. Look for the gargantuan statue of Bishop Gregory of Nin, sculpted out of bronze by the renowned twentieth-century son of Split, Ivan Meštrović. It allegedly brings you luck if you rub his big toe, so be sure to get in line with the rest who wait their turn to snap photos of each other polishing the increasingly shiny toe as if expecting a magical genie to appear. 

After visitors have made their wishes, most walk to the north gate - the Golden Gate - the original main entrance to the palace. A colossal wall awaits, with grass growing in the cracks between the stone slabs that would have taken 100 men or more to carry from the island of Brač and heave up into place. Like the Mayan pyramids and structures at Stonehenge, you can’t help thinking just how they pulled off the complex feat of engineering. Each stone is seamlessly fitted into place, with barely an anomaly to be found. It truly is a sight to behold. Due to the crowds entering the Golden Gate, however, it is recommended that you enter the palace from the Iron Gate, where on the way you’ll find a few hidden gems that make the detour well worth it.

Heading back past the Gregory of Nin sculpture, you'll come upon the remains of the once thriving St. Euphemia, a nunnery which fell to the greed of the Napoleonic campaigns. There’s barely a couple of walls and a few broken bits of stone foundations left, with glass cases built over what remains, giving it a slightly odd museum feel. It's still a great find, however, for those who enjoy visiting ruins of any kind.

Opposite the nunnery is a modern fountain, built to mimic the Roman viaduct, running along the length of one side of Štrosmajerov Park. At its terminal is a waterfall where children splash and play in its coolness, and road weary travellers kick off their sandals an let the white foam glide over their naked feet. It’s a great chance to cool off and revive yourself: remember, summer temperatures can reach above 40 degrees. Revived and refreshed after a splash in the fountain, it's a good idea to stroll off and make your way around the western perimeter of the palace, following Bosanska Street to the Iron Gate, accessed from Narodni Trg, or the People's Square. The square is full of upmarket eateries catering to the many tourists hovering about. The cafes get a bit crowded and pricey so save your appetite for later if you can, and head into the palace through the Iron Gate. You can’t miss the gate: there’s a large renaissance clock above the opening showing 24-hour Roman numeral time. 

Diocletian's Sphinx (Source: WikimediaCommons)

Once through the Iron Gate, visitors are immediately absorbed into the charming though encroaching and shaded alleyways where the narrow lanes and the push of crowds transport you back in time to a bustling, medieval trading town, which of course it once was. This is the original decumanus, or transverse road that connected the Iron Gate on the west side with the Silver Gate on the far eastern side. Once the living quarters of soldiers and slaves who served the Emperor, it’s now crammed with small boutique stores: Swatch and Swarovski shops, United Colours of Benetton, Ray Ban sunglasses, Nike, Diesel, hole-in the-wall pizza-by-the-slice joints, and slastičarnica, or cake delicatessens. If you are a shopaholic, this is the place for you; otherwise take your time to bask in the buzz and bristling atmosphere.

Soon travellers will come to the cardo, or the street that dissects the palace from north to south, from the Golden Gate out to the Adriatic. It’s much less well defined now than the decumanus, and disappears often into the maze of alterations that have muddled the interior over the centuries. Heading south along the road, you'll see that parts of it become rather narrow; on our journey we found that we sometimes had to squash ourselves against the cool stones in order to let larger parties get through. On the way down this street the original lines of the architecture are fused into neoclassical and modern concrete structures that resemble tenement buildings, plotted Lego-like on top of one another, the modern day apartments of locals and holiday-makers. Wooden shutters on the windows are thrown open, the paint cracked and peeled by the unrelenting Dalmatian sun and potted geraniums dangle precariously from hooks above balconies. Laundry hangs from twine, stretching above our heads from window to window.

Enclosed on three sides by colonnades and arches, the east side houses the Emperor’s mausoleum, sacked by the citizens from Salona who eventually converted it into a church dedicated to St Duje, an early martyr from their native town. In the south end, stairs lead up to what were once the Imperial apartments, and like many other parts of the palace, is now partitioned into the homes of modern families and holiday lets. Before long the claustrophobic streets let into a large open square. This is the Peristyle, where the Emperor resided and today the highlight of the palace. A small church sits near the entry, and serves as an information centre, with plenty of hawkers standing outside offering tours through the palace. These are relatively expensive, and the quality generally poor. In addition, you'll still have to pay entry to most of the inaccessible parts of the palace, namely the vaults. You are better off grabbing a plan and making your own way around. Then you can choose to pay to get into what interests you most.

