Head Over Heels in Love With Split, Croatia - Hole In The Donut Cultural Travel

Head Over Heels in Love With Split, Croatia

Four months. Fourteen countries. Fifty different destinations. By the time I reached Sarajevo I was exhausted. I’d accomplished my goal of visiting all seven of the ex-Yugoslavian countries plus Albania, but poor Croatia had been given short shrift earlier in the summer. Rather than battle high-season crowds and a record-breaking heat wave at the seashore, I fled to the capital of Zagreb. Not only was it cooler, it was virtually empty; everyone in the city was at the coast. As a result, I’d missed the Dalmation Coast cities of Dubrovnik, Zadar, and Split. I had a choice to make. Should I try to see all three in the eleven days left before I was due in Italy? Exhaustion provided my answer. I couldn’t even think about moving that fast. Instead, I booked a vacation rental apartment just outside the Old Town of Split, Croatia for the entire eleven days.

Silver (east) gate of Diocletian's Palace in Split, Croatia

Silver (east) gate of Diocletian’s Palace in Split, Croatia

It would turn out to be one of the best travel decisions of my life. Nanka, the owner of the apartment, informed me that her aunt, Ljubica, was eager to meet me, as she was a retired journalist. A few days later Ljubica and I met for lunch at Diocletian’s Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that was once home to the Roman Emperor Diocletian. I had explored the palace by that time, but as a local, Ljubica knew the secret places. She led me to a tiny cafe tucked into an obscure corner of the fortress that served exquisite vegetarian food. Between mouthfuls, we talked non-stop. I was as fascinated by her experiences covering the Palestinian and Bosnian Wars as she was about my life of perpetual travel. When we couldn’t dawdle any longer over empty plates, we strolled over to Narodni Trg, the most popular square in the Old Town, for coffee and dessert. Finally, Ljubica looked at her watch. “Do you realize we’ve been talking for five hours,” she grinned.

Romanesque Clock on the belfry overlooks Narodni Trg (People's Square), the most popular gathering place in the city

Romanesque Clock on the belfry overlooks Narodni Trg (People’s Square), the most popular gathering place in the city

Over the next week, I explored this gem of a city. Within Diocletian’s Palace, which forms about half of the Old Town and city center, I climbed Saint Domnius Cathedral bell tower for a stunning view over Split’s clay-tiled rooftops to the Adriatic Sea. Later that same day I descended into the subterranean reaches of the palace, where water dripped menacingly from fourth-century barrel vaulted brickwork. At ground level, the palace’s maze of lanes led to museums, ancient temples, shops, and restaurants, all of which radiated from the magnificent Peristyle central courtyard.

Bell Tower and Cathedral of Saint Domnius as seen from the emperor's residence area inside Diocletian's Palace

Bell Tower and Cathedral of Saint Domnius as seen from the emperor’s residence area inside Diocletian’s Palace

View of Split from the top of Saint Domnius Cathedral bell tower, with Marjan Park in the distance

View of Split from the top of Saint Domnius Cathedral bell tower, with Marjan Park in the distance

Peristyle, the main square inside Diocletian's Palace

Peristyle, the main square inside Diocletian’s Palace

Sphinx statue inside Diocletian's Palace proves the Emperor's fascination with all things Egyptian

Sphinx statue inside Diocletian’s Palace proves the Emperor’s fascination with all things Egyptian

Some days, I wandered into Marjan Park, which crowns the hill that rises at the end of Split’s natural harbor. Others days I lingered over espresso on the Riva, Split’s seafront promenade, where locals have perfected the art of people-watching. I gorged on delicious fresh seafood, discovered several amazing vegetarian restaurants, and even cooked some meals with ingredients from Split’s huge waterfront green market.

The Riva, Split's seaside promenade, is the place for people watching

The Riva, Split’s seaside promenade, is the place for people watching

The day before I was scheduled to leave, Vinka, another of Ljubica’s nieces, picked me up for a tour of sites outside the city. A hilltop memorial to the Croatian War was a somber reminder that just twenty years ago, this part of the world was mired in war. At Our Lady of Stomorija, a serene pilgrimage site tucked into the rolling foothills, we munched on purple-blue grapes from the vineyard.

Memorial near Kastel Novi, Croatia honors those who perished in the Balkan War. The long peninsula in the background is the town of Split.

Memorial near Kastel Novi, Croatia honors those who perished in the Balkan War. The long peninsula in the background is the town of Split.

Vineyards laden with grapes at Our Lady of Stomorija in Kastel Novi, Croatia

Vineyards laden with grapes at Our Lady of Stomorija in Kastel Novi, Croatia

Back at the seaside, she drove me through the string of seven towns named for their castles: Kaštel Sucurac, Kaštel Gomilica, Kaštel Kambelovac, Kaštel Lukšic, Kaštel Stari, Kaštel Novi, and Kaštel Štafilic, pointing out abandoned, disintegrating hotels that were used to house Bosnian Croat refugees during the war years. We returned to Kastel Novi just as it began to pour and ducked into one of the vacation rental apartments owned by the family. Nanka and Ljubica soon arrived with bags of food and over the next several hours we ate, and gabbed, and laughed, and ate some more. I wished the evening could have gone on forever, but I had to pack.

