Split was the final destination of our trip and also my favourite one. It’s Croatia’s second biggest city, but the Old Town part of it is quite small and contained, so easy to explore on foot. It’s a labyrinth of cobblestone and marble alleyways fringed with archaic stone buildings packed tightly next to each other, and all built to surround the grand Diocletian’s Palace, which is the town’s most famous icon. The maze contains many surprises, from hidden art galleries and bars to tiny restaurants and secluded shops. Every time we entered it, we found something new – even when we thought we were retracing an old route. It’s a wonderful place to get lost.
As Venice and Split have a long association, and Italy is just across the sea, Split’s food has strong Italian influences, so its known for its black risotto (dyed with squid ink), pizza and pastas. It’s also famous for its fresh seafood, and its pastries. I don’t know how Croatians are so thin! They start the day with little doughnuts, infused with fruit and dusted in icing sugar, or apple strudels, jam doughnuts, various cakes, pies and turnovers, and they end their evening with gelato – every night we saw people queueing for ice-creams at 8pm! If I lived there, I’d turn into a happy little whale-creature, and spend all day in a gelato-doughnut induced coma.
The town’s harbour is a bustling hot spot, full of bag-wheedling tourists, apartment peddling locals, fishermen, vendors and restaurants. The harbour leads to a gorgeous promenade alongside the sea, with buzzing restaurants built against the exterior walls of the Diocletian’s Palace – a pleasing mish-mash of architecture styles, washing lines and window boxes. This is the heart of the town, where locals and tourists laze on benches surrounded by flowers, or sip cocktails at one of the classy establishments (read tourist traps) overlooking the walkway.
On our first full day, Tom and I took the little blue train to Marjan, and spent the best day at the cove on deckchairs by the bay. We lazed like lizards in the sun, and listened to the cobalt waters lap gently against the shore. The beach has no sand, and consists mainly of rocks and paving, with a ladder leading into the cordoned off swimming area. Tom insisted we swim even though the water was freezing, so he got in and swam around for a while, and I reluctantly got in, squealed, paddled around for a second and then evacuated fast, making a beeline back to my deckchair. I really loved how free the locals are – regardless of size and shape, the women wear bikinis and seem to have no concerns at all about displaying their beautiful tanned and abundant flesh. It made me feel silly about being so body-conscious all the time – I think the Croatians have some good life lessons to teach.
Every night we found a different restaurant to dine at – the first one was an Italian joint, which served the best pasta I’ve ever eaten – tagliatelle with a rich cream and truffle infused sauce, with proscuitto and garlic. It was the pinnacle of pastas; I don’t expect to ever find anything to top it. The second night, we went to a less memorable spot called Chops Grill, which was lovely, but not quite as mind-blowing. Every night when we walked back home, we saw a man feeding a queue of street cats in one of the town’s squares. There were at least six to eight kitties surrounding him, waiting for their turn to eat Whiskers off a spoon. He’d hold the spoon out and the chosen cat would hook its little paw around his arm to bring the spoon closer for optimal kitty food consumption. It was the sweetest thing I’ve ever seen, especially when it was the kittens’ turns. Tom and I are convinced that the streets of Split are ruled by an underground cat mafia – they’re everywhere and I’m pretty sure they have a hierarchy and Catfather, who instructs the younger felines in important life lessons such as the art of begging, and how to sneak sardines from the fish market.
Our second day was spent on the neighbouring island of Hvar. We caught the Jadrolinija Catamaran in the morning and arrived on the sunny, historical isle an hour later. Hvar is charming – its home to an old church and a Spanish fortress high up on the hill. The fortress is well-worth a visit, and we enjoyed exploring it and viewing its extensive amphorae (pot) collection. Tom was very enamoured by said pots. I was not. The views are incredible though – you can gaze straight down at Hvar and the ocean and islands surrounding it. Following our historical pursuits, we climbed down the cobblestone steps, back to the square, where we had a beer and cider in the park, followed by a little wander by the sea. We then went walking along some of the alleyways behind the square, and shared an ice cream while sitting on a bench, watching a sea gull attempt to consume a fish nearly its own size. It was a pretty perfect day. We caught the Catamaran back to Split in the afternoon, and went to one of the local restaurants for lunch – Tom ate his body weight in prawns and I attempted to eat an entire sea bream, but was rather put off by its bones, eyeball and sharp teeth. We spent our evening meandering along the seaside promenade on the other side of town, trying to catch a glimpse of the sunset.
We only had two full days in Split – the morning of the third day involved catching the bus to the airport, which we arrived at 5 hours early due to a certain (ahem Thomas) person’s paranoia about missing our flight. We walked across the road from the airport, past a group of eerily abandoned greenhouses to the beach, which was very serene and pretty, and a good way to while away one of the many hours before our flight. From Split, we flew back to Prague, and then home to Cape Town the following day.
I’ve already decided that we’ll come back to Croatia one day. Without doubt, it was my favourite destination of our trip, and somewhere I could return to again and again.