Thursday, April 19, 2007

Split, Croatia

Later that afternoon we took a modern train to the capital city of Zagreb. Arriving after dark, we had a few hours before the night train would take us to Split. Near the train station was a pretty park with fountains in the middle. Surrounding the park were stately old buildings. Not wanting to venture too far with our luggage, we found an ATM machine and then had pizza at a nearby restaurant. Boarding our couchette train, we prepared for the night ride.


At about 7am, we arrived in Split, the largest Croatian city on the Adriatic Coast. We headed into the nearby Old Town, where we would be staying for the night. Dropping off our luggage, we had breakfast in Trg Republike. Here we admired the beautiful deep red arched buildings across the courtyard, with pigeons fluttering about, chased into the air by children.

Hvar Island
After breakfast we boarded the ferry to Hvar Island. On the top of the ferry we met a young Japanese female solo traveler who we had met earlier that morning at the hostel. The 1 hour 45 minute ride to the island was pleasurable, passing by numerous small islands with sparse, short vegetation. A bus took us to the town of Hvar. This sunny town lies between the protective pine-covered slopes and the clear turquoise waters of the Adriatic. After an enjoyable walk along the seaside promenade and harbor, we found a restaurant and I had a seafood salad – typical of the region. We then began our ascent up stairs and hiked up the hill to the Venetian fortress (1551). On top we were treated to panoramic views of the island and harbor and small chains of islands. A truly beautiful sight.

We then wandered through the narrow streets and strolled along the harbor. The sun was quite intense. Our climb and walks were a perfect excuse for a tasty ice cream cone. Ensuring that we had a seat on the only bus that would take us back to the ferry in time, we waited by the bus area. The ferry ride back to Split was breezy and quite chilly. Most people including me chose to go in the enclosed sections below. The crowded, smoky, and noisy area was less than ideal, but at least it was warm.

Old Split
By the time we arrived in Split, the “golden hour” of photography light had disappeared. At nightfall, monuments including the cathedral were lit up, enabling us to take some night shots. The pavement of the narrow streets reflected the light, with its large stones worn smooth through the ages. Although people walked at a leisurely pace, there was some excitement in the air. For supper, we met at the cathedral and then walked outside the old walls to a restaurant that had been recommended to us as a local place to eat fish at a reasonable price. For some reason, the restaurant was all out of fish and only had two servings of shark left. Disappointed by the waiter’s hasty rude approach and the rather tasteless meal, Sean and Roger went and had pizza at another place. I was tired and went to my hostel.

Split – an Old Roman Palace
The next morning I got up early, hoping to catch the beautiful morning light. Wandering the narrow maze-like streets, I found areas where the sun illuminated old shutters, arches and window tops sprouting pink flowers, and other architectural details. Walking onward, I reached the massive Roman city walls, which reach up to 20 meters (70 feet) high and enclose an area of 38,000 m2 (9 ½ acres). The wall, quite complete in many places, had arched openings near the top, so typical of other Roman architecture such as coliseums and aqueducts. The arches perfectly framed the brilliant clear blue skies already present in this wonderful climate. It is easy to see why Roman emperor Diocletian wanted to build his palace here for retirement in AD 305. Now that palace has been converted into a town, complete with local shops and markets, trendy stores, ATM machines, cafés, meeting squares, and residences for locals and tourists.

Fish Market and Old Town
The Old Town continued outside the original palace walls, with the same narrow streets jutting off at angles (or zigzags) and intersecting at trgs (town squares). Old ladies with black scarves carried fresh bread in cloth bags, likely repeating the same practice every day. Others stopped in the local butcher shop, with the carcasses hanging behind the white-uniformed butcher. Nearby was the fish market, which was just coming to life. On small portable tables a selection of freshly caught fish were neatly placed in plastic crates, separated by kinds. An old-fashioned scale and weights was also squeezed onto the table. Over the next few hours the one-storey fish market and area right outside it would be full of buyers and sellers, only to disappear before noon.

Meeting Sean and Roger back at the Cathedral, we went to the burek bar labeled as “spiffy” in our Lonely Planet guidebook. We wanted Roger (from Singapore) to have a taste of the Turkish pastry made from layers of thin flaky phyllo dough and filled with feta cheese. Having tasted burek before, I wouldn’t label this burek as “spiffy”, but we ate it along with yogurt and juice. Next to our table was a contrasting-colored wall, with the bottom portion of a large archway leading up to the artificial ceiling. At one time this and adjoining shops must have been part of a larger structure with large brick archways. In the middle of the wall hung a photo of the harbor and Old Split in the background. Fresh snow covered the boats, buildings, and walkway. In the corner the year was written, indicating how rare snow is in this region.

After breakfast we walked back to the Cathedral, once Diocletian’s mausoleum. It was inserted in the corridors and floors of the former palace. On the stairs leading up to the cathedral was a curious stone animal in a sphinx-like pose, seemingly guarding the doors of the church. On top of the animal were several small figures. With both the cathedral and tower charging a fee, we decided we’d get more out of the views afforded by the climb up the tower. Many stairs later (and one low-clearance overhang), we were at the top of the tower. Below us were a series of large bells and gears. One bell’s relief decorations had the date 1700 on it. Through the Corinthian-style column arched openings one had a great view of the town – both Old Split and the sprawling newer town and industrial areas. In the distance one could see the high-rise apartment buildings (likely built during Communist times) that fit the guidebook’s description as one of “stupefying ugliness”. Our attention was focused on the beauty of the collection of terra-cotta roofs, many with laundry already hung out to dry. I actually liked the old, slightly crumbling nature of the old town and am happy to see that it has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We also had great view of the sea and harbor, with its collection of boats ranging from the tiny wooden rowboat to ferries and cruise ships. Satisfied with our absorption of the view, we headed back down the narrow stairs, careful to duck at the appropriate times and paused to let others making their way up to the top.
Old City Tour
Without a firm plan, we wandered through the town, taking more photos as the sun began to cast its rays in the narrow streets. In the many small public squares people gathered to chat and enjoy the sun. We also walked along the edge of the old walls. It was more difficult along the harbor side, as that area was under construction and renovation. Along the east side of the city, stalls were set up selling clothing, bags/purses, souvenirs and other items – none of which interested me. Now at the north side, we saw the massive sculpture of 10th century Slavic religious leader Gregorius of Nin, who fought for the right to perform Mass in Croatian. Its big toe had been polished to a gold shine with people who believe the act brings good luck. Hunched in front of the statue was an old lady with Parkinson’s, shakily cupping her hand requesting donations. Dressed all in black, her snowy white hair contrasted with her tanned wrinkled skin, likely weathered in the sun and difficult times.

For a mid-morning snack we went back to the Trg Republike and tried out some other pastries. Even during our time there, the light played and changed dramatically, illuminating some areas and casting others in deep shadows. We passed by one café several times, each time the same man asking us if we needed a room. Others would do the same near the bus station, uttering the words in an almost hypnotic, repetitive manner. After a sandwich along the wide pedestrian street, we gathered our luggage and headed over to the bus station for our windy (but beautiful) hot bus ride to Dubrovnik.

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