A place by the sea

Last updated 10:21 31/03/2014
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Seventeen hundred years ago the Roman emperor, Diocletian, decided to build himself a retirement home beside the Adriatic.

This was a notable feat in several ways. First of all, a significant number of Roman emperors were assassinated*, committed suicide or died of natural causes, while in the empire's top job; Diocletian was one of the few to voluntarily abdicate.

Diocletian's getaway spot by the sea at Split is also noteworthy because it is still lived in today... albeit in rather different fashion.

Diocletian was born not far from the site of this palace, at Salona in AD245. This was once the heart of the Roman province of Dalmatia. Today it is part of Croatia and is considered the best example of Roman architecture on the eastern Adriatic coast.

The emperor ruled for 21 years so no expense was spared in the building of his retirement place, which took 10 years. The vast walled complex includes Diocletian's private chambers, watch towers, guard rooms, a garrison for his soldiers, temples and a peristyle with a sunken courtyard surrounded by marble columns. At one point up to 9000 people may have lived within its walls.

After Diocletian died, he was buried in a mausoleum inside the palace complex. After being unoccupied for several centuries, life returned to the palace in the 7th century when Roman citizens from Salona moved in after their city was attacked by local tribes. The palace has been occupied ever since.

It is perhaps this blurring of the ancient and the modern that makes Split so fascinating. Washing flaps from wires strung up along the 3rd-century walls and residents, laden with bags of groceries, wend their way through the stone-flagged alleyways.

While much of historic Split is dedicated to tourism, ordinary life co-exists with the stream of visitors. We looked through the windows of a bank where sleek modern office furniture covered with computers rested on marble floors installed 1700 years earlier. The assistants in an upmarket shoe boutique clacked their way over another section of Roman pavement.

Even though this is a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation World Heritage listed site, there's still remarkably free access to the ruins. We had lunch in a cafe set up among the columns of the peristyle in the shade of the Cathedral of St Domnius. While we ate, bridal parties passed by to be photographed on the cathedral steps, one of the brides revealing a pair of jandals under her confection of a gown.

This church was originally Diocletian's last resting place but ironically is now dedicated to St Domnius who was bishop of Salona in the 3rd century. He'd been beheaded at the command of the emperor who'd been known throughout the empire for his persecution of the new Christian faith.

Despite its dramatic change in use, the cathedral still houses a portrait of Diocletian and his wife Prisca. Beside the cathedral is the 57-metre-high belfry, which took about 300 years to build, work starting in about the 13th century. It dominates the skyline of Split's historic centre and is a useful landmark if you get lost in the labyrinth of streets.

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A Croatian male choir was singing in the cathedral precincts when we were there. Beautiful voices filled the ancient space but no doubt if Diocletian had not been removed from his resting place by the Christians, he'd have been spinning furiously.

He might also have been surprised by what lay outside the Bronze Gate. This was one of the original four gates into the palace and this one was originally accessible by water. Today the Adriatic lies a little further away, separated from the palace by the Riva, a wide pedestrianised promenade. During summer it's crammed with open-air cafes and bars.

It might not be the cheapest place to relax and cool off with a beer but the passing parade of locals, cruise-ship passengers and other travellers is endlessly diverting as is the beguiling view of the sea glimpsed through an avenue of palms.

Once we'd revived from a sweltering few hours within the palace where the Adriatic sun had turned the marble walls into a Roman sauna, we set off west along the Riva to see what lay outside the palace walls.

Immediately outside the Iron Gate (another of the four original city gates) is the Narodni Trg, or People's Square. Here one walks out of Roman Split and into Venetian Split. The Venetian Republic ruled the city for about 400 years from 1420 onwards and this little square with its pavement cafes is surrounded by palaces and the city's 15th-century former town hall.

Head further west and the architecture changes once more in Trg Republike, which most day visitors, never reach. Surrounded on three sides by colonnaded buildings and the fourth opening out on to the Adriatic, the square is also reminiscent of Venice but was built in the 19th century.

It's not surprising that the square is so reminiscent of Venice as the architect was a Venetian. The story goes that the carvings on the facades above the colonnades and below the first-floor windows feature on only one side of the piazza because the architect got so homesick for Venice he went home before completing them.

Beside this square a tangled labyrinth of mostly pedestrian alleyways winds up the hills that surround Split. Here daily life continues mostly unaffected by the press of visitors down beside the sea. Cats perch on walls, old men yarn on park benches. Up here we stumbled on a cafe with a terrace overlooking Split's ancient harbours (and its much more modern and busier ferry port beyond), the Adriatic and, of course, Diocletian's palace. It's breathtaking.

No wonder, after ruling one of the greatest empires the world has ever seen, Diocletian was happy to give it all away to live here. During his retirement some of his subjects begged him to retake control of the empire.

He replied: "If you could show the cabbage that I planted with my own hands to your emperor, he definitely wouldn't dare suggest that I replace the peace and happiness of this place with the storms of a never-satisfied greed."

* Being a Roman emperor might have brought with it enormous power, wealth and prestige but it often did not end well. Although 55 emperors died of natural causes (and some of these were none too pleasant - including gangrene and plague) 43 were murdered or executed and a further 33 were deposed and tortured. The worst fate probably befell Valerian in the 3rd century AD.

He was executed by having molten gold poured down his throat, then was apparently stuffed and used as a human footstool by the king who'd defeated him in battle.

- The Timaru Herald


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