Guarding St. Duje’s church and Diocletian’s tomb is a sphinx, brought from Egypt by the emperor himself, who was a great collector of art from the furthest boundaries of his precarious empire. The granite sphinx is in surprisingly great condition, and a rub over its smooth back may help connect you to all those lost civilizations of antiquity. For those ghoulish types wishing to bask in the presence of the emperor’s remains, you’ll be sadly disappointed; his bones were tossed out to the dogs by the marauding Christians who exacted revenge for persecution of their kind before consecrating it into a shrine. I have only visited the chapel once, and in the dimly lit and densely atmospheric interior, it wasn't long before we were shooed out by an old bent woman wearing a black headscarf. The church closes often and seemingly unpredictably for mass. 

After a careful climb back down the smooth and slippery stairs, visitors are rewarded with an upward view of the remains of the Protiron and seven arches of the once richly decorated garlands at the south end of the Peristyle. It is here under these arches that Diocletian would appear, at the top of the stairs, like a God to his people. They would prostrate themselves before him on the pavement, not daring to flinch let alone look up for fear of pain of death. We were treated to a re-enactment of the emperor and his entourage who appeared here on the balcony, speaking Latin and trying to look threatening.

The enclosure of the Peristyle is worn and embattled looking, showing outward signs of sackings through the centuries and being used as a quarry for the building of new parts of Split. Slabs of stone are missing, the remaining bits bruised and chipped. In odd places columns stick out of the ground like broken sticks of chalk, and architectural themes lap over one another like gnawing waves on a beach. It’s a perfect setting for the grand opera Aida, which is performed here sometimes in the summer months.

On the west side, the 16th century Grosogoni-Cipici palace nestles into the colonnade, looking as though it had been temporarily pushed hard up against the marble columns and then forgotten about for lack of space. The ground floor of this old palace houses the Luxor coffee house, which boasts rows of tables out front with umbrellas that keep the afternoon sun at bay. Depending on the time of day you visit and the position of the sun, the umbrellas throw octagonal shadows onto the paving stones, only adding to the perfect symmetry of the place. It's a great place to sit, order a light lunch and a local Karlovačko or Osječko beer or Cappy juice to wash it down, and enjoy watching the passersby and the rest of the crowd. The corners of the courtyard and the shaded steps at the sides are favourite spots for local artists, who crouch over easels or sketch out drafts on bits of wood balanced on their knees. Stunning pieces can be purchased on the spot, directly from the artists themselves.

Before leaving the Peristyle, visitors should take a walk up the alley to the side of the Grosogni-Cipici palace where they'll discover Jupiter’s Temple. Transformed into a baptistery in the Middle Ages, it is pretty much stripped of all its former glory today, but remains an important structure historically as it brings home the power that Diocletian wielded over his frightened subjects. After Christianity started to take root throughout the 3rd century, Diocletian immediately set about reverting the empire back to paganism, positioning himself as a supreme God-head. He went so far as to imprison - and later torture to death - both his daughter and wife in the vaults after they committed the sin of converting to the ‘new’ religion. He built three temples inside the walls of the palace, and this is the only one surviving. An old man in a wide-brimmed sunhat sits outside at a beaten-up school desk, and takes your 5 kuna entrance fee (about $0.80 US). The original baptismal font survives, and people frequently toss a few lipa coins in for good luck.

It's a good idea to backtrack to the Peristyle and the stairs that lead down under the emperor’s apartments. Here the vaults are crammed with market stalls and anything a tourist tat to quality artworks can be found. It’s a lovely way to end the experience, either by picking up a few trinkets or enjoying a bit of refreshing window shopping in the cool darkness. Here you can also access the deeper vaults where Christians were persecuted in great numbers and where the Salonians took refuge from the barbarian invasions.

Heading from here through the South Gate, the gate that once led directly onto the bay, visitors find themselves on the Esplanade, lined with ancient palms and white shining paving stones. Countless cafes and restaurants await, making the spot all the better to watch the fishermen in their trawlers and skiffs bringing home their catch in the early evening. It’s also the perfect place to sit and drink rakija - if you dare - while watching the stunning sunsets, which are second to none in Dalmatia as they sink into the islands in the harbour.

About the Author

Born in the UK, but raised and educated in New Zealand since the age of 4, Lincoln Jaques has always had a passion for travel and travel literature. He has travelled extensively, particularly throughout Croatiam the Mediterranean, Europe and parts of North Africa. From 2007 to 2011 he lived and worked in the UK, but is now residing back in New Zealand.

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