A Living Monument
Rather than being tucked away, Croatia’s ancient Diocletian’s Palace is part of city life.
"I'm lost," read the text from my 13-year-old daughter, Luisa. Unfortunately, I didn’t receive the message right away, due to the lack of a cell signal underground.
I was nearing the end of a tour of Diocletian’s Palace, the massive 4th century retirement home of the Roman Emperor Diocletian. Located on the Adriatic Sea’s Dalmatian Coast in the Croatian city of Split, the ruin is considered one of the world’s greatest archeological sites: a seven-acre treasure that boasts a Romanesque belfry, Corinthian columns, and a black granite sphinx.
It’s also, thanks partly to the fact that it served as a shooting location for Game of Thrones, maddeningly and frenetically packed, especially if, like my family, you are visiting during the peak summer travel season. Unlike the Roman Forum and Colosseum in Rome, Diocletian’s Palace is a living monument that forms the core of Split’s old town. There are restaurants, apartments, laundry lines, and rows and rows of street vendor stalls, which sell everything from eggplants to soccer jerseys to refrigerator magnets. There are mimes and street musicians. The scene at night is more open-air disco than historic attraction endorsed by UNESCO.
Head underground, however, to the palace’s cellars and the crowds recede. The quiet gives you the headspace to contemplate what life was like, not just at the turn of the 4th century but after the fall of the Roman Empire, when Roman cities were under siege and locals sought refuge behind the walls of the palace. Our guide, Dino Ivančić, a former history teacher who specializes in tours of the palace, pointed toward the arched ceiling and took delight in explaining how these new residents, who couldn’t leave for fear of getting killed, bored holes in the floor for toilets and garbage chutes.
Interestingly, it was the trash and the feces—Ivančić used a more colorful word— that preserved these subterranean rooms until, he explained, a team led by the Town Planning Institute of Dalmatia and the University of Minnesota excavated them between 1968 and 1975.
“I work for the University of Minnesota!” I almost shouted, interrupting him mid-sentence. “I went to the U for grad school!” That my slice of Minnesota had a hand in unearthing this archeological treasure, even if it involved shoveling petrified poop, was thrilling.
Ivančić, however, didn’t seem impressed by my tenuous connection to the excavation. Instead, he moved on to discuss how wealthy Romans spent their days eating so much they had special vomitoriums where they purged their meals. Unearthed toothless skulls showed that all the vomiting decayed the rich people’s teeth.
When we emerged into the bright Split afternoon—Croatian summers are known for their cloudless skies—my phone lit up with messages from my daughter. In the intensity of the crowds, she’d gotten separated from her older brothers, who I assumed had been distracted by their search for jerseys to wear that evening, when we planned to watch Croatia play in the quarterfinal match of the World Cup.
In that panicky moment, I insisted that I needed to leave the tour, a display of American-style helicopter parenting that seemed to flummox Ivančić.
“Tell her to take a photo of where she is and we’ll find her after I talk about Daenerys and the dragon scene,” he said, referring to Game of Thrones. Before I could tell him no, Luisa had texted me back. Not only had her brothers found her, but the ice cream shop she’d ducked into had given her a free cone. Ivančić would get to finish his talk after all.
If you go, alumus Goran Majlat (B.S. ’11), owner of Perfect Croatia, a tourism company located in Split, recommends combining Dalmatia’s natural and cultural attractions.
•Raft or zipline down the Cetina River in Omiš, a town 15 miles south of Split, where the river meets the Adriatic.
•Split’s booming tourism industry has spawned scores of new restaurants, many of them very pricey. Majlat prefers the konobas, which are cozy taverns serving homemade dishes, some of which take so much time to prepare you order by calling ahead. Try the pasticada s njokima, a stewed beef dish, and hobotnica ispod peke, which is slow-cooked octopus.
•If you like nightlife, head over to the island of Hvar, which combines stunning beaches with a club scene worthy of Ibiza.