Inside Diocletian’s Palace: A Walking Tour in Split, Croatia
In Split, Croatia, residents’ ancestries can be just as intriguing as the remnants of the city’s Roman palace – something that we discovered on a superb walking tour of the UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Our host for the afternoon, history-teacher-turned-guide, Dino Ivančić, exuded passion for Split’s history, yet we found that he’s rather modest about his own. Incredibly, Dino’s roots in Split go back more than 1,000 years.
“During my studies, I was nicknamed ‘the nobleman’ by my teachers,” Dino said. He added that there was perhaps an expectation that he would excel academically, but that he did not receive any special treatment.
I am curious if Dino knows where his family’s ancestral home is, and what their coat of arms looked like. “Yes, for sure,” he said, “but the home is not in the family anymore. My grandparents renounced their wealth during Tito’s time.”
In a city with buildings that still bear coats of arms from centuries bygone, I ask Dino if his family would have had a coat of arms like those that we see adorning so many buildings in Split’s Old Town. Again, Dino is easygoing about his background.
“I think the coat of arms had two griffins, maybe with a golden cup.” Though Dino playfully laments that many of his friends are not as riveted as he is by the history that surrounds them, he does mention the locals’ interest in historical relics, especially when discovered on their own property.
“During the Yugoslavian era, my friends found Roman-era coins in their yard. They sold them and were able to buy a house and an apartment with the money,” Dino said. “Imagine how much those coins would sell for now…”
The childhood archaeologist in me is secretly green with envy. I can’t imagine having grown up in an environment where people might chance upon 1,700-year-old coins in their backyard!
Next, Dino whisked us past what still remains of the Palace of Roman Emperor Diocletian – its walls, basement, Mausoleum (now the St. Duje Cathedral), Peristyle, Vestibule, and Jupiter’s Temple (now the baptistery). He also gave us an overview of Diocletian himself, describing the emperor as a “man of contradictions” who was born to a family in a low economic class not far from present-day Split, only to “rise to the stars.”
Since the Roman Empire was so large, Diocletian actually ran it with three other co-emperors.
“Diocletian made more reforms than any other Roman emperor,” Dino said. “He was also the first official to abdicate in western civilization, and one of the only Roman emperors to die of natural causes.”
After Dino had shown us the the palace shell, and several other notable spots (Split’s Riva, a bustling seaside promenade filled with café-goers, the bronze Gregory of Nin Statue and the Pjaca – the so-called People’s Square), we had sufficiently worked up an appetite so we headed to the Konoba Varoš, a cozy restaurant that’s popular with Split locals and not far from the town center. Surrounded by ceilings enveloped with fishnets and walls adorned with maritime–themed paintings, we started off with a carafe of a Varoš house wine – a very pleasant and traditional Dalmatian Plavac Mali, which is a blend of Zinfandel (Crljenak Kaštelanski) and Dobričić grapes. Shawn and I ordered sautéed Red Scorpion Fish (Škarpina) and Black Cuttlefish Risotto (Crni Rižot).
“In Croatia,” Dino said, “it is customary to share all the dishes that are on the table – what’s there is fair game.”
Aiming to do as the locals do, Shawn and I sampled each other’s selections. The fare, served family style on stainless steel platters, was decidedly Mediterranean, flavored with Croatia’s celebrated olive oil, garlic, spritzes of lemon, and fresh herbs. A plate of grilled eggplant and zucchini was a perfect accompaniment, and Shawn enjoyed slices of golden, crispy bread.
“We have a saying that a fish must swim three times – once in the sea, in olive oil, and then in wine. Of course, the wine is in your stomach,” Dino said, as he encouraged me to drizzle more olive oil on my fish.
As we enjoyed our meal, we bombarded Dino with questions about life in Split. Somehow the conversation also transitioned to stray, but interesting topics.
“Croatians,” Dino mentioned, “invented the necktie, fingerprinting, the torpedo and even the pen.” The man who invented the solid-ink fountain pen was named Penkala.
With the sky having transitioned from brilliant blue to steel grey and tangerine sunset tones, we strolled once more along the bustling Riva towards our ‘home away from home’ in the Old Town. Thanks to Dino, many of the city’s mysteries had been unraveled, but enough remained to keep me guessing as we passed through the weathered limestone gates.
The palace’s Golden Gate entrance, known as Porta Aurea in Roman times (Zlatna Vrata in Croatian). This is the north side of the complex.
You’ll find yourself regularly craning your neck while exploring Split’s Old Town, because the buildings are adorned with so many wonderful details! This is what you see while passing through the Golden Gate.
Mighty palms and their graceful shadows on a mild December afternoon.
Split’s seaside promenade, known informally as the Riva. It’s the place where people go to enjoy coffee and be seen. The cafés and shops here are built onto the south side of the old palace walls.
An artistic interpretation of Diocletian’s Palace, as it might have originally looked. Dino explained that the slaves, servants, military and personal guards of Diocletian lived on the north side of the complex; Diocletian’s quarters faced the Adriatic Sea. Since the land on which the palace was built was sloping, Diocletian ordered construction of basements to elevate his quarters above the commoners’ space. Today, only one of the towers remains. The rest were broken apart by residents in later centuries to construct their own homes and businesses. Recycling the stone was easier than going to a quarry for materials. Image in the public domain, PD-1923.
Though the upper levels of the palace did not survive, incredibly the basement area is still intact today. “Garbage thrown into the subterranean area probably saved the basement from being scavenged. Originally the ceilings and floors would have had mosaic tiling and marble on the walls.” Dino added that the floor plan of the basement would’ve been almost identical to the floor above, which would’ve included Diocletian’s imperial residence. The area was excavated in 1952.
Dino has Shawn belt out words to test the acoustics of a chamber in the basement. The shape of the ceiling causes the person’s voice to magnify directly back to the speaker’s position. Historians are puzzled by this feature – was it an ancient ‘intercom’ – a way of announcing intruders? On the right, an artist’s interpretation of what Diocletian might have looked like.
An enormous replica of a gold coin hangs on the basement wall.
Mosaic tiles undergoing restoration work.
The bell tower of the St. Dominus / Sveti Duje Cathedral (12th Century AD) and octagonal-shaped Mausoleum, where Diocletian was entombed (Late 3rd – Early 4th Century AD). The basement is visible below, as are the upper remains of Diocletian’s imperial residence. On the right, Dino points out the Meander (also known as Greek Key) adorned-border that graces a Roman-era doorway. Meanders were common motifs in Greek and Roman art.
The Vestibule was the entrance to Diocletian’s apartment, and was accessed via the Peristyle. It would’ve originally been adorned with marble slabs, statues and mosaic tile work. The domed ceiling eventually collapsed leaving the opening that lets in glorious sunshine today.
Roman brickwork inside the Vestibule of Diocletian’s Palace.
The Peristyle. Diocletian’s private quarters would have been accessed through the archway straight ahead. “Emperors, who considered themselves gods, had a need to be adored. In the Peristyle, commoners would’ve prostrated themselves to the emperor. Purple,” Dino added “was the color worn by Roman Emperors, hence the granite columns resembling purple. The white columns represented the commoners’ area.”
Sphinx sculptures were imported from ancient Egypt to then-Spalatum (Split) by Diocletian. Most of the sculptures were later decapitated by Christians, however, this one near the St. Duje Cathedral remains intact. In the background you can see the Corinthian capitals adorning the columns of Diocletian’s Mausoleum.
Detail of a Corinthian-style capital on a column lining the Peristyle.
The bell tower of the St. Dominus Cathedral was constructed in the 12th Century and is Romanesque. The bell tower was married with Diocletian’s former mausoleum, which is now a very small cathedral. Given that Diocletian persecuted Christians during his time, it’s ironic that his final resting place was converted into a church that is used for services and weddings today. “Diocletian will be trapped with religion until entirety,” Dino joked.
The interior of Diocletian’s former Mausoleum, now the St. Duje Cathedral. On the day of our visit, restoration work was taking place, so there were boards near the ceiling. Note the Roman brickwork and the elaborate reliefs.
A 3-D View of Diocletian’s Mausoleum as it would’ve looked prior to the construction of the bell tower. Today, only one sphinx remains at the entrance. Image in the public domain, PD-1923.
Detail of the Temple of Jupiter. The building was converted into a baptistery in the Middle Ages. Today it is guarded by a headless sphinx statue.
The barrel-vaulted ceiling of Jupiter’s Temple, which is divided into 64 panels. “Historians are uncertain why different emotional expressions are depicted on the faces in these panels,” Dino said. “Did they perform rites in the temple? Was the emperor ‘moody?”
Centuries-old graffiti on the front side of Jupiter’s Temple.
Intricate detail of Jupiter’s Temple, carved into white limestone extracted from quarries on the nearby island of Brač.
Let Me Pass Street (Pusti me da prodjem), considered by some to be the narrowest street in the world. In past centuries, Dino explained, ladies relished the opportunity to pass here, with the hope of bumping into male suitors, or passing notes to them. On the right, water trickles out of a lion head fountain.
A young man walks through the double doors of the Iron Gate (the west entrance) into the palace complex. This gate was known as Porta Ferrea during Roman times. In the image on the right, a 3,500 year-old sphinx head adorns an unassuming building on a quiet residential courtyard. Emperor Diocletian persecuted Christians, and had thousands of them killed. After Diocletian’s death, Christians would show revenge by destroying pagan symbols within his palace, decapitating most of the sphinx sculptures that Diocletian had brought back from Egypt. (Dino explained that they likely didn’t realize that they were from ancient Egypt.) We were fascinated by this Egyptian ‘souvenir’, and wondered how long it’s hung in this unorthodox spot.
A symphony of caged birds chirped as we admired this original sphinx head. The ancient Egyptian relic contrasted sharply with a pair of neighboring fluorescent pink pajama bottoms, and criss-crossing laundry lines. A neighbor we spoke to said that it was there “for protection.” This had to be one of my favorite finds of the tour!
The bronze statue of Bishop Gregory of Nin, made by Ivan Meštrovic, a celebrated Croatian sculptor and architect. It overlooks the palace wall’s Golden Gate (northern entrance). Local legend says that if you rub the statue’s big toe, it’ll bring you good luck. Our guide, Dino, joked that he’s still waiting for his wish to be granted.
Gregory of Nin strongly opposed the church establishment. In the 10th Century, he called for religious services to be delivered in Croatian, and not in Latin. This move helped make Christianity flourish in the Croatian Kingdom. This statue was originally placed in the Peristyle, but was moved to its current location during World War II.
Shawn makes a wish on the well-polished toe.
The Konoba Varoš, a cozy restaurant that’s popular with Split residents and a few minutes’ walk from the town center.
The restaurant’s interior has ceilings enveloped with fishnets and walls adorned with maritime –themed paintings. During our visit, it was also decked out for Christmas.
Shawn samples a glass of Plavac Mali wine, which is a blend of Zinfandel (Crljenak Kaštelanski) and Dobričić grapes. It’s a type of wine that’s quite popular in Croatia’s Dalmatia region.
This tender Red Scorpionfish’s flavor was enhanced by a generous drizzle of Dalmatian olive oil, and a spritz of lemon juice. A plate of grilled eggplant and zucchini was a perfect accompaniment to this Škarpina dish.
Black Cuttlefish Risotto, known in Croatian as Crni Rižot. The scrumptious dish gets its trademark jet-black color from the cuttlefish’s black ink, which helps it evade predators. The light flavor of the cuttlefish paired well with a sauce made of olive oil, garlic and parsley.
Shawn and I pose with our guide extraordinaire, Dino, at the Konoba Varoš.
Where in the World?
- For more information on Split and the Central Dalmatia region of Croatia, visit the Central Dalmatia Tourist Board website.
- To schedule an individual or group tour with Dino in Split or beyond, you can reach him at the following email address: Dino.ivancic [at] hotmail.com, or mobile number: +00 385 98 647781.
- At the time of writing, there were separate fees to enter the St. Duje Cathedral, Jupiter’s Temple, and Basement / Cellar, all of which are situated in what was once Diocletian’s Palace. There is, however, no fee to walk through Diocletian’s Palace, since much of Split’s Old Town (including shops, hotels, restaurants, and residences) is now housed inside the palace’s former walls.
- If you’ll be staying in Split for three days or more, be sure to pick up a free Split Card, which gives you free entry to certain museums and galleries, and reduced rates to others. If you’ll be in Split for less than three days you can purchase the card for 5 Euro.
- During our 2+ months spent in Split, we stayed at the lovely Kaleta Apartments (affiliate link) which are located within Diocletian’s Palace. Our studio apartment (called the Diocletian’s Suite) featured much character, including Roman brickwork, and views of Old Town Split below. Owners Novica and Negri were thoughtful citizen ambassadors too.
- Need more inspiration? This link contains an index of all my posts from Croatia.
Disclosure & Thanks:
Our walking tour and lunch were provided by the Central Dalmatia Tourist Board, to which we extend thanks.
Hvala – an extra special thank you – to Nasja, to our guide Dino, and finally to the Konoba Varoš Restaurant team for everything you did to make our afternoon so special.
Photography & text © by Tricia A. Mitchell, with the exception of the public-domain photograph noted above. All Rights Reserved. Video footage is courtesy of my husband, Shawn.