Through the narrow windows of the cathedral’s bell tower, the landscape was split in two. Dazzling blue sky sliced across layers of terracotta rooftops and behind them, lay the Adriatic Sea.
From this vantage point, I could see old and new Split. Behind the roman buildings, mundane high-rises eventually gave way to the looming limestone of nearby mountains. The architecture divided into three: Roman, baroque and perfunctory modern day housing estates that, while necessary, thankfully didn’t encroach upon the immediate landscape.
Within the old city walls, the buildings were beautiful, but what made the city truly unique (and worthy of an early UNESCO Heritage status) were the grand remnants of palatial pillars and roman courtyards that wove through the old town. In fact, a walk through the centre gave me the distinct impression of floating through someone’s house: each outdoor area providing different functions, via connecting corridors that sheltered me from the midday sun. My feelings were understandable, because where I walked past the cute cafes, boutique shops and seafood restaurants was once a home.
In preparation for his retirement in the fourth century, Roman Emperor Diocletian commissioned himself a sprawling retirement palace and despite years of new construction and some questionable renovations, it was easy to get an impression of his Roman life. His vision had certainly endured but I quickly realised that it was Split’s continual evolution for the benefit of its citizens had created a thriving city for over a millennium.
In Diocletian’s time, a grand forum provided the centre of the development, and modern times were no different. A stone seat with a spectacular view still welcomed all visitors and locals meeting friends. From this central point, Split was my oyster. Cobbled streets unfurled in every direction towards smaller squares, underground cellars and the ever-colourful fruit and vegetable market.
Better still, Split’s modern-day vibrancy complimented its unique history perfectly. Within an hour of scaling the 12th century bell tower constructed with stones from Diocletian’s mausoleum, I joined locals for a beer and house music festival under the watchful eye of a statue of the man himself. The following day, while I bought supplies from the age-old market, sponsored skydivers landed to thumping music behind rows of sparkling new yachts on the harbour strip.
Far from this roman palace being a heavily protected ruin, cordoned off to touch and use, Split’s 21st century residents had fully embraced their ancient surrounds and encouraged their guests to do the same. I believe that Diocletian would be proud to discover that his well-designed retirement home not only still stands, but also continues to beguile visitors from across Europe and beyond.