Historic sites, abundant sunshine, café after café. Though the name Split might sound odd to the American ear, that details adds to my surprise when I disembark as part of my Mediterranean cruise. I have to say I’m stunned by the waterfront beauty of this Dalmatian Coast destination, an exclusive spot that feels like a subtropical island but actually sits on a Croatian peninsula as the country’s second-largest city.
I swear the word “Riviera” pops into my head, the seven letters in resplendent color in my mind’s eye. I’ve been to the French Riviera and the Italian Riviera, but I’m so overwhelmed by this totally unanticipated scene that the very word feels fresh to me. Riviera seemed to be coined for what I’m looking at: a celebratory row of huge, white market umbrellas soaring over café tables that overlook a sparkling yacht harbor. The water is calm, with soft ripples in shades of teal and aquamarine.
Between the umbrellas and the water is a promenade lined with mature palms. I’m a palm tree enthusiast but I actually have to look up the species on my phone. I note the thick trunks typical of the Canary Island palm and the full frond pattern of the date palm (it like a joyous burst of green), but didn’t realize until now that these two traits can occur together in the same tree: the Canary Island date palm. So Split has given me a gift, this horticultural species that instantly brings to mind the ancient world.
Then I notice that the buildings peeking out from between the palms actually have Roman columns tucked into their pleasingly aged facades. The columns are on the second floor, so they must be purely decorative. The palms, the water, the yachts, the enormous umbrellas—that’s quite a lot of visual interest. Split is really almost too beautiful to bear. Did I mention that I didn’t expect this splendor? Instantly, I know that this port will rank as a highlight of my Holland America Line Mediterranean cruise.
The Adriatic waterfront is more than enough for me, but still I venture inland. Here’s where the terminology gets complicated: Diocletian’s Palace sounds like a confined ruin, a single building or complex, but the site is actually a sprawling section of Split’s old town. The “palace” is filled with varying examples of Venetian-style architecture, thriving shops and restaurants, and vibrant public squares. Diocletian, by the way, was a Roman Emperor whose palace and fortress were constructed in the 4th century AD. Ruins of castles and ancient cities tend to be solemn places, but old Split is a resort town, alive and filled with music.
I find myself sitting on the stone steps of a centuries-old building that faces a square. I watch the world go by. Then, out of nowhere, a few dozen locals start to perform a traditional dance. I’m so intrigued that I can sit here for hours. But when I learn that Split is known for its mussels — it’s one of my favorite seafood dishes for its lightness and subtle flavors — I grab a prime table under a Venetian arch that hangs over a skinny outdoor corridor. My Croatian mussels (that’s a first for me) are top-notch.
Around 140 miles due south is Dubrovnik, the walled city that had its heyday as a top resort in the mid-twentieth century. Now it’s more famous than ever, due in large part to its starring role as a location in Game of Thrones. (GOT fans can peruse the numerous websites that identify the show’s Dubrovnik locations.) The city is celebrating its 40th anniversary as an inductee on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites.
I enter Old Town from the west, through the Pile Gate (there are four such gates). I cross a stone bridge that looks like it should have a moat beneath it (it once did). The Old City finds its origins in the 8th century, though the bridge I’m walking on —from Gothic arch to Gothic arch — is “merely” five centuries old. History and modernity collide when I step onto an actual lowered drawbridge and immediately see and hear a combo playing pop-folk music. I experience that collision of centuries again, when I’m walking the wall, 80 feet up. It might sound strange to walk on a wall, but the walls are actually double, with a pedestrian walkway that narrows and widens, pausing at circular towers.
Anyway, it’s a thrilling moment to take in the view from atop walls constructed in the middle of the last millennium, and to look down and see kayakers paddling their little yellow boats in the blue-green Adriatic. At another point I spy a gorgeous sandy pocket beach and I’m reminded of Dubrovnik’s resort identity that coexists with its formidable fortress design.
Down below, I am immediately charmed by the Stradun, the town’s main street (pedestrian-only) that is perpetually shiny, like it has just been polished for my arrival. It leads to stone stairways lined with flowerpots and the entrances to konobas — traditional Dalmatian restaurants — ripe for exploring. It’s time to go up again.
THAT MOMENT IN DUBROVNIK WHEN…
…I share a local’s enjoyment of his workplace
The walkway atop the famed walls of the Old Town is roughly 6,000 feet long — a good-sized walk that becomes enjoyably disorientating. That’s because the outline of the walls, which mark the boundaries of the town, don’t form a square or rectangle. The path juts out at old angles. It’s all highly irregular, which accounts for the dramatically changing views. At one point the walkway meets an ample terrace — ah, a bar — and I talk to the manager. He tells me how well the Old Town has been restored and maintained, and then we turn back to the stupendous vista. “How do you like my office?” he asks, bursting with pride. It’s a familiar line in a place where nothing, thankfully, is familiar.
Drew Limsky is the founding editor-in-chief of Holland America Line’s award-winning Mariner magazine and currently is a contributor to the publication, making him an ideal writer for Holland America Blog. As a travel journalist for outlets including The New York Times, Drew quickly realized that destination writing not only was a way of experiencing beautiful places, but also a way of meeting people from all over the world and hearing their stories. Drew broke into journalism as a book reviewer for The Washington Post and an op-ed writer for The Los Angeles Times.