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back to the past

If Dubrovnik is the pearl of the Adriatic, then Split is undoubtedly Dalmatia’s crown jewel. With ancient churches towering over Roman ruins that have been cleverly integrated into contemporary construction, Split feels like a living, breathing archaeological excavation.

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Before looking through the guide book, we vacillated about going to Split. After spending a night in Trogir, we had just one more day on the shores of the Adriatic, and part of us wanted to stretch out on a beach and go swimming one last time. Then we read about Diocletian’s Palace — Split’s central attraction — and immediately changed our tune. Like Trogir, the palace is a UNESCO world heritage site, a designation that appears much more richly deserved in this case.

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Diocletian was the last of the pagan rulers in that part of the Roman empire, and he erected a magnificent palace in Split that took ten years and the lives of several thousand men to build. The palace’s thick stone walls, as well as some of its columns, remain standing to this day.

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Diocletian ruthlessly persecuted the early Christian converts, but the Christians had the last laugh. Once they came to power, they repaid Diocletian’s harsh treatment by turning his palace into a massive church and refurbishing his Jupiter’s Temple to serve as a baptistry. They also erected a vertiginously tall bell tower in the middle of the palace ruins to underscore their ascension to power.

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We spent a couple of hours wandering around the palace/cathedral complex, but what really appealed to us about Split was not the ancient ruins and religious artifacts, impressive though they were. The Christians built their shrines right into the walls of Diocletian’s palace and for two millennia afterwards Split’s residents continued the pattern, incorporating old relics into the lives of subsequent generations. The palace’s foundation has been turned into a market reminiscent of Istanbul’s Great Bazaar, and its walls play host to a myriad little cafes.

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Almost everywhere one turns in the city center there are layers of history just waiting to be uncovered. In fact, our favorite part of visiting Split was simply walking its streets without a map or guide book, seeing what pleasant little surprises we could find. And there was something around virtually every corner: a coat of arms here, a small gargoyle there, the facade of an ancient palace, its embellishments lovingly preserved though it stands no more.

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