The Old Town of Split, Croatia, is rife with gorgeous old buildings like this one

The Old Town of Split, Croatia, is rife with gorgeous old buildings like this one

Republic Square in Split, Croatia

Republic Square in Split, Croatia

Even if I hadn’t been smitten by the beauty of the city, the kindness and generosity of this family would have made me fall head over heels in love with Split. When Nanka dropped me off at the Italy-bound ferry the following day, I bawled like a baby. I simply did not want to leave. Meeting local people always sweetens my travels, but thanks to Ljubica, Nanka, and Vinka, Split ranks as one of the most precious experiences of my nine years of travel.

17 Comments on “Head Over Heels in Love With Split, Croatia

  1. The root of the word is Ljubica is “kiss”. I am so happy my father’s city of Split and its passionate people kissed your soul during your stay in the most beautiful of ways.

    Volim te, Split! Volim te, Hrvatska! Volim te, Dalmatia! <3

    • Hi Michelle: Oh yes! The Dalmatian Coast won my heart forever. As you say, wonderful people and a stunning landscape.

  2. I just loved it.
    Beautifully described.
    Thanks for sharing this with us.

  3. My family and I are visiting Split, Munich, and Paris this summer.
    I have fallen in live with your blog ad well as your photography.
    How do you get night time photos to turn out so fantastically!? I must know the secret so that I can capture our adventure!

    • Hi Shannin: It’s hard to explain, because night photography is always a very sensitive balance between shutter speed, f-stop, and ISO. Fortunately, digital photography has made it so much easier, because we can bracket exposures and try different settings until we find the right combo. For me, shutter speed is the most important, because I shoot hand-held, so I try to use the fastest shutter speed possible and then make changes around that. Best thing to do is just shoot and shoot and shoot – the more you do, the better you get at it.

  4. I am from Australia and too am in love with Croatia.

    Make sure you visit these places on the Islands off the coast of Split on your next visit. The islands add another dimension to Croatia and are in my opinion the most beautiful in the world. The usual of Hvar , Brac and Korcula, but mark these towns down which are absolute hidden treasures…. The town Pucisca on Brac- home of the White rock used to build the White House and famous stone crafting school and the town of Bol on Brac Island. Vela Luka aswell as The Town of Korcula- birthplace of Marco Polo. Hvar Town is the most well known of island towns but be sure to visit Stari Grad town aswell.

    My absolute hidden treasure off the coast of Split is the Island of Vis and Vis town and Komiza . Visit the most romantic cove Beack in Stiniva Cove- Vis (GOOGLE image this one). Then from here do a day trip do a visit to the Blue Cave (Plava Spilja) and the Green Cove.

    If you get to venture too some National Parks make sure you visit Sibenik or the Krka National Park and the beautiful UNESCO town of Trogir (just 40 mins outside Split). Love your writing style.Happy exploring

    • Hi Dani! Thanks so much for all that detailed info. I knew about some of those places, but not about others. I’m headed back to Croatia this summer, so will definitely keep your list handy. Glad you love it as much as I do.

    • Hi Izy: Definitely a beautiful little city. I can hardly wait to go back.

  5. Love your blog. I have missed Split on previous trips to the former Yugoslavia (when it was still that). Are you free to recommend the AirBnB accommodation that you used? Thanks, Stephen in Bangkok

    • Thank you Stephen! So glad you enjoy my blog. I’m embarrassed to tell you this, but I went back to my records to find the Air B&B info and discovered I’d actually booked the Split apartment through Booking.com. I travel so much, and stay in so many places, that it’s sometimes hard to remember the details. In any case, I modified the article, and of course I can share the specific apartment. Its one of the, i f not THE best vacation rental apartments I’ve ever stayed in: http://www.booking.com/hotel/hr/apartment-tea-2.html

  6. Such a great post. Wish I had spent more than a day in Split, and this post definitely makes me want to go back. Such great photos too!

  7. You had such a wonderful experience with your Airbnb family. That is what I love about Airbnb, the chance to experience a local’s family life. We stayed in Split for three or four days and loved it too, mostly because of the recommendations of our Airbnb host. It is a pity you couldn’t have stayed longer, it is lovely to experience a gabfest with kindred spirits.

  8. Lovely post – Split looks magic day and night and so nice to hear that the people are friendly! Is it expensive?

    • Hi Gemma: I did not find Split to be terribly expensive. In fact, something I did not mention in the article is that if you are staying three days or more, you can bring you accommodation receipt to the tourist office and they will give you a card good for three days of free or reduced entry at a number of the attractions around town.

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