by Marla Norman, TCO Publisher
What IS that color? Adriatic Blue is so unlike any other body-of-water blue that I’ve seen. So-Not midnight, indigo, navy, turquoise or teal. It’s somehow richer more intense. And even more astonishing than the color is that I have the whole, vast sea to myself. Driving along the deserted highway between Dubrovnik and Split, there are only breathtaking mountain vistas and the hypnotic blue highway below. Timeless and undisturbed. The Venetian merchants, who dominated this sea for over eight centuries, must have had the same untouched view.
DUBROVNIK: GRACE UNDER FIRE
Serene and majestic as the Adriatic is, Croatia has had a long and complicated history. I get my first lesson in Dubrovnik. Established in the