Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Split, Croatia

From Ukraine, Romania, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, and Slovenia
I travel in the off-season because it's cheaper and I love cold weather. Fortunately, the majority of the rest of the world travels only in summer, which is why I get to enjoy the lower rates of the off-season in the first place, thank you majority of the rest of the world. But unfortunately, due to the heightened popularity of some cities as summer destinations, some places should only be visited in the summer months. Split is one of those. Nonetheless, I had a pleasant stay there, even if my March visit felt like a 50% Split experience.

Split has a big music festival. Several Croatian musicians and pop groups hail from Split, as do a high percentage of Croatian Miss Universe contestants. But in the off-season, Split is a country of old men, a sort of Florida in Croatia. It's during the summer that, Daytona Beach-style, Split becomes a youth paradise.

People in Split sound exactly like Italians, only they are speaking Croatian, another demonstration of the blurred reality of humanity vs. political borders. That Italian-esque Split accent is distinctive. It made one self-conscious Splitter in a Zagreb hostel particularly nervous the night before a big Zagreb/Split football match. "The moment I speak they know exactly where I'm from," he told me.

As the train snaked up to the Split train station, my initial impression of the city was that it looked pleasant but not especially marvelous. That view changed when I walked down the palm tree-lined promenade facing the bay. The promenade is a lovely bit of city design work that I was told caused some controversy initially for its being considered too modern ("modern" in the Mediterranean sense of looking fewer than 500 years old). But as the voices of 1880s protestors over the then-new Eiffel Tower were quickly drowned out by the many more people who dug it, people in Split seem to like their promenade now.

The handsome facade facing the bay contains a variety of cafes and bars, most of which offer nice first floor (second floor American-style) views of the promenade and the water beyond. Typical bars here have a very narrow porch—not wide enough to accomodate even a small table—so one sits on a stool facing out towards the sea, beer glass set on a wooden slat counter. These porches are like garden boxes for beer drinkers.

That's really nice, but the real magic of Split lies behind that facade, for there you find the sprawling network of ancient Roman alleys and narrow streets that has earned the city its distinction as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is the Diocletian's Palace.

If you've lost your sense of childlike wonder, you'll find it again wandering amongst these Roman ruins. The Diocletian's Palace is a maze of stone streets, and every time you turn a corner you discover something new to delight your eye. Best of all, it's not some dead museum. Life goes on here. There are cafes, bars, and stores of all sorts, nestled tastefully into the ancient ruins. It's fantastic.

Birds have begun building nests in Croatia, and the denizens of Solta Island, a one hour ferry ride from Split, were tending to their own nests, preparing their beds & breakfasts, hostels, cafes, bars, and discos for the coming summer season. I was the only tourist wandering aimlessly around the island. I had a nice meal at an otherwise empty restaurant while adult-contemporary Croatian music played in the background. It served as a painful reminder that my European adventure was coming to an end, for I could see how much fun Solta was going to be in a few months, and I knew I would not be here to enjoy that.

From Ukraine, Romania, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, and Slovenia

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