As usual we know almost nothing about it. We know is it’s called Diocletian’s Palace, which tells us that it’s Roman and therefore ancient. And that it’s a palace. I read somewhere that the term palace is misleading. No kidding. For a start there has been a lot of building in the last fifteen hundred years, so except for a few grand remains, the original structure is barely recognizable. Also it was designed more as a fortress and military barracks than a palace.

Our first encounter with it is the monumental Silver Gate, which definitely appears Roman. And palatial.

Once inside though, it’s all confusion. It’s not a palace so much as a boulevard with tourist cafes. Soon it becomes clear that it’s not a palace at all, at least not in the traditional sense. Besides it’s nearly 2000 years old, so naturally it’s a bit um . . . faded. Some parts have held up magnificently, other parts not so much. This is the original wall of the fortress facing the water. Still standing after all these years.

The north wall is also still standing, with the imposing Golden Gate.

Anyway come for a walk with me and you’ll see what I mean. From the Silver Gate we wander down a long boulevard paved with smooth stones. There are crumbling ruins on the one hand, and classical Renaissance buildings on the other. On the left is the hexagonal mausoleum, a part of the original Roman structure, later converted into the Cathedral of St Domnius. In a wonderful piece of divine irony Diocletian was the last emperor of the Roman Empire to persecute Christians and his mausoleum was converted into a Christian cathedral. Just beyond it is the 12th century Romanesque bell tower of the cathedral.

Along the boulevard 20th century cafes covered with bright canvas awnings compete with some free-standing columns, the building they once supported long gone. Exploring further we discover throughout this “palace” and the Old Town of Split a unique mixture of Roman, Medieval and Renaissance architecture. Sometimes it’s difficult to separate them as layers were built upon layers over the centuries. Roman ruins became the foundations of Medieval buildings, which created the typical narrow streets of weathered flagstone in place of the original huge palace-fortress complex.

See how part of this Roman brick and stone wall became the foundation for the Medieval buildings. The red bricks are Roman; 2000 yrs old and still strong.

And here – the Roman substructure of the original fortress with Medieval, and modern, housing built atop it.

Diocletian was born in Dalmatia in the town of Salona, near Split, in a family of low status. He worked his way up in the army, won a few battles, defeated a few foes, and was proclaimed Emperor in 284 CE and reigned until he retired in 305 CE. His original name of Diocles evolved into Gaius. Aurelius. Valerius. Diocletianus! The palace-fortress-military barracks was built as his retirement home.

Continuing on we come to the Peristyle, one of the most complete “rooms” remaining of the original building. It was a grand courtyard and meeting place.

Beyond it is the vestibule, or atrium, once the formal entrance to the imperial apartments.

We walk in and find ourselves in a musical heaven. In this domed space with perfect acoustics a local a cappella klapa group is singing traditional Dalmatian songs in strong sweet voices and divine harmonies. So we rest here awhile and listen.

Eventually moving on we’re into a mixture of a maze of streets and more open areas; Roman juxtaposed with Medieval, Renaissance, and modern architecture.

We wander through crumbling open spaces with still-occupied ancient housing.

In other areas amid the disintegrating ruins nature takes over.

Half of the Old Town of Split exists within what was once the huge palace-fortress built for Diocletian. Many of the houses show a combination of ancient stone and brickwork with new doors, shutters, windows, or balcony railings.

In 285 CE Diocletian appointed a co-emperor, Maximian. And later each of these two emperors appointed another emperor – the husbands of their daughters, thus establishing a tetrarchy, or rule of four. The tetrarchic emperors were more or less sovereign in their own lands and were related by blood and marriage. Anyway when Diocletian abdicated from power and returned to his homeland, the in-fighting was such that after a couple of years or so the people begged him to return to the throne. Apparently he replied to the people:

If you could show the cabbage that I planted with my own hands to your emperor, he definitely wouldn’t dare suggest that I replace the peace and happiness of this place with the storms of a never-satisfied greed.

He spent the remainder of his days in his palace gardens, and died in 312 CE. The life of the palace continued after his death as a property of the Roman court and provided shelter for expelled members of the Emperor’s family.

The Old Town spreads west, well beyond the original palace walls, as far as the elegant Neo-Renaissance and Venetian-inspired Republic Square.

Beyond that is the northern part of a neighbourhood known as Veli Varoš. The Old Town is the meat in the sandwich of two neighbourhoods vying for the title of oldest in Split. To the east is Lučac, which I shared in the previous post although I didn’t name it. To the west is Veli Varoš.

There’s a newly developed part of Varoš on the lower slopes of Marjan Hill and we climb around there for the better part of an hour looking for this ancient neighbourhood, looking for something charming, something with character and history. Eventually we discover it in the area where Varoš turns northward and abuts the Old Town; and in parts here it is ancient. The laundry tells me that even buildings this old – three or four hundred years? – are still inhabited.

We wander for an hour or more in this labyrinth of pedestrian streets until we are lost and then found. The cobblestone streets are mainly empty. Although Varoš is recommended as a place to visit not many people do.

We find a diminutive 11th century Medieval church,

a small well-tended fenced garden,

renovated houses with new shutters,

greenery spilling over high stone fences that hint at secret gardens in the closed courtyards of this traditional peasant architecture, and bougainvillaea that threatens to take over.

Varoš, originally founded in the 1600’s, always was a working class neighbourhood and until recently was the symbol of poor fishermen who lived from their daily catch. The stables and wine cellars were on the ground floor with living areas above.

In this rabbit warren of pedestrian streets there is a mix of the very old, and the recently renovated. These days it’s such a desirable part of the city to live in that real-estate prices have sky-rocketed.

Everywhere we walk in Lučac, the Old Town that is both within the original area of Diocletian’s Palace and spreading beyond it, and Varoš, we see a huge range of architectural styles, but more than that there’s a huge range in the age of the buildings. Apart from the remains of the Roman buildings that are upwards of 1700 years old, there are also buildings that are three or four hundred years old that have never been renovated, and those that are crumbling and clearly nature is winning.

I’m not much of a history buff, and didn’t even study European history in school, let alone learn the history of any other part of the world except a bit about Australia. But I love the stories. I don’t want to be bored to tears with all the dates and details, but I am often captivated by the stories – like how tea and silk were discovered in China, and how Diocletian persecuted the Christians and that his mausoleum was converted into a Christian Church, and the legend that Saint Denis in Paris gave a complete sermon while carrying his severed head, or how Sultan Mehmed, who needed a fortress on the Bosphorus to conquer Constantinople, had a competition among his men to build one. It was completed in only four months!

Split is no exception. Seeing the Roman ruins that are still standing after all these years shows how remarkable they are. Even more remarkable to me are the Medieval buildings in all the old areas of Split – Lučac, Varoš, and the Old Town that’s both within and beyond the original palace walls – these buildings that are upwards of 400 years old and still habitable, still inhabited. What’s it like to live in a building so old, so steeped in history? What’s it like to live in a renovated one next to one that isn’t and one that never will be? What’s it like to live amongst so much history? Being an Aussie living in Canada I have no idea how that would be, so I’m fascinated by all these glimpses. I hope you are too. Here’s another – a stroll home through the Old Town as evening falls and we head back to our apartment, buying groceries for dinner along the way. Ordinary life in an extraordinary place.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2022.