As I stroll along the waterfront of Old Town Split, I see laid-back locals gathered for their afternoon ritual – steaming espresso and conversation. I had planned to discover the Old Town’s hidden gems, but I realize, it’s more important to sit in the sun and gaze at the azure Adriatic Sea.
Well, they do say when in Rome… and, like the Romans who arrived here in third century BCE, residents of this Croatian city are happy to carry on the tradition of choosing indulgence over work, within the Old Town’s most famous site: Diocletian’s Palace. This extensive network of narrow pathways, sunny courtyards and underground storehouses was built as the retirement home by the Emperor who had left behind the massive Roman Empire to focus on the good life.
Souvenir shops and stylish boutiques are easily found within the palace limestone walls, while the 3,000 residents of the Old Town cajole visitors with traditionally embroidered textiles and glasses of Plavac Mali, a Croatian red varietal sourced from the country’s viticulture epicentre, the nearby islands of Vis and Korcula. Now I understand why Diocletian wanted to stay here: his Roman love of luxury and beauty would have been satiated at every turn.
Greek settlers arrived on these shores in the 5th Century BC, bringing their wine growing abilities to this arable land. Vineyards and orchards are a regular sight as the road takes me from Split through the Neretva River Valley, a fertile delta known for oranges, pomegranates and tangerines. I stop at a roadside stand high above the valley to taste sugar-coated orange peel and dried fruit, a perfect afternoon pick-me-up as the road heads back down to sea level.
The Adriatic’s brilliant range of blues welcomes me back while along the quiet Peljesac Peninsula, the small towns and villages a gateway to off-shore islands. I wish I could dive into the crystal clear waters, joining the Italians, French, Hungarians and other Eastern Europeans who regularly visit this holiday hot zone, retracing their ancestors steps, who wanted to make Croatia their irresistible prize.
At the town of Mali Ston, the imposing Wall of Ston may have been built to keep out invaders trying to lay claim to the Republic of Ragusa, a territory established in the 13th century that stretched down to Dubrovnik. Now it’s a historical footnote of the numerous foreigners who came to lay a claim here, like the Ottomans, Venetians and the French, under Napoleon, and the Germans and Russians in the 20th century.
The French emperor became a noted patron of Bay of Mali Ston oysters, which has been producing the tasty bivalves since Roman times. A small boat takes me to a family oyster farm and I’m willing to channel my inner empress to taste the bivalve for its worthiness. This is the ultimate farm to table experience: as soon as the oysters are pulled from the water, the shells are pried open and quickly eaten, the salty and briny taste and scent a welcome experience to my very happy palate.
A four hour drive brings me to Dubrovnik, a walled medieval city with a modern welcome. The Franjo Tudman Bridge, completed in 2002, is a sleek entry to a city that has seen its fair share of invaders and, now, is deemed worthy of visitors as fuel for their Instagram feed. As the capital of the Republic of Ragusa, this fortified city is a shrine to limestone architecture sourced from the island of Brac, resulting in its becoming a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979.
I choose a walking tour to learn about Dubrovnik’s history and its present day starring role as a location for HBO’s award-winning series Game of Thrones. Now Europeans, Americans and Canadians make up an endless stream of visitors and arrive via cruise ships for a quick hit of Croatia while a younger set hoping to spot the Mother of Dragons enjoy lunch at the narrow cafes found among the limestone walkways that circle the city.
After seeing how the Game of Thrones production team transforms the old town into King’s Landing, I’m spending my afternoon walking the two kilometres along the top of the wall, gazing at the Adriatic Sea once again. I stop at the famed Buza Bar for a late day libation in the sun, and with a glass of Croatian wine, I’m considering myself becoming a resident, adding myself to the list of foreigners who have wanted to occupy Croatia’s alluring Dalmatian coast.