On May 2017, I led a group on a study tour of Split, the largest city in Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast. I’m pretty much aware that Split is a really old city. After all, that’s where you’ll find the Roman Emperor Diocletian’s retirement palace, built in 4 CE. But everything I knew about Split did not live up to the reality of actually seeing it. Split is a wonderful, heady mixture of the old and the new. Our six-day study tour of this part of Dalmatia is truly something to remember.
A little about Split
As I’ve mentioned Split is the biggest city on the Dalmatian Coast. It’s also the second-largest city in all of Croatia. Although its origin is traditionally linked to the building of Diocletian’s palace in 4 CE, archaeological findings indicate that Split is much older than that. It was a Greek colony named Spalathos and had existed hundreds of years before the Romans ever set foot on the area. By 219 BCE, the Romans have conquered the area and established the Province of Dalmatia. Diocletian was born in Salona, the province’s capital city and located close to Split.
Since the fall of the Roman and Byzantine empires, Split changed hands many times. It came under the rule of Venice, Italy, Hungary, the Hapsburgs, Bosnia, and Yugoslavia. Split became part of Croatia when the country finally made a bid for independence in 1991. Today, Split is a city that straddles the old and the new, an ancient city pushing towards the modern era.
Day 1: A Vienna layover and landing in Stobreč
On our way to Split, we took the 6:45 AM flight from Oslo Airport Gardermoen on Austrian Airlines. It’s a great thing that we flew out this early. We ended up with three hours to kill at Vienna International Airport (VIA). This meant we can eat and explore the shops at the airport before we catch our connecting flight to Split.
We ended up eating at Jamie’s Deli, one of British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s restaurants at the VIA. The food served there wasn’t fancy – just pizzas, salads, and sandwiches, plus some beverage choices. But we weren’t looking for fancy at the airport. We wanted good-tasting food, and we got it at this place.
Ark Apartments – our home in Split
Eventually, we got on our flight to Split. Upon our arrival at Split Airport, a driver from Ark Apartments in Stobreč, where we booked our stay during the tour, came to pick us up. Ark Apartments is one huge villa right on the beach. Staying there felt like visiting an old friend with a large house.
The villa has only 13 guest rooms, plus the usual amenities – business center, fitness center, bar and lounge. There’s high-speed internet access at the villa, and they offer transport services. The location is convenient, close enough to many of the points of interest in the area. Did I mention it’s right on the beach? The best thing about staying at Ark Apartments is from the moment we arrived there, the owner Mladen and his wife were warm to us and treated us like family. They were there to greet us when we came, and they were there to see us off when we left.
A Stobreč stroll
It was still light when we arrived at our accommodations, so we decided to head out. The villa is only 300 meters away from the ruins of the old St. Lawrence Basilica in Stobreč. It’s a short walk and I love visiting old churches, so we went there.
The old church now goes by Our Lady of Mount Carmel. A newer parish church now bears the name St. Lawrence. It must have been a magnificent church back in the day. The basilica was built around the 6th century AD. It used to have three naves. Some of the parts still standing are seven meters high.
After our visit to the church ruins, we headed to the Stobreč beach. We had an early dinner at the Beach Bar, and then spent some time strolling down the beach. Afterwards, it’s back to the villa for a night’s sleep.
Day 2: A hectic exploration of Hvar
The second day of our Split study tour is set aside for a visit to the island of Hvar on the Adriatic Sea. Hvar is only a short ferry ride away from Split. So we can make the most of the day, we set off early to catch the 7:45 AM schedule. We had our breakfast boxed and packed, and we took a minivan from Stobreč to the port in Split. The drive took us 20 minutes.
At the port, we boarded a high-speed catamaran operated by MB Kapetan Luka. The catamaran ride was pretty comfortable. They serve coffee on the boat. It was really good coffee, and pretty cheap too for EUR 1 a cup. The boat made a stop at Brač to pick up more passengers before heading on to Hvar. But because it’s a high-speed ride, we were in Hvar an hour after sailing from Split.
A little about Hvar
Hvar is an island on the Adriatic Sea, just off the Dalmatian Coast. Unlike other islands in that region, Hvar has fresh springs and fertile coastal plains. These fertile lands are what drew the Greeks to colonize the island in 4 BCE. The farming system and facilities that these ancient Greek colonizers used to till the land are still in use today. They are mostly found on the Stari Grad Plain, which is now a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Its fertile lands are not the only ones that make Hvar significant. Its strategic location and naturally protected coastline made it an important naval post on the Adriatic Sea. As thus, it frequently changed rulers throughout its history. Today, Hvar is known for its beach resorts, its wines, and its lavender fields.
Surveying hotels in Hvar
One of the reasons why we went to Hvar is to survey the chain of hotels that Sunčani Hvar established on the island. So, upon landing at the port on Hvar, we were met by Hanne, a Sunčani Hvar representative who escorted us on our tour. After downing the welcome drinks provided, off we went to our task.
We visited these hotels:
- The Amfora Hvar Grand Beach Resort is a classy resort that’s perfect for couples on a romantic getaway and for families on a relaxing vacation. The property faces a private bay with lovely views of the Paklinski Islands and is surrounded by pine groves.
- The Adriana Hvar Spa Hotel is conveniently located right across Hvar’s old city center. This boutique hotel is a great place for solo travelers seeking some me-time, couples on a romantic sojourn, and business travelers wanting comfort and convenience.
- The Pharos Hvar Bayhill Hotel is one of Sunčani Hvar’s newest properties. Located close to Hvar’s old town, this hotel is designed to provide budget travelers with an amazing yet affordable holiday.
- The Villa Dalmacija Hotel and Beach Lodge is a lovely bayside property close to Hvar’s main harbor. It is an ideal choice for younger travelers looking for comfortable, convenient, and affordable accommodations on the island.
- The Riva Hvar Yacht Harbour Hotel is a luxury hotel established in a landmarked building. A jewel among Sunčani Hvar’s properties, the hotel has attracted many A-list celebrities since its first establishment in the 1920s.
After touring the Sunčani Hvar hotels, we drove to Jelsa to visit the Bastijana Winery. The winery is just a 30-minute drive outside Hvar town. A family-owned enterprise, Bastijana produces wines using Hvar’s indigenous grapes – Plavac Mali, Pošip, and Bogdanuša. They also create wines using other varieties of wine grapes like Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon. We tasted some of these wines and had a chat with the winery’s cheerful and highly knowledgeable owner, Andro Tomić. The wines were so good that we all bought a bottle each of red, white, and rose wines.
Exploring the rest of Hvar
We had a lot of time to kill upon returning to Hvar from the Bastijana Winery. So we decided to explore some of the sights and landmarks that Hvar is famous for:
- Hvar’s Theater and Arsenal is said to be the first theater to allow entrance to all the public, whether they are commoners or nobles. Built in 1612, it was the first civic theater of its kind. The Theater is decorated in the elaborate baroque style and occupies the top floor of the Arsenal. The Arsenal, on the other hand, is a graceful building with an arched entrance. It was once a refitting and repair station for war galleons.
- Mandrač is a small port close to Hvar’s town square. The locals believe that this port was built at the same time as the Arsenal. Its purpose, however, is to protect smaller vessels. The port continues to serve in that function today.
- The Hvar Cathedral, officially the Cathedral of St. Stephen, is a three-aisle church built in the renaissance-baroque style. Built in the 16th century, the church is the jewel of St. Stephen’s Square. The Square, on the other hand, is the largest square in Dalmatia and the center of public life in Hvar.
- The Dominican Monastery and St. Mark’s Church may stand in ruins today, but in its prime, it was a grand church with three naves. It served as a place of worship for the faithful as well as a meeting place for the municipal assembly. The ruins date back to the 17th century, but there were mentions of the church on documents from the 13th century.
- The Church of the Assumption is Jelsa’s parish church. Established in 1535, the church was built on the foundations of an earlier Gothic church. It is home to many pieces of valuable artwork, including a painting by Pietera de Costera entitled “Mother of God and the torture of Fabian and Sebastian.”
- The Church and Square of St. John is also located in Jelsa, close to the town’s center. The square features a small baroque church dating back to the 16th century. Many of the surrounding balconied buildings were built around the same time.
- The Church Fort of St. Mary is a church designed to look like a fortress by the sea. This church was built in 1571 after an Ottoman attack that destroyed the original church standing in its location. The building safeguards many valuable paintings and artworks.
We ended our exploration of Hvar with dinner at the Dalmatino Hvar Steak and Fish House. It is the perfect place to cap a long day. Dining there is a true gastronomic experience. The food is excellent and the service is outstanding. I had their beef with black truffles in wine sauce. That beef plate is so delicious that I still dream of it occasionally.
The rest of the evening was spent enjoying coffee and dessert at a café by the port while waiting for the 8:00 PM ferry to arrive. We were back in Split at 9:00 PM and went straight back to the hotel. Everyone was tired after a hectic and exciting day.
Day 3: The old town of Split and Diocletian’s Palace
Because we were still exhausted from touring Hvar, we decided to stay in Split and focus on its sights for our third day there. We did the recommended Split-in-a-day tour – an exploration of Diocletian’s Palace and the old town built around it. The must-see sights we went to are:
- The Riva promenade is the center of Split’s social and nightlife. The promenade faces the south façade of Diocletian’s Palace and is lined with restaurants, pubs, cafes, and other cultural buildings.
- Narodni or the People’s Square is the center of public life in Split. The square is surrounded by renaissance- and baroque-style buildings dating back to the 14th century. Many of these buildings house the city’s administrative offices, as well as shops, restaurants, and cafes.
- The statue of Gregory of Nin is a popular tourist spot. Sculpted by Ivan Meštrović, it depicts the first-century bishop of Nin who defied the Pope by delivering Mass in the Croatian language instead of Latin. Legend has it that rubbing Bishop Gregory’s toe brings good luck.
- The Golden Gate is the main entrance to Diocletian’s Palace. When Diocletian was alive, only he and his family may enter this gate. The gate led to the old city of Salona and is decorated with niches holding statues of Split’s Roman tetrarchs.
- The Peristyle is the main square right inside the palace. This was where Diocletian greeted his subjects in his persona as the son of Jupiter. The square also features an ancient temple to this Roman god, as well as a 3500-year-old sphinx.
- The Cathedral of St. Domnius is one of the Palace’s oldest buildings. Before it became a Christian cathedral dedicated to the martyr Domnius of Salona, it was the mausoleum of Diocletian.
- The Pazar is the open-air marketplace just outside the Cathedral of St. Domnius. If you want to experience local color in Split, Pazar is the place to go. You’ll find vendors selling all sorts of fresh produce here and lots of haggling going on.
- The Matejuška port is a port from where the fishermen of Split earned their living since ancient times. The place still serves as a fishing port, but it is now also a popular hangout among Split’s younger population. It is lined with cafes and bars.
- Sustipan was Split’s first cemetery and the resting place of the early Croatian kings. Though the cemetery was destroyed by the country’s early communist regime, it was reestablished as a park. Sustipan is said to have the most beautiful panoramic views of the sea from Split.
Day 4: Zip Split, Game of Thrones, and more hotels
We discovered that our host at Ark Apartments is building a zip line crossing over a filming location of the HBO series Game of Thrones. As any fan of the TV series knows, Croatia stands in for many of the places in the fictional Seven Kingdoms. The city of Dubrovnik in particular is the setting of its capital city King’s Landing.
So, on our fourth day in Split, our host graciously drove us to his zip line project, named Zip Split. The entire zip line is a scary three kilometers long. If you’re scared of zip-lining for that entire length, don’t worry. The zip line is divided into several shorter “legs.” You can zip for as much as you dare. Just stop at your last leg if you can’t take it anymore.
After pushing the limits of our bravery at the zip line, we checked out the Cornaro Hotel, located just outside the wall of Diocletian’s Palace. The Cornaro Hotel is a pleasant surprise. It looks old from the outside, just like the buildings surrounding it. But the interior of the hotel is modern and sophisticated. It’s an excellent home base for exploring Split.
Day 5: Trogir and Froggyland
On the fifth day of our trip, we set off early for Trogir, an ancient town that has been around for more than two thousand years. The historic part of that town is now protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Our visit to this city deserves a separate blog post, so please check that one out.
After sightseeing in Trogir, we visited these hotels:
- Hotel Vila Sikaa is a family-run hotel right within the historic town of Trogir. The hotel occupies a 300-year-old building. It is a gorgeous hotel offering cozy and affordable accommodations.
- Hotel Trogir Palace is located close to Trogir’s marina and beach, as well as the airport. Though it only has the typical hotel amenities, the hotel’s convenient location means you’re not too far from many points of interest in Trogir.
Afterwards, we went back to Split and stopped by Froggyland. Froggyland is – you’ve guessed it – a museum dedicated to frogs. The frogs on display were of a common European species. Around a thousand of them have been preserved in pristine condition using an advanced method of taxidermy. These frogs were made to pose in different interesting positions – playing tennis, fishing, driving a chariot, etc. You may find this museum bizarre, but you won’t be able to deny that it’s unique.
Read more about Trogir in another post:
Day 6: Downtime at the beach and off home
On our sixth and last day in Split, we encountered our greatest regret on this trip. And that is the fact that we had a beautiful beach just outside our hotel rooms and we didn’t get to enjoy it fully. We were so busy traipsing across Split and its surroundings that we didn’t find the time to relax and make the most of Ark Apartment’s amenities.
And that’s exactly what we did on our last day. Before checking out, we made full use of the swimming pool and the beach. Alas, our fun was short-lived. Soon enough, we had to pack, check out, and catch our plane back to Oslo.
Split is a truly beautiful city, wonderfully preserved against the ravages of time. I really hope it remains that way so that many other travelers would enjoy it in the future, as we did.