10/06/2014 - 10/09/2014
Split is the second-largest city in Croatia and no doubt is an exciting place to live and explore. For the vast majority of travelers, their experience of Split is limited to the enormous Roman ruin of Diocletian's Palace which now exists as a miniature city walled off from the modern metropolis. Given our limitations in terms of time and mobility, we were no exception. Nevertheless, there was more than enough in Diocletian's Palace to keep us occupied and entertained for our two days in Split.
Our arrival was something of a mixed bag. We found our way through the city to the Palace and parked in the extortionately-priced lot directly outside the southern Bronze gate. Per our usual protocol, I left the family in the car and went inside to locate and confirm our accommodation. The outside of the southern Palace wall is lined with small cafes, convenience stores, and other touristic debris. The small archway I entered through led into a basement-like space which was occupied by numerous vendors of crafts and jewelry. I later learned this area is known as Diocletian's Cellars. I found a staircase leading upward and emerged into the old city. It's hard to describe the amazement I felt when seeing Diocletian's Palace for the first time. Of course, it's no longer a palace the way we think of Buckingham Palace or Versailles but in many ways it's even more impressive. It's a bustling, vibrant miniature city with all the modern conveniences existing entirely within the imposing walls of an enormous Roman ruin. Everywhere one turns is another well-preserved remnant of a civilization that died two millennia ago. At the same time, the ruins have been overbuilt over the centuries with living quarters, churches, and other structures emblematic of countless centuries of history. The overall effect is breathtaking. Once I had walked inside the Palace for a few minutes the only question I could ask myself was "Why have I never heard of this?" I felt so fortunate to have stumbled onto this amazing place in the world out of pure luck. Discoveries like this are what motivated me to begin writing this blog, so that other travelers would be able to learn about these hidden gems that exist right under our noses but for whatever reason aren't well known. It makes me wonder how many incredible places like Plitvice Lakes, Diocletian's Palace, and Rocca Calascio (more on this later) I'll never find simply because no one ever talks about them.
My intoxication with the Palace was tempered by my inability to connect with our Airbnb hosts. They hadn't replied to our last message giving an estimated time of arrival. I called the contact number but there was no response. On reviewing our communications, I came to the unpleasant conclusion that the apartment was actually controlled by a tour company whose employees may have simply taken off for the day. As I stood haplessly in front of our building a man pulled up on his bike and began locking it to the gate outside. I ascertained he could speak English and asked if he could give me any information about the company managing the apartment. It turned out he was actually the owner, although he seemed somewhat annoyed that he was being drawn into an interaction he had outsourced to someone else. I made it as clear as I could that my family was waiting in the car and that there really wasn't any acceptable outcome to the situation other than my retrieving them and bringing them into an open apartment. I raced back to the parking lot where Mei Ling had been waiting for almost an hour and told her "You're going to love this place". Of course, she was more focused on getting settled in the apartment by that point and wasn't very pleased to discover that we were actually on a fifth floor walk up rather than the second floor as we had been led to believe. By that point the owner had been joined by someone from the apartment management company and both of them were thrown on the defensive as Mei Ling growled at them while we hoisted babies and bags up four steep flights of stairs. The apartment itself was pleasant enough and the location deep inside the Palace was perfect. After getting settled we took a quick look around the center of the Palace including the immaculately preserved Peristyle, the central square of the Palace.
We chose Konoba Kod Joze for dinner because of a reputation for game dishes, but their selection when we arrived was limited to wild boar. The meal was satisfying but unmemorable, similar to many that we had in Slovenia and Croatia. We had walked out the northern Golden gate of the city and through a park to get to the restaurant, and returned via the road to the east of the Palace. Outside the eastern Silver gate we saw stalls covered in tarps, clearly the produce market, and resolved to return there the next day.
The next morning, we got a quick continental breakfast at a nearby cafe where outdoor tables seemed to be migrating up and down stone staircases in every direction. We headed west to the fish market which was small but energetic.
From the fish market we wandered south to the seaside promenade, where the palm trees and cruise ships had me wondering if we'd somehow found ourselves back in Miami Beach. One cafe on the promenade seemed to be entirely staffed with shirtless beefcake waiters.
We strolled eastward on the promenade and eventually found ourselves at the produce market. It was a substantial improvement over what we had found at Zadar, although not as large or bustling as the market at Rijeka. One unique sight was the garlic vendors wearing their product on long strands over their shoulders. There were also butchers and cheese vendors and several small food stalls.
Since it was still early afternoon we decided to explore another nearby medieval city called Trogir. Not only was this a chance to see another Croatian walled city, but also a reason to get the car out of the overpriced lot we had left it in the night before. I forked over 50 Euros for the time we had already spent there and we drove back northwest on the coastal road for about twenty minutes until we found the turnoff for Trogir. This walled city was on a tiny island connected to the mainland by one small bridge and to the much larger island of Ciovo by another bridge. Trogir was entirely a pedestrian zone within the walls so we parked close to the town market on the mainland next to the bridge. We didn't spend much time in the market since we had just come from the larger one in Split, but I couldn't resist some pretty-looking fresh figs which turned out to be completely tasteless.
In many ways, Trogir was similar to Zadar or Sibenik but it also had its own unique elements. Soon after entering the city, it was impossible to miss the tall belltower of the Venetian style Cathedral of St. Lovro. Despite the smallness of the old town, it was easy to get lost in the maze of narrow alleys lined by tall buildings.
At the opposite side of the island from the bridge there was a wide promenade outside the walls with nice views of Ciovo. At the far end of the promenade was the imposing Kamerlengo Fortress.
