Diocletian’s Palace in Split a walled wonder

In CULTURE, EUROPE by Janice and George8 Comments

Diocletian's Palace

Where is Diocletian’s Palace?” visitors frequently ask in Split, the second-largest city in Croatia. Shopkeepers laughingly reply, “You’re in it.”

Built by the Roman emperor Diocletian as his retirement residence, the 1,700-year-old palace is no lifeless ruin; it’s the beating heart of Split’s historical inner city.

More than 3,000 people live and work within the palace.

Its immense walls surround a 10-acre tangle of temple ruins, apartments, museums, hotels, markets, coffee shops, modern boutiques and even an ancient cathedral, all interlaced with pedestrian-only cobblestone alleys.

Split Diocletian's Palace - alley

We wonder where this alley leads?

Overlooking the sea

Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the palace is one of the few cultural monuments in the world where people still go about their everyday lives – where lines of laundry are strung across streets, children kick soccer balls and cats curl up in doorways.

The name Split, in fact, comes from the Latin word spalatum, which means palatium or palace.

Known for decentralizing the Roman Empire’s administration (and for slaughtering 150,000 Christians), Diocletian was the first emperor to resign voluntarily. But before he did in 305 AD, he commandeered an army of slaves to build his retirement retreat, made up of 220 white limestone buildings.

Diocletian picked prime real estate on a sunny bay lapped by warm, azure waters.

Three hundred years later, his palace-fortress was converted into a town by refugees who moved in after their homes were destroyed by invaders. Over time, the city spread out over the surrounding landscape.

Split Diocletian's Palace - waterfront

Split’s picturesque harbor in front of Diocletian’s Palace

Split Diocletian's Palace - windows in a wall

Windows in a wall in Diocletian’s Palace in Split

A palatial city

The best place to start exploring the palatial city is the famous Riva, the harborside promenade lined with cafés and white benches shaded by palms.

Through the Bronze Gate (which once opened directly onto the sea), we descend into a huge underground vault where locals sell arts and crafts. At the far end, steps lead up to the Peristyle, formerly the central courtyard of the palace. Now the main square and open-air hall for the Split Summer Festival each July, it’s the perfect spot to sip a kava (coffee) at one of the crowded cafés and gaze up at the lofty Corinthian columns around you.

It’s so atmospheric that it’s easy to imagine toga-clad Romans sauntering past the columns.

On the east side of the square, a black granite sphinx that Diocletian looted from Egypt guards the entrance to what was his mausoleum.

In an ironic twist of fate, Diocletian’s remains were apparently tossed into the Adriatic in the seventh century, when the mausoleum was converted into a shrine to St. Domnius, a bishop he had beheaded during his persecution of the Christians. It’s said to be oldest Catholic cathedral in the world.

Certainly, it is a striking attraction, popular with the hordes of tourists milling about. On the main doors of the octagonal building, beautifully carved walnut and oak panels from the 13th century reflect the life of Christ. Inside, there are decorative friezes, gold and silver artefacts, baroque paintings and an intricate Romanesque pulpit.

And if you climb the Bell Tower, there are great views of the palace in all its decaying and partially restored glory.

Split Diocletian's Palace - Riva promenade

The Riva, the harborside promenade in front of the palace, is a great place for a stroll (and a coffee)

A stone relief on a palace wall

A stone relief on a palace wall

Split Diocletian's Palace

Look up at the outside of the old palace walls and you see apartments like these

Subterranean chambers

You get a sense of the grandeur of what used to be Diocletian’s private seaside quarters by wandering the subterranean chambers beneath, which mirror the layout of the upper floors.

In medieval times, the inhabitants threw their garbage down into this netherworld, filling the basement over the centuries.

Only in the last 50 years have excavations unearthed many of these enormous vaulted rooms, in which archaeological finds are strewn about.

Split Diocletian's Palace

Entrance to the underground chambers in the palace

Split Diocletian's Palace

In medieval times, people threw garbage down into these underground chambers

Subterranean chambers in Diocletian's Palace

Subterranean chambers in Diocletian’s Palace

Beyond Diocletian’s Palace

Outside in the daylight again, we wander toward the Silver Gate, beyond which is a bustling fruit and vegetable market. We follow Diocletian’s Street, nipping into the Gothic townhouse that is the city museum to eye the medieval weaponry, coins and paintings on display. From there, we exit out the Golden Gate (an impressive palace gate for sure, though not gold).

Just outside, the towering statue of the 10th century Bishop Gregory of Nin by Croatia’s most famous sculptor, Ivan Mestrovic, catches our attention.

Legend has it that rubbing the statue’s shiny big toe brings good luck.

We rub the toe – feeling pretty lucky already to be here – then head back through the gate to lose ourselves in this extraordinary palatial city.

Split Diocletian's PalaceDiocletian’s Palace in Split at night – photo Adam Baker

See also:

A version of this story of ours was first published in NUVO magazine (online article). To read a PDF of the print article, click on the image.

Diocletian's Palace - NUVO article

Have you been to Split? Did you get lost in the palace?

Janice and George Signature

Comments

  1. Linda Bibb

    We were in Split last October and thoroughly enjoyed our visit. Since it is a UNESCO site, Diocletian’s Palace was on my “must see” list – though as you mentioned, if you’re in Split there’s no way you can miss it! We really, really enjoyed looking through the green market’s fruits, vegetables, and other delicacies, and had a great time walking through all the narrow streets. Did you get to hear the singing group perform near the mausoleum?

  2. [email protected]

    We really enjoyed our day in Split. Diocletian Palace has so much history. Much of the area in the palace walls have been turned into restaurants and cafes. We had lunch inside the walls of the palace. It’s worth walking around to see the architecture of the palace. Funny how modern construction doesn’t last as long as the Roman construction did back then.

  3. Mary Calculated Traveller

    Your post and photos brought back some great memories of my trip to Split and wandering through the palace. Especially remember sitting on a bench along the waterfront enjoying the cool breeze, sunshine and view of the ocean. Thanks!

  4. Susan Moore

    Looks wonderful! I haven’t been to Croatia yet but Split looks like a city I would very much enjoy, as I love the combination of a modern city with a rich history.

    Cheers,
    Susan

    1. Author
      Janice and George

      We loved our visit to Split. Apart from exploring all the nooks and crannies and skinny alleyways within the palace walls, we also really enjoyed a couple of evening classical concerts, one in an open-air historic church. Though it’s busy in high summer, the Split Summer Festival from mid-July to mid-August offers many musical performances (making it a particularly fun time to visit Split).

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