11-16 May 2022. If the historic core is Split’s venerable matriarch, then the waterfront pedestrian boulevard, known as the Riva, is Split’s beauty queen. And it’s the best place in the city for people watching.

But first a little people watching in and near the Old Town. . . . . at the public drinking fountain in Strossmayera Park: I am as delighted as the child with the Aquedukt Fontana.

In the window of a gallery in the Old Town this image of a sports woman entices us to enter as another rushes by.

Girls and ice cream.

Pizza delivery by bicycle in the narrow Medieval streets.

In the ancient neighbourhood of Varoš this friendly woman smiles for the camera. She’s pegging out laundry through the window, as is the custom in these ancient places, and I catch her at it. Do note, though, that the windows and shutters are new. Despite its age of over four hundred years Varoš is a highly prized (and expensive) neighbourhood.

I’m attracted by colour, and I’m attracted by boldness and originality. I’m attracted by a kind of fearlessness that’s indicated by clothing that doesn’t follow the norm, that says something unique about the person wearing it; that says I love clothes and fashion and I’m not afraid to have my own style; or that says I don’t give a rat’s ass what others think, this is what works for me; or that simply says I haven’t a clue about fashion and I really don’t care.

Some people have their own inimitable style.

In Strossmayera Park, just north of the Old Town, on the day of a small festival for people with special needs, we chat with this lovely woman.

It’s her elegant style that attracts me, and the boldness of the necklace. She has a pop-up stall selling small paintings, fridge magnets, ceramic pendants. And little hand-made fabric flowers. In a gesture of spontaneous generosity she hands one to me and another to S. I always wonder where this kind of generosity comes from. I wish I had more of it. It has happened many many times during all my years of travel, this giving of small gifts from pure kind-heartedness, and, I imagine, the joy of connection. It always comes from the connection, an enthusiasm shown for a person or place, and the enthusiasm returned in kind. And it’s always a joyous, heart-opening moment. The camera connects me with people in the best way.

In Diocletian’s Palace, in amongst the ancient ruins that are the origin of Split’s Old Town, we come cross a photo-shoot. This is the producer, the designer, and the model.

This is the model, in a glittering silver frou frou, draped across the top of a Roman wall over 1700 years old, and behind her both Medieval and contemporary housing.

And this is the designer. I speak to her. I tell her how fabulous I think her outfit is. What a way to dress up a pair of ripped jeans and a white t-shirt. Style with a capital “S”!

And now back to the Riva, Split’s magnificent waterfront, also style with a capital “S”.

It hasn’t always been like this.

When Diocletian had his palace built in the early 300’s the wall of the palace-fortress rose straight up from the water, an impenetrable grey stone barricade. By the time Napoleon was boss, about 200 years ago, it had begun to take on its current form as a waterfront promenade. Over the years it has been widened and restructured many times, but it has always been blessed with a fabulous setting, the ancient Roman and Renaissance buildings on one side, and the shimmering blue Adriatic Sea on the other.

Then in 2005 the city held an international competition for the complete refurbishment and redevelopment of the waterfront. The competition was won by a Zagreb firm, 3LHD Architects, and the project was completed in 2007. Two hundred and fifty meters long and fifty-five meters wide, the Riva is where the city meets the sea. It is undoubtedly the most important public space in Split.

Considering its exceptionally valuable role in the city of Split, the competition guidelines for the waterfront restoration had very precise requirements for respecting cultural and historical heritage, taking particular care of the contact zone between the project area and Diocletian’s Palace, a world heritage site protected by UNESCO.

The project’s goal was not to simply add a new modern layer atop the earlier structure, but to free the existing surface of everything superfluous, establishing an infrastructure that meets the needs of contemporary life.

I love it for the spaciousness, for the bright open energy, for the azure sea, for the sense that this is Split’s place, for the people who live here despite tourist row.

And I love it for the people. We are there in the spring and it’s never crowded, but always busy, alive. So much coming and going, so many stories walking over the polished white concrete paving

that runs the length of the Old Town from the Port Authority Building at one end to the Franciscan monastery and St Francis Church at the other.

Everywhere there are interesting gatherings, and conversations, both relaxed,

and animated.

A football team from Germany.

A selfie for four.

The sunset parade.

The Riva, the essential symbol of Split, is often described as the city’s living room with its cafés, bars and restaurants, its gardens and palm trees and benches. This pedestrian boulevard is such a bright attractive space that people are inevitably drawn to it.

Four times we leave and return to Split by ferry, and every time rejoice in seeing its beauty from the water.

We have dinner one night on tourist row. The meal’s okay, but a better form of nourishment is watching the full moon rising behind the steeple of St Francis Church,

and watching the comings and goings of the Jadrolinija Ferries, and the woman selling sparkly balloons

as the day comes to a satisfied end.

All the world’s a stage, and in Split the main stage is the Riva. It’s the stage for cultural and entertainment events, religious processions, celebrations, for political rallies and demonstrations, to see and be seen, and for tourists and locals to soak up the splendour of the city.

Next post: The island of Brac and Zlatni Rat Beach

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.