A short return to Croatia: popular Split and pleasant Zagreb.

Split is a major touristic destination in Croatia and the easiest transit spot for many idilic islands along the coast. Having escaped this super touristy Adriatic Coast summer feeling when I left Dubrovnic for Bosnia, it hit me like a ton of bricks when I came back. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautiful place and that’s why tons of people go there. I just realized I wasn’t in the mood for it. But, unlike the time I decided I had had enough of Sri Lanka while having lunch in the middle of the country, and had breakfast the next day in Bangkok, this time I did stay the day in Split, plus another day in Zagreb on my way to Slovenia. Here’s a short post about what I saw there.

The main cultural attraction in Split is the former palace of the Roman Emperor Diocletian. The man was born a nobody and through an immensely successful military career, ended up ruling the Empire for over twenty years. He is widely considered to have brought military security and administrative stability to an Empire on the brink of collapse. Not perfect, he also persecuted Christians like nobody before him and introduced a system of price control to bring down inflation, something which is obviously idiotic and never works. But I won’t be too critical, since unlike Hugo Chavez and Robert Mugabe, Diocletian had the excuse of having had the idea in the year 301. He was also unique in that he was the first Roman Emperor to make the decision to retire, at the age of 61.


The Diocletian Palace was built as his retirement home. This central plaza is known as the peristyle.


Everyday around noon, the former Emperor would appear at this balcony and wave to the crowds, who would salute him in return.


Behind him, this large room with no ceiling. It had been designed so that the mid-day sun would come through and reflect violently on the white marble floor. As the balcony’s doors would be opened, this would blind the people and Diocletian would appear, walking out of light, God-like.


This structure was build as his mausoleum, but at the time of his death, the new Emperor, Constantine the Great, was a Christian (the first one). Constantine forbade the use of Christians as feline nutritional supplements, and eventually the treatment of Christians went from persecution to favouritism. So eventually, this bell tower was built, the mausoleum was converted into a church and Diocletian’s body was replaced with that of some important Christian leader he had ordered executed. The Romans eventually abandoned the Palace, but after a few centuries people moved in again to take advantage of the security the walls offered. At some point, thousands lived within the walls.


Today, most of the residences are nicely renovated hotels and guesthouses. Probably pretty quiet in january.


But a few people still live there, clearly unable to afford the costs of properly renovating their own houses (hard to see, but the roof is in terrible condition and the attic has been abandoned to the pigeons). Given the place’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site (the best preserved Roman Castle anywhere in the world), renovations are probably quite regulated and expensive, but I don’t actually know.

Besides all this, the Palace has expensive restaurants and a very expensive tie shop (like $500 for a tie). It turns out the Croatians invented the necktie. The Officers of a Croat Regiment wore them while serving the King of France in the 17th century, and the fashion caught on. In fact, the French word “cravate” is a deformation of the word “croate”. About 200 years later, Americans invented Father’s Day, and this is why in most parts of the world today, men with children own many ugly neckties they never wear.


Zagreb! The capital is not on top of the list of places to visit in Croatia for most tourists. But the pleasant town was a nice place to hang around in, full of beautiful parks and cafes. Deliberately, I visited nothing at all.


But I did go on a little evening walking tour, and saw all these people doing some kind of collective training, using what I think were rubber bands.


My hotel was right next to the Zagreb Cathedral. The enormous structure is in a state of permanent renovations.


If you go behind, you can see that the stone is crumbling. During the reign of Tito, there was a big push to develop heavy industry, which made Yugoslavia one of the richest communist countries. But it also created a big problem of acid rains, which can have a devastating effect on limestone, essentially dissolving it. So they are literally rebuilding the cathedral stone by stone.


Not exactly a do-it-yourself week-end reno project.


A lot of Croatians appear to be quite religious. This shrine (not sure if that is the right word), contains a painting of the Virgin Mary. The painting was in a church that burned down, but apparently the painting didn’t. So it went from being a Holy Relic to an Extra Holy Relic  (EHR) and they keep it in this small covered street. I also saw tiny little chapels, maybe 4 m by 3 m, in such unusual places as train stations, and people waiting in the station would actually go in, probably to pray for the train to arrive.


A cool statue of the great Croatian writer Miroslav Krleža. At the end of the tour, I grabbed a bite to eat with a Mexican geologist who happened to be on the same visit of the Diocletian Palace I was on!


And a surprising cafe near the Zagreb train station. I wished I had the time to go in and investigate, but I had a bus to Slovenia to catch.


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