Our Croatian cruise ended in the coastal town of Split, so we spent a few days there enjoying the ancient port before moving on. Apparently, all the trains from Split go through Zagreb. In an effort to slow down our travel this year, we decided to spend a few days in Zagreb, too.
The Town of Split
Our ship arrived in Split the day before we had to disembark. Since the town was part of our tour, we picked up a guide and took a walking tour. As this was the end of August, it was still part of the summer tourist rush and there were certainly plenty of tourists. Honestly, before we booked the cruise in Croatia, I had never heard of Split. We decided to stay in the old town to be in the mix. I was surprised at how busy the old port was with all of the cafes along the promenade facing the sea. Apparently, there is a new shipping and ship-building port on the other side of the small peninsula from the old town.
For summer tourists heading to Split, there are many restaurants, a few museums, a number of popular beaches, and lots of tours to the nearby islands of Hvar, Vis, and the Blue Cave. Since we had already been to those places, another boat ride was not on our agenda. Instead, we decided to climb a nearby hill and look at the view. We were told that the town is empty in the winter and most of the apartments are used as rentals. People can rent their apartments during the summer and pay for the entire year.
This palace from the 4th century is the dominating landmark that you see from the port. The exterior was fashioned as a fortress that was completely walled for protection. This area today is referred to as the heart of old town and is 7.5 acres in size. The interior was divided into four quadrants with main streets bisecting the town north/south and east/west. One-quarter of the area was Diocletian’s palace residence, one-quarter was for the Roman garrison protecting the palace and the rest was for gardens and townspeople.
Diocletian stabilized the weakening empire and brought back prosperity and built himself a mausoleum in the palace to celebrate his grandeur. He also brutally persecuted the growing Christian movement. But his successor, Constantine the Great, converted to Christianity and ushered in wholesale changes to the empire. Eventually, the Christians exacted their revenge by disinterring Diocletian and converting his mausoleum into the world’s smallest cathedral.
Since Diocletian and the 4th Century
In the ensuing 1500 years, the palace became a town and the streets and buildings were altered. Some of the buildings still look medieval and others were clearly built during the Renaissance. The basement of the palace itself was used as a garbage dump and was only rediscovered and reclaimed 100 years ago.
As we walked through town we noticed stones with holes in them mounted above the outside of many windows. We learned that this was medieval air conditioning. People would put a pole through the holes and hang a wet cloth from the branch. Apparently, it worked pretty well.
A Bit of Croatia History
Croatia is part of an area known as The Balkans. In terms of disputed territory in history, the Balkans come in 2nd, a bit behind the Middle East. Too complicated for this article, a whirlwind treatment of the story can be found here. We’ll skip to relatively recent events.
Croatians refer to the 1991-1995 conflict from the dissolution of Yugoslavia as the War of Independence. Following the death of dictator Josip Tito in 1980, tensions among different ethnic groups rose until the war broke out. It took four years for the Croatians to expel the neighboring Serbs. The resulting carnage in the country is still being felt. An upcoming change to using the Euro as their currency should help in the long run, with some near-term pain. Interestingly, despite some political disputes, citizens of the two countries are generally friendly and think nothing of vacationing on each other’s land.
Impressions of Split
We really liked Split, the town is very walkable and reminded us of Malaga, only smaller. There was some live music and everyone was getting ready for the European Water Polo Championship (which Croatia won). There is a lovely promenade for strolling and a nice outdoor market too.
Our apartment in Split was just outside the palace part of the old town, in a really good location. It was well appointed and even had a washer and dryer, but no coffee. There was even a sulfur bath down the street. We spent most of our time walking around and exploring the old town.
A note about the food. The food was good and cheaper than Dubrovnik’s, but not great. Toward the end of our time in Croatia, we discovered what became our favorite regional item: burek. It is a rolled pastry made from filo dough and filled with potato, meat, cheese, or fruit. We tried them all. The potato burek was our favorite and Mike said it tasted just like the handmade knishes that his grandma would bring from Canada when she came to visit.
We took a fairly short, slow train ride to Zagreb. Again our apartment was in a good location but Zagreb is a capital city without much to see. So we spent a lot of our time there working on travel planning and the blog.
Still, it is always nice to take a break and see some of the cities we are in so we took a walking tour. All of the oldest buildings are on the top of one of two hills because that was a defensible location. One hill was for religious purposes and the other was for the government. We could only see the outside of three major churches because they were all under renovation due to damage from a pair of earthquakes in 2020. We couldn’t go inside any of them. Many other buildings are awaiting some post-quake TLC.
One of the most interesting things about Zagreb is its tunnels and wartime history. Zagreb was involved in both world wars and most recently the civil war. Today you can pass through some of the tunnels that were used to protect people during those conflicts.
Due to socialized medicine, a doctor in Croatia earns the equivalent of $3000 per month and a house cleaner earns a lot more. That type of situation prompts lots of people to move to other places in the EU where their talents are appreciated.
In Zagreb, all of the other issues that Croatia has been magnified. Inflation for the month of August alone was 12% with wages being stagnant. Our tour guide said, “100 Kuna (now $13) used to buy a great evening out.” However, in comparison to the touristy parts of Croatia, Zagreb was cheaper.
The city itself is beautiful, but it is also crowded, as most capitols are. Not very many tourists. While we were there, we met up with another nomad couple that we had met in Panama. They had been in Zagreb for three months and they had enjoyed it but said it was a little sleepy. We enjoyed Zagreb for the few days we were there. It didn’t appeal to us as a place to stay for any period of time.
Final Thoughts on Croatia
There are lots of things to see and do in Croatia that we really enjoyed, especially along the Dalmatian coast. We decided to skip some of the National Parks with their hiking trails and famous waterfalls. So we definitely have reason to return. Many non-Europeans have been using Croatia as a way to get out of the Eurozone due to visa limitations. Unfortunately for them, the nation is joining the Schengen countries in the near future. This will make border crossing easier, but Croatia will no longer be a sanctuary for those who can only stay in Europe for more than 90 days. That said, Split and other towns along the Dalmatian coast are well worth a visit.
Gratuitous Food Pictures
Where in Croatia would you like to visit?