Stuart Forster explores the bustling passageways and courtyards of Split’s Old Town, home to film sets, wineries and thousands of years of history.
Many movies and television shows are filmed here,” says Spomenka Saraga, whose production company, Balduči Film, works across Croatia. We’re in Split, the country’s second city, and she introduces me to crew members packing cameras and lighting gear into padded boxes at the end of their working day.
We shake hands by a pedestal topped by a stylised stone lion sculpture that may well be a legacy of Venetian rule. The big cat’s time-worn mane looks to me more like a thickly knitted balaclava than a wild animal’s natural hair. I follow the improbably dressed creature’s gaze out into the peristyle, a courtyard flanked by Corinthian columns and marble walls that looks much like a roofless church.
We’re standing within Diocletian’s Palace, a vast complex that was built more than 1,700 years ago as a spacious retirement home for a Roman emperor. The men I’ve just met explain they’re filming a period drama and worked here previously on Game of Thrones, the hit series whose Croatian locations attract many holidaymakers.
Palaces, by their nature, tend to be grand. Even so, I hadn’t anticipated the enormity of this sprawling Unesco World Heritage Site. There were few indications of its scale outside on the Riva, the broad esplanade running between the ancient landmark’s southern wall and Split’s harbourfront. Ice cream parlours, cafés and restaurants operate within the palace walls. After nightfall both locals and tourists stroll under Riva’s palm trees and angled street lamps.
The tiered bell tower of the Cathedral of St Domnius makes me think of an elongated wedding cake. Like so many of the facades in Split’s Old Town, it’s fashioned from white stone. I don’t have a head for heights and clanking up the metal staircase inside the tower’s stonework shell tests my nerves. The reward from the octagonal upper level is outstanding views over the terracotta tiles of rooftops in the city centre and out over the sun-dappled water of the shimmering Adriatic.
In the mid-distance a gently sloping hill rises above the city. Heavily wooded, it is the highest point of Marjan Forest Park. Earlier in the day I jogged along broad footpaths within the park, bounding up steps and past stone-built medieval chapels whose dainty, unpretentious facades reminded me more of rustic holiday cottages than typical places of worship. At the end of my run I crunched along the pebbles on Kašjuni Beach, which protrudes like a pointing white finger into the sea.
The Dalmatian coastline’s reputation for long hours of summer sunshine inevitably results in the region’s beaches attracting holidaymakers. Bačvice Beach, a 15-minute stroll from the heart of Split’s Old Town, is a popular spot for sunbathing and its shallow, protected water attracts bathers of all ages. A handful of cafés serve food and refreshments close to the waterfront, including the Beach and Booze Bar, whose no-nonsense name indicates that guests can drop by and expect seaside cocktails.
Split is also a gateway to the beaches on tourist-friendly islands such as Brač, Hvar and Šolta. Sipping a beer outside at a Riva bar, I watch a steady flow of ferries sailing into and out of the city’s port.
Wine enthusiasts are likely to enjoy pottering about a city that presents plenty of opportunities to pause at establishments serving produce from Croatian wineries. The Zinfandel bar takes its name from a grape varietal that originates in this part of the world yet is best-known for flourishing in California’s vineyards. The wines served by the glass include Dingač, a heavy-hitting, fruit-packed red produced from grapes grown south of Split on steep slopes on the Pelješac peninsula.
Diocletian’s Wine House is an informal spot where the appetisers are ideal as tapas-like accompaniments to wine, including a Dalmatian plate whose combination of cheese, meat and olives is comparable to an antipasto platter. Its hour-long wine-tasting session is an opportunity to sample three different Croatian wines, each introduced by the sommelier, and nibble on local delicacies.
Warm evenings present opportunities to dine at tables outside restaurants and people-watch. Several of Split’s restaurants specialise in seafood, serving the likes of tender octopus salad and oysters as starters. Black risotto packed with freshly landed seafood, known locally as crni rižot, is a regional dish whose tar-like appearance is supplied by viscous squid ink. It’s served in many restaurants in the Old Town, including at the laid-back Konoba Fetivi. Slow-cooked fish stew, brudet, is another dish to look out for; the version served at the Trattoria Tavulin is rich in flavour. One of the joys of being in Split is easy access to healthy, hearty food. ABTAmag.com