Inside the Emperor’s Palace

Diocletian's Palace at dusk in Split, Croatia.
Diocletian's Palace at dusk in Split, Croatia.Christopher Groenhout / Getty Images

In A.D. 305, the Roman emperor Diocletian abdicated his position as the world’s most powerful man in order to live out his last years on a sun-drenched Adriatic peninsula. The beauty of the land on which he constructed his sprawling fortress made the emperor’s decision understandable and, according to legend, he only once emerged from behind his white marble walls during his decade-long retirement. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the palace was abandoned, but villagers and tradespeople eventually moved back in, building homes and churches (Diocletian, who persecuted Christians, would have hated that) directly atop the ruins. Though among the best-preserved Roman palaces in the world, the emperor’s retirement home is still in constant use by the resourceful residents of Split, Croatia, who have grown accustomed to living among artifacts.

Bits of the pleasure dome, like the basement catacombs and the Temple of Jupiter, have now been restored and turned into tourist attractions, but the majority of Diocletian’s complex is still a warren of winding streets and decaying stone buildings that host cafés, hotels, apartments, and shops. Peer inside a downtown bank and you’ll see tellers’ booths arranged around crumbling Roman stonework. Take a seat at a sidewalk café and you may find yourself face-to-face with black granite Egyptian sphinxes installed 1,700 years ago.

Despite its ancient trappings, Split – aptly named given its geographical and social position midway between Italy and Central Europe – is the largest city and cultural capital of the modern Dalmatian coast. Travelers can spend a Mittel-European morning here sipping thick coffee piled high with schlag, a thick cream, then lunch on Mediterranean gnocchi with seafood sauce. By day, bands of costumed singers performing klapa music, the rousing local version of a capella, roam the streets; at night, grand outdoor concert and opera performances take advantage of ancient acoustics. Although there are plenty of museums and galleries to pop into, Split is perhaps best experienced by wandering its sunny cobblestone streets and taking in the life of the city: cats lounging on the remains of ancient columns; laundry drying in every available window and courtyard; old men hawking long, braided ropes of garlic. Like the emperor, you may not want to leave.

More Information: There are several attractive boutique hotels located within the palace walls, but it’s far more fun and affordable to rent rooms in private homes, known as sobes: Just head to the bus station or ferry terminal and start negotiating with the ladies bearing placards. A clean, well-located room should cost no more than $50 per night; a little extra can often buy you a home-cooked Croatian dinner.

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