Just as I was beginning to fall for Vienna, I leave to continue on my jouney south. While vagabonding, I’ve often found it to be the case where as soon as I get a handle on a country’s currency, language and customs I decide to bound off somewhere new to repeat the process all over again. Comfort and familiarity are always a fingertip away from this travelers reach, but that is the key to much of the excitement I get to experience. I do think I am getting better at the adjustment period with each successive place I visit. I like to think its a bit like the technological progress of mankind: with each new development the next comes exponentially sooner. This day, I start my adjustment to Croatia, or as the Serbo-Croats call it Hrvatska.
Inside a cramped but interestingly retro (a nice way of saying old) sleeper car, with 2 British travelers, the bittersweet memories of Vienna faded quickly when I awoke at dawn to the gorgeous scenery of the Croatian countryside gliding past my train car. I found myself glued to the window from the moment I wiped the sleep from my eyes and adjusted to the misty daylight. Piney green rolling hills gave way to mounds of arid Balkan splendor. Soon the deep blue, crystal clear waters of the Mediterranean came into view and squat towns filled with red roofed homes gained in frequency as my train approached the city of Split, Croatia.
Hopping off at the Split train station at 7am, energized by my new surroundings, I headed off to the waterfront to find food and my requisite daily caffeine dosage. I’ve come to terms with the fact that it is incredibly difficult to find a decent high-protein breakfast in this part of the world, so I find myself sitting in a seaside coffee bar listening to Bob Marley and eating a breakfast of Americano and croissant. Entering into the, “coffee culture”, part of Europe, starting in Vienna and now in Italian influenced Croatia, there are always outdoor locations with loads of patrons sitting outside in lovely cafes, but no one is eating, only sipping piping hot espresso and nibbling on a biscotti or two. This can be immensely frustrating when you have a growling belly and each cafe looks like a shining oasis to your hunger.
Many people (especially Americans) ask me, “why Croatia?”. Easy answer: culture, language and currency. It also helps that the city of Split is the San Diego of Croatia, lots of sunshine with a high of 86 and predictions of less than 2″ of rain in July. In comparison, many of the seaside towns of Spain, France and Italy have been culturally decimated by tourism. It’s difficult to find an ounce of authentic food or craftsmanship amidst the hoards of cruise boat tourists and gypsy vendors trying to appease them with unauthentic imported crap. While Croatia hasn’t entirely flown under the radar of the tourists and gypsy touts, they still remain a pleasant minority. I imagine that the Croatian coast is what Italy used to be 10-20 years ago. Split goes by several local nicknames; “the most beautiful city in the world” and “city of champions” to name a few. The latter name stems from the numerous athletes that call the city home. The city is drenched in the colors of the local soccer team, Hajduk, and murals to the team are painted around every corner of its cramped streets.
Many in my generation may recall the championship Chicago Bulls teams of the 90s, which included one of my favorite role players of all time, Tony Kukoc, also a Split product and also a Champion.
In southeast Asia, no matter what area I found myself in, my eardrums were always bombarded by the same techno-pop top-20 playlist, I was relived to discover that the Croats of Split seem to enjoy 70s easy listening music and a variety of shag-similar beach music, instead of the pulse pounding house beats I was so tired of hearing in Asia. The language is Croatian (obviously) and is a typical Slavic language, but this also meant that many of the words I learned in Czech Republic and Poland were applicable here (or a close variation), so I wasn’t completely lost in translation. It can also be noted that since Split is a beach town that many non-western tourists frequent, many of the essential signs and menus are translated. As for my third reason listed above, currency, Croatia isn’t using the Euro, they stick by their own mint, the Kuna. The exchange ratio is favorable to the USD which makes my budget happy. Coming from Euro dominated Vienna, it was like going outlet shopping for everything from sunglasses to food.
Another aspect of the culture is the food; a unique mix of Italian and Greek influence, judged by my western palate. Dinner is typically eaten very late, usually 9pm or later, I found myself sitting alone in deserted restaurants around 7pm on more than one occasion. After a few nights of adjustment, I realized that this schedule meshes with the eating habits bestowed upon me by my family. Back in the US of A I usually took my supper at 10pm. An important part of the Croatian dining experience are carbs, lots of em’. They force bread on you at every meal, I made the mistake of turning it down once, only to receive a confused scowl in exchange. In short, I’m eating ice cream, bread and pasta every day, a far cry from my usual eating habits, but hey, it’s all locally sourced and organic so it can’t be all that bad. The “must try” dishes in Croatia are Gnocchi and Risotto, I had the best Gnocci I’ve ever tasted at Bon Apetit, an eatery located within the Diocletian Palace walls of Split.
Handmade nuggets of gnocchi pasta slathered in a gorgonzola cheese sauce and accompanied by a bowl of fresh black olives. I could eat this dish once a week for the rest of my life. The risotto of the Croatian coast comes in many varieties, including the famous Black Risotto, usually served with puffer fish. My personal favorite was the shrimp scampi risotto, the only drawback being that Croats prefer their shrimp with head and exoskeleton intact. After the first few I just decided to go with the crunchy flow and wash it all down with the cold Karlovacko.
For a Latin geek like me, Split is also a visual gold mine. Split was originally an ancient greek colony called Aspalathos in the 6th century BC and later became known more famously for the retirement palace of Diocletian in AD 305. The palace and its walls still stand today, built from local limestone and marble of high quality, and they surround the many shops, eateries, hotels and monuments of the city center. In old town Split, restaurants and hotels leave their walls exposed in order to showcase the white stone and mortar of the ancient Diocletian palace. Archways adorn almost every entryway and window and the white cobblestone has become slick as glass due to heavy foot traffic for centuries. The palace was constructed to be Diocletian’s retirement home, after he almost died of an illness, making him the first Roman Emperor to voluntarily remove himself from office. The palace is rectangular in shape and surrounded on all sides by 70 ft walls. Over the centuries the interior of the palace has been built to house more and more tightly constructed buildings, making way for cramped but romantic streets for foot traffic only. At one point, the walls of the palace enclosed a population of 10,000. Of course these days the palace marks the center of a much more sprawling city of Split and is the epicenter of tourism and cultural heritage, making it a UNESCO World Heritage Monument.
The last two photos above show the Emperors apartments and religious buildings, including Diocletian’s mausoleum, now transformed into the Cathedral of St. Domnius. The stairs of the bell tower of the cathedral can be climbed (for a small fee) and it reveals some incredible views of the surrounding palace, city and ocean.
Next to the cathedral is the Peristyle, a monumental court that gives central access to the Emperors religious buildings. The Peristyle is also home to a couple of authentic sphinxes, imported from Egypt by Diocletian.
Of course this area is now the center tourist attraction and meeting spot for all tourist activity within the palace walls, however, I was surprised to discover how alive the palace seemed to be with local activity of residents pruning their gardens, tending to their homes and attending local fish markets. Even with the periodic influx of tourists, life goes on as usual within the palace walls for many Split citizens, as it has for centuries. From togas to t-shirts.
Not far from the palace is the recreational park of Marjan Hill, established by Diocletian for the many residents and servants of his palace grounds. Still a very important cultural and recreational landmark for Croatians. I took on the steep climb on a hot day in order to soak in one of the best vistas in Croatia.
It also helped that I experienced one of the coolest hostel experiences in my travels. I stayed at the Diocletian Palace Hostel, built into the ancient limestone walls and just a couple hundred feet from the Peristyle. The hostel lobby and restaurant are fashionably modern and the staff extremely friendly. The rooms, however, depend on your co-occupants. As you can see below, my lodgings were a bit unkempt due to a rambunctious group of young Austrians.
All in all, Split was awesome. One of my favorite travel spots and a place I could seriously consider long-term. The only thing I wouldn’t recommend….don’t get an I heart split t-shirt…for obvious reasons amongst English speakers.