A Sanctuary for the Lovable and Threatened Donkeys of Split, Croatia

In a pine-shaded park overlooking the sea in Split, Croatia, a fuzzy donkey emerges among a cluster of joggers, dog-walkers, and families.

The passersby stop and smile, delighted to encounter such a creature in Croatia’s second-largest city. Some people snap photos of the grey donkey with their phones. A father and his young son ask the animal’s handler if they can stroke the animal’s muzzle. Eventually, the donkey wanders off, searching for the ideal patch of greenery to nibble upon. She seems content when she finds a grazing place. It has commanding views of the sparkling Adriatic Sea and neighboring islands.

With a short attention span, the donkey trots off again, stopping next to an abandoned phone booth. Seemingly unrelated at first, the juxtaposition of the two is symbolic in that both animal and booth were once considered essential in daily life. Today, in most parts of the world, they’ve both been rendered obsolete by technology.

Not long ago, donkeys were commonplace in the Mediterranean — beasts of burden that sometimes carried weight greater than their own. They toted water and food and helped to mill grain. But today, because of new forms of transport, the animals’ numbers have shrunk dramatically. By some accounts they are approaching extinction in their native environments.

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Exploring the Roman Ruins of Salona: A Day Trip from Split, Croatia

Walking through the ancient Roman city of Salona, a swathe of land dotted with 2,000-year-old stone ruins near seaside Split, Croatia, we felt a bit like Indiana Jones. We playfully feigned jubilation that we had just chanced upon an undiscovered ancient place, as we explored the remnants of the city, which was once home to more than 40,000 inhabitants.

Salona is undoubtedly an archaeological gem, deserving of such praise, however, on this February day, there were only a handful of local residents at the site. We were likely the only travelers there.

One pair of locals enjoyed a picnic on the lawn, surrounded by the old city walls; a woman hung laundry in her backyard which overlooks the ancient amphitheater; and another couple tended to their olive trees, on a plot of land overlooked by the mighty Klis Fortress (a site that has recently gained notoriety as a Game of Thrones filming location). When the gardening couple heard that we fancied Croatia’s delicious wild asparagus, which was in season at the time, they hunted for some in their garden. Plucking a few stalks out of the earth, they generously insisted that we take them as a souvenir to be enjoyed at dinner.

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Escaping to Marjan Hill, the ‘Lungs of Split’ Croatia

Marjan Forest Park is often referred to as the “lungs of Split, Croatia.” The park’s pine forest exhales fresh oxygen into the nearby city — which is removed, but within walking distance. Marjan (or Marjan-Park Šuma, in Croatian) has been a popular recreation spot since at least the 3rd century. Back then, Roman Emperor Diocletian (who had his retirement palace built in Split) had sections of Marjan reserved as park space.

Shawn and I were drawn to the lush park for many reasons. First, it has magnificent views of the Adriatic Sea, as well as the neighboring islands of Brač, Šolta, and Čiovo. Part of Marjan is south-facing, meaning that the sunsets are extraordinary! (See Shawn’s video below for a peek.)

Marjan also has extensive jogging, cycling, and walking trails, as well as picturesque stone churches. Many of the peninsula’s tiny chapels were built centuries ago.

And if you’re lucky, you might even bump into some of Marjan’s resident donkeys.

Whenever we felt the need to escape our home away from home in Split’s bustling Old Town within Diocletian’s Palace walls, we made a pilgrimage to Marjan. On a few occasions we did a bit of foraging for wild asparagus. Other times, we enjoyed a picnic among the agave plants. Most afternoons, we’d see residents walking their beloved dogs or biking. We’d also spot ferries bound for the islands of Hvar, Brač, Šolta, and Vis. And sometimes we’d even glimpse a string of tiny sailboats being piloted by sailing students out on the twinkling Adriatic Sea. The latter two sightings tempted us to embark on an island escape ourselves.

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Delicious History: Zinfandel Wine & Octopus Peka in Kaštela, Croatia

As our friend’s car propelled us up the jagged slopes of Kozjak Mountain in Croatia’s Dalmatia region, we struggled to steady our cameras enough to document the increasingly-magnificent view. Simultaneously fearing for the health of my friend’s tires which risked being ruptured on the rocky dirt road, I marveled at the panorama along this stretch of Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast. In the late-afternoon sunlight, the Adriatic Sea twinkled, and despite technically being wintertime, it called us to take a plunge. The limestone hills overlooking seaside Split and Kaštela wore a blend of foliage. Some trees sported withering, rust-colored leaves from the past season, and others prematurely exhibited pastel blooms and berries. As our Croatian friends had been telling us for weeks, the winter had been unusually warm, raising concern that the flora would be adversely impacted should another cold snap roll in. Given that so many locals dabble in the Mediterranean tradition of winemaking and olive oil production, this did not come as a surprise.

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A Journey Through the Millennia: The Split Archaeological Museum in Croatia

As we perused the holdings at the Split Archaeological Museum along Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast, I found myself most drawn to the stone headstones bearing family portraits of citizens from the Roman Empire – some more than 2,000 years-old. Though the subjects’ faces were often weathered and lacking facial extremities, I enjoyed pondering how the family’s likenesses came to be carved out of stone. Had they sat for the sculptor for hours? Had they worn their best apparel, or had the sculptor depicted them in an idealized fashion? Could they ever guess that visitors would size them up thousands of years later?

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Silver Legacies: The Making of Croatian Filigree Jewelry

 

Master filigree jeweler Viktor Čivljak has a gentle and humble manner despite regularly wielding blow torches and hammers in his making of Old World jewelry. It turns out that the 73-year-old Split, Croatia jeweler also has a penchant for survival, something that we would learn while spending a Saturday afternoon with him, watching step-by-step how to make a pair of intricate filigree silver earrings.

Viktor and his wife, Flora, along with son Lorenc, who is working to become the family’s fourth-generation jeweler, sell their tiny traditional silver treasures in an intimate shop, Filigran Split, located just outside of the 1,700-year-old walls of Roman Emperor Diocletian’s Palace.

Croatia has no trade school for learning the art of making filigree jewelry and in order to become a filigree artist, one must apprentice. Typically family members carry on the jewelry-making tradition, or one approaches a master to request that he take him on as a student. Viktor’s grandfather, Josip, was the first in the family to learn the art, then came father Lorenc, and then Viktor, who began shadowing with his father at the age of 13.

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Klis Fortress & a Game of Thrones Tour in Split, Croatia

For two thousand years, Croatia’s Klis Fortress has held a coveted position among Central Dalmatia‘s craggy landscape. Having been one of the filming locations for Season 4 of a Game of Thrones, as well as host to dramatic events over the millennia, the Klis Fortress appeals to Game of Thrones fans and history enthusiasts looking for things to do in Split.

Admittedly, I’ve never seen an episode of the popular television series, but during our three months in coastal Split, Croatia, we couldn’t escape the hype surrounding Game of Thrones filming locations in and around the area. From “my brother was an extra and met Daenerys” to “our friend acted as a slave girl” to “they filmed a scene on the cobbled street in front of our office” residents were excited and speculative about which Split scenes would make it into the upcoming episodes. Trailers helped them exercise their detective skills and pinpoint some Game of Thrones filming locations even before Season 4 debuted.

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The Art of Making Croatian Filigree Jewelry – Split Croatia

Croatian Filigree Jewelry Split Croatia

When he was just 13 years old, Split jeweler Viktor Čivljak started learning the fine art of making filigree jewelry from his father, a second-generation jeweler.

Today, the 73-year-old master jeweler incorporates breathtaking designs into entirely-handmade brooches, bracelets, earrings, hair pins, pendants and rings. Seemingly spun out of delicate silver thread, Viktor also creates cuff-links, decorative spoons for newborns, and souvenir spoons of Split bearing the city’s cathedral bell-tower.

We recently had the great pleasure of spending the day with Viktor and his wife, Flora, watching as Viktor showed us the painstaking process of making one pair of stunning filigree earrings.

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