By this time we were ready for lunch so we set course for Konoba Trs, recommended by the Lonely Planet for its attractive courtyard. We found it without too much difficulty and sat at a table in the courtyard, which had a natural ceiling formed by the serpentine branches of the trees which grew next to the stone walls. Ian and I decided to try switching beverages.
The food at Konoba Trs turned out to be excellent as well. We had a delicious rabbit dish as well as our favorite kind of seafood, musule. The restaurant turned out to be the highlight of our side trip to Trogir, one of the top ten meals of the entire journey.
We made our way back to Split and took a break at the apartment. As dusk fell, we went back out into the old city to explore some of the alleys and squares that we had missed the previous night.
For dinner we picked Nostromo, adjacent to the fish market. It was a little crowded, so we had to haul everyone up a spiral staircase to the upper level. Once seated we all broke out our electronics and proceeded to ignore each other until dinner was served.
Ian learned how to eat spaghetti by himself at Nostromo.
After dinner, which was OK but not as good as lunch, we went back to the Peristyle where a band was playing. Cleo loves street musicians and dancing, and we let her enjoy herself there for about half an hour.
We went back to the apartment and climbed the final flight of stairs to the roof deck, from which we could see the lights of the Cathedral of St. Dominus in the Peristyle.
The next morning we took a couple more pictures around the eastern gate of the Palace and had lunch in the market, and then it was time to go to the port to catch our first Jadrolinija ferry of the trip.
The islands off Dalmatia look scraggly on a map, as if the coastline was flaking into the Adriatic. Some are hardly islands at all, separated from streaky peninsulas by tiny straits that allow bridge access. Once you're traveling on the ground and the sense of scale is different, it becomes apparent that all of these streaks of land have their own people, their own towns, their own roads, and their own history. Each island is different in its own special way and you haven't seen them all until you've seen them all. We had bypassed Cres and Krk in the north but I had resolved not to miss this important part of Croatian life entirely, so I decided we would go to perhaps the best known Croatian island of them all, Hvar. Hvar is synonymous with hedonism and luxury to many Europeans, who flock there for beautiful beaches and high end dance clubs during the summer. In October, I was hoping to find Hvar in a more relaxed state without being completely deserted.
The Jadrolinija ferry turned out to be a very straightforward operation, in contrast to my memory of taking the ferry in Indonesia. We sat in a line of cars on the dock for a little while, and then drove onto the car deck where we left the car and our bags and climbed up to the passenger decks. We spent some time indoors where Cleo and Ian could run around and make friends, and then moved to the upper deck for fresh air and scenery.
The ferry docked at Stari Grad, about half an hour east of Hvar Town. After a short scenic drive through the island's interior and then along the southern coastline we found ourselves at our destination. As usual, we struggled for about half an hour to locate the Airbnb after finding the city itself, but the apartment was roomy and comfortable with a very pleasant owner. In my zeal to avoid stairs after our fifth floor walk up in Split, I had found an accommodation at the very top of the steep hill down which houses spilled towards the harbor. We were able to get down to the port along the road without having to worry about stairs, but it was a long walk. It had already fallen dark and every time I saw headlights coming towards us around the curves I tried to steer the gondola as close to the edge of the road as I could. Eventually we reached the entrance of the old town and St. Stephen's Square, the main open space of the town. In the background of the picture is the illuminated Cathedral of St. Stephen.
The only area we could explore with the gondola was the flat promenade around the harbor, as the steep staircases began immediately behind the first row of buildings. We found a restaurant that didn't require too much lifting of the gondola that seemed popular and ordered the island specialty of gregada, a savory seafood stew. The food was decent and assuaged our hunger, but it wasn't close to some of the better meals we had had. After dinner, we had to plow the gondola all the way back up the hill to our Airbnb where we collapsed in exhaustion.
The next morning, I knew we didn't stand a chance of seeing the hillside old town with the kids in the gondola, so we drove down to the parking lot outside St. Stephen's Square and took the kids out with the carriers. The first order of business was to stop at an insurance agency we had spotted to determine if we needed to buy a special policy to allow us entry into Bosnia. Europcar had told us that we were not permitted to drive our rental car to Bosnia or Montenegro, and my online research indicated that the border guards might refuse us entry or demand that we buy an exorbitantly priced insurance policy on the spot. A train from Ploce on the coast to Mostar in Bosnia seemed to have been discontinued, and I couldn't find any reliable information about buses. The very helpful staff at the insurance office looked at our rental car paperwork and told me I had the requisite blue card that would allow for entry into those countries regardless of what Europcar had told me. I was still unsure if taking the car to Bosnia was the safest option, but I decided I would look into the possibility of buses the next day on the mainland.
Next, we found lunch at a sandwich shop next to the small market just inside the main gate. St. Stephan's Square and the harbor looked completely different in the bright light of the morning sun.
From the harbor, we tackled the first steep staircase we came to. Hvar was an Escheresque town in three dimensions. The paths went up-and-down as well as side-to-side. The maze of passageways lined with walls of ancient white blocks was addictive, and I'm sure we could have explored for hours were it not for the thirty pound weights dragging on our shoulders.
From Hvar Town we had to drive down the road that squiggled longitudinally down the center of the island like a worm's gut tube all the way to Sucuraj at the Eastern tip. Fortunately the long drive meant a very short ferry trip back to the mainland. We didn't see much more of Sucuraj than the pretty little port, and I'm not sure there was anything else to be seen. Soon we were on the ferry and excited about the prospect of being in Bosnia in a few hours.