Soon after entering the warren of narrow streets and tiny alleys comprising the ancient, walled, old section of the Croatian town of Split, the glorious harmonies of a men’s chorus beckons us. Seeking the source, we mount a stairway adjacent to the elegant facade of the Cathedral of St. Duje leading to a high, bullet-shaped pantheon, open to the sky at its apex.
A chorus of eight, black-clad men stand in the small, acoustically profound space, serenading the gathered tourists with traditional, dalmatian music–a tight blend of magnificent, a cappella harmonies. Happening upon these wonderful voices in such ancient surrounding sends chills up my spine and tears to my eyes–so unexpected, so profoundly beautiful; buskers of the highest order. Who could begrudge them a generous donation while also purchasing their DVD to enjoy at home.
This is a miraculous introduction to the clean, bright, Adriatic town of Split, Croatia’s second-largest city.
Recent archaeological research indicates the Greeks founded a trading settlement here sometime in the 6th century BCE. Later, the Romans, the dominant power of the region, established control during the Illyrian Wars of 229-219 BCE.
At the beginning of the 3rd century CE, the emperor Diocletian had an enormous and opulent palace built to serve as his home after his retirement from politics. Becoming the first Roman emperor to voluntarily step down, Diocletian retired to then Spalatum in 305 CE. The palace now constitutes the old section and inner core of Split.
Following the slow decline of the Western Roman Empire, Spalatum became part of the Byzantine empire ruled from Constantinople, now Istanbul.
During Medieval times, the Venetian Republic, the Kingdom of Croatia, and the Kingdom of Hungary vied for control. In the 10th century, the influence of the slowly rising trading power of the Venetian Republic over the islands and coastal towns of the Adriatic gradually spread. It wasn’t until 1420, following a twenty-year civil war, when the Kingdom of Hungary lost control to Naples of what was then called by its Croat population, Spalatro. Venice subsequently took control of the town, buying it from the Neapolitans.
Venice ruled what they called Spalato for 377 years, losing control in 1797. Napoleon ruled it from 1806-1812 after which now Split, became part of the Austro-Hungarian province of Dalmatia until the empire’s dissolution following World War I.
It was incorporated into the new Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, later the Kingdom of Yugoslavia until the Nazis invaded in 1941. Fascist Italy annexed Split a month later. The Fascists met heavy opposition from the Croat population and following the capitulation of Italy in September, 1943, the partisan brigades of Marshal Tito temporarily liberated the city only to be forced to retreat by the Nazis a few weeks later.
Split was finally liberated in October of 1944. It became the Socialist Republic of Croatia, a sovereign republic of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. This was a boom time. Split became the largest passenger and military port in Yugoslavia. Investment poured in and industry, particularly shipbuilding, flourished.
In 1991, with the collapse of Yugoslavia and the rest of the Eastern Bloc, Croatia declared its independence and with Splits old section, the long-since urbanized interior of Diocletian’s palace, as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the city remains a major link to numerous Adriatic islands, the Apennine peninsula and Croatia’s interior.
Cafes set along the harbor and against the walls of Diocletian’s Palace
A clock tower dominates the entrance to the ancient town.
Croatia’s greatest sculpture, Ivan Mestrovic’s statue of the Croatia Bishop Gregorius of Nin, Grgur Ninski in Croatian.