THE magic was back as soon as we dropped our stuff, and headed out to get lost in the labyrinthian, world renowned city of Split.
Split is a mashup of a place. Modern tourist attraction, second largest city, ancient retirement castle for a Roman Emperor, and a jump off point for some of the most beautiful islands in the Adriatic. We hadn’t seen tourists this dense since Venice, but the weight of the ancient location was heavy in the seaside citadel.
Welcome to Split.
“We stepped out of the bus, and I could see years of history and modern life combined.” d.
“1700 years in the making, Split’s history lives in the social fabric of the modern tourist attraction.” a.
Built by Diocletian, the 51st Roman emperor, the world’s most elaborate Roman ruin isn’t a site to visit or a museum; its still the functioning heart of this sprawling city. You don’t go visit Diocletian’s palace, when you are in Split’s bustling center, you are living it.
Originally built between 295 and 305 AD as a retirement compound, and whose walls served to protect vulnerable inhabitants for centuries thereafter, the palace proper covers 31,000 square meters. In every nook and cranny relics from Roman times, as well as Egyptian and Grecian antiquity, stand the test of time.
We stopped for a cocktail at Luxor Cafe in the main plaza of Diocletian’s Xanadu. The small square is the tourist ground zero of Split, but we caught a seat underneath an Egyptian sphinx from the 15th century BC…just to give a little historic perspective of the palace’s decor. Luxor’s jurisdiction spreads out over the marble steps with cushions to chill on and watch the world go by. Bonuses include free Wifi and the cocktails were cheap by our Manhattan standards so, we lingered for a bit.
THAT night we had our first amazing Dalmatian meal. The differences from the north of the coast were subtle, but apparent. We ended up stopping at Bepa in Narodni Trg, craving “something light” and seeing salads on the menu board we were hooked in. Thankfully the meal was not “light”, but delicious and fresh. The Dalmatian Plate “appetizer”, was almost devoured before we knew what was happening (in retrospect the photo does not do it justice). A delectable fucking mountain, and we were already food-coma’d before the main courses even arrived. The roster included mounds of Pag cheese, figs, pickled cucumber, pršut, svinjske kobasice (a smoky kielbasa like sausage), pickled onions, caramelized onions, cottage cheese (delicious, fresh and unlike anything we’ve ever had), bread, and FOR THE LOVE OF GOD THE GARNISH WAS MULTIPLE GRILLED CHEESE AND HAM SANDWICHES! Sandwiches as garnish…let’s take a moment…
Phew, full just thinking about it. Go there people.
THE next day we got up early to explore the palace-made-city. Yes the lanes are extra crowded with tourists in August, but its one of those places one earth who’s sheer age through humanity out-weighs the selfie-stick gauntlet. Much like Venice, the zig zagged lanes of Split hold millennia of history and amazingly old relics from antiquity, but you pretty much gotta accept the fact that there’s a Cold Stone Creamery or Gucci store here and there as well. Get over it, its worth it. We checked out the heavy hitters, including the Temple to Jupiter, Cathedral to St. Domnius/St. Lucia’s crypt and the creepy catacombs underneath it all.
“this maze was full of weird vibes, I swear. These catacombs are freaking me out!” d.
“you can feel the importance of millennia emanating from every stone…” a.
The place is brimming with history, but we’ll spare you with just one more fun fact. Diocletian decree’d that his retirement palace be constructed from the finest white stones from the nearby island of Brač. The beauty of these stones wasn’t just an ancient fetish, proved by the fact that the White House in Washington D.C. is built by stones from the same quarry. <pushes up glasses>
Ok can’t help it…one more fun fact.
In a most sublime historical irony the grand mausoleum that Diocletian, supreme persecutor of Christians, built for himself is now a world renowned Catholic cathedral. In later centuries, Christians took refuge within the walls. His own original crypt is now a devotional chapel to St. Lucia of Syracuse who was one if Diocletian’s last Christian victims.
History is savage.
AFTER the stroll through ancient history’s lanes, we craved beach and headed toward Bačvice, Split local’s city beach. Where Poreč was manmade walkways built into nature, and Rovinj‘s municipal beach was basically natural, Bačvice is simply a long seawall pulsating with beach clubs. Try to find a few spare meters of pavement, drop your towel and commence sizzling in the summer heat. There is a small “sand” (think powdered dirt) area, but on this scorching August Sunday the entire area was bronze shoulder to bronze shoulder. We found a spot on the sidewalk, and although it wasn’t the cleanest or most comfortable “beach” on the trip, the sun and sapphire Adriatic sea were welcomed.
ON the way home we stumbled across a nice find called 4 Coffee…possibly…the signage is a little confusing to a non-Croatian speaker. Whatever its called, the small nook on an outer corner bastion of the old palace has a variety of coffee addict goodness. Organic, french pressed, local, cold brewed, all the right trigger words were there for us deprived iced coffee lovers. It was 30 kuna (about $5) which is a fortune for coffee here, but a welcome discovery. At this point, even in the summer heat, we hadn’t seen iced coffee that wasn’t Nescafe with ice cream and whip cream in weeks. Apologies for the lack of excitement about local iced coffee, but…well…in our opinion when its 90 degrees tutti frutti has no place in our coffee.
AFTER a costume change we wandered the evening lanes looking for a dinner spot to jump out at us. The bar had been set high after Beba, and we fought every urge to just go back there, but we were on a mission for something more low key and new to us. Eventually we popped into Pizzaria Galija, and sat at a wooden table near the bar. Service was pretty crappy, but it became apparent that the poor kid running around taking care of all the tables was the lowest in a family totem pole (at least this is the story we developed over beers watching the dynamics of the joint).
WHILE the Kid scurried around, an older bald man (we’re guessing Uncle) maned the seasoned wooden bar, seemingly high man in the hierarchy. He’d occasionally be burdened with pulling a couple draughts of beer, but mostly drinking his own bottomless stein, smoking, and talking shit to the Kid. Then there was a 20 something manning the pizza station (Older Cousin). Older Cousin had a slightly tougher job, being that he had to stand by the furnace and produce amazing pizzas, but still had plenty of time to smoke out the stone window, rehydrate with beer and join in the hazing of the Kid. There was another character, Little Cousin, who seemed just a little older than the Kid, but all we saw him do was smoke outside in the alley and hit on tourist girls as the Uncle and Older Cousin pointed them out. All the while the kid angrily ran the store, resigned to do the dirty work, with the hopes of climbing up the hierarchy.
The Kid eventually got us our order; capresse salad, tuna bruschetta, and an amazing grilled squid and veggie platter. The pizza looked and smelled amazing as well, but we were still over stuffed from the last nights smorgasbord so opted for the lighter options. The price was right, and the atmosphere was entertaining, if not expedient. We would definitely look this place up if we ever found ourselves in Split again. By then the Kid better be at least the pizza man, talking shit to a new generation.
“after hours of waiting and witnessing family feuds, hanger was defeated by some outstanding flavors!” d.
“i feel bad for Kid, but the stuff coming from this brick oven is out of this world.” a.
THANK God we went to Vis.
It almost didn’t happen. Vis is the furthest flung island in the area, still retaining an air of mystery, and with changing ferry schedules during different seasons we couldn’t find a consensus about when ferries came and went. We surmised we would have to catch a very early ferry that we weren’t 100% sure existed, as well as assume the return ferry also existed at the time noted or we’d be stuck there until an unknown time.
In retrospect, we were being a way over worried with it being our first experience with the ferry system in Croatia, but Jadrolinija became our favorite way to travel.
WE booked tickets online, screen shot the receipt and headed to the docks groggily hoping for the best. Catching the first car ferry in the morning had us arriving at Vis by 11:30 am and only had to catch the 6:00 PM ferry back to Split to make our day trip a success. Despite all our uncertainty the whole trip went smoother than a flight from LaGuardia to DC.
PULLING into the port, we saw a small town hugging the azure water with soaring mountains shooting straight up from the coast. Across from the dock it was easy to find a car rental establishment, and procured a half-dead Cabrio at 450 Kuna ($64) for 6 hours. Our number one destination was the enchanting Stiniva beach, a magical looking patch of beach tucked away with a tight embrace of cliffs. Leaving the rental shop the lady warned us it was “not recommended” to do the “20 minute” climb down to the beach in flip flops, but added in typical dry Croatia optimism, “anything is possible”…
The drive to the north side and beaches was a hair raising one as we rocketed up the mountainside on a one and a half lane road that was all hairpin turns and sheer drops. By the time we crested the summit and started cruising through pastoral center of the island, the fellow tourists from our ferry seemed miles away. We had the roads to ourselves, with the occasional interruption of groups of nuns strolling or farmer lugging a butchered lamb to what must be an off the hook party.
“excitement is running through my veins as we drive higher and higher, and the view gets better and better.” d.
“you can only imagine the spirits of ancient lore you’d meet on Vis after the sun goes down.” a.
THE magic, the trip, and possibly our collective credit was almost eradicated as Adam parked the little car near the trailhead for Stiniva. High on the adrenaline of an open road, we found a cliffside “spot” a little way up from the small parking area. Hitting a little “pot hole” upon stopping, we thought it was just a little pit, but when the car lurched toward the sheer drop and the front wheels started spinning in mid air, we started shitting our pants.
At best we were stuck, and after we got out to assess to see the car rocking precariously on the edge of oblivion, we were left panic stricken hoping the car wouldn’t roll into the ocean 100 feet below.
While Adam literally held the car door to keep it on his side of quick tumble to Davy Jones locker (aka panicking), Daniela had the sense to grab a couple guys coming up from the beach, and between them the shit box car (as well as our lives and vacation) was rescued.
THE ensuing trek down to the once-in-a-lifetime beach didn’t help calm our nerves. This 80 degree, sheer grade consisting of slick stone and thrashing shards of shale was the opposite of a “calm walk along the beach”. Our nerves already raw after the near car tossing, in unrelentingly blazing midday sun, and clearly not in the proper repelling gear we slowly but surely made careful flip-flopped step after flip-flopped step down the treacherous decent.
THIS unique corner of the globe is worth the climb, but although we proved the rental lady’s assertion that “anything is possible”, we’d definitely recommend proper footwear, sunscreen and hydration. It took us almost an hour, all the while with the refreshing oasis tantalizing us below. Created by an ancient sea cave’s ceiling collapse, Stiniva is a tiny pouch of sand surrounded by looming rock faces. Being the high season, the beach was busy (but not crowded) mostly with more sane (re: rich) people that had taken a boat to the sea level entrance to the cove as opposed the near spelunking option.
There’s a snack shack with chips, sandwiches and ice cold (well priced) beers, and even a room for rent (which must be an insanely solitary and unique place after the sun sets and the people leave). We enjoyed some well deserved beers, relaxed after our perils and swam in the natural pool. As we had a time budget and cliff to scale, soon though we had our last dips, snapped our last pics and began dragging ourselves back up the mountain.
“after almost dying multiple times, I think we made it to heaven!” d.
“in the pics of stiniva you don’t see the struggle to get here, but goddamn its worth it.” a.
NEXT stop was Bili Bok, a recommended nude beach that turned out to be a “Top 3” beach of the whole trip. Understandably we don’t have a lot of pics from Bili Bok, but take our word for it; go to Vis, take some time, and in that time enjoy Bili Bok.
It’s secluded, with flat, rock sholes hovering just above the sapphire ocean. And it must be noted that nothing feels better than sunning buns on warm stone in your own earthen cabana.
“what a unique beach, different colors and sizes all around…I’m talking about the rocks….” d.
“Here I found nothing feels better than roasting yourself, ass out, on some warm rocks by the sea.” a.
WE made the ferry back to Split, and celebrated our successful adventure as the sun dipped dramatically to our portside. The massive ferry has a bar/snack kiosk so there was plenty to imbibe during the 2 hour trip.
Vis (including the awesome ferry rides back and forth) was a short day trip, but please consider our advice that it is TOTALLY doable and worth it. Go to Vis, we hope you have more time to spend because there is tons more to explore. Enjoy the nude beach, don’t die on the walk to Stiniva, and MAKE SURE you take the ferry back to Split in the evening to enjoy the sunset. It was a most epic and picturesque end to a pretty epic day trip.
EXHAUSTED after the crazy day and our impromptu sunset booze cruise on the ferry back, we rallied to a great dinner that must be mentioned.
Figa is one of those hip restaurants that sprawls out into the tiny lane, appropriating the steps for seating on cushions and low tables. The food was outstanding and local (pršut wrapped figs with funky cheese, tuna/octopus carpaccio, and branzino with dalmatian ragout), and for the first time in what felt like a long time; the service was excellent.
SPLIT re-ignited the magic to the trip, and Vis added a huge dash of enchantment. Souls full of happiness and adventure, we went to sleep early in advance of our next ferry (and installment) to the party island of Hvar.
Off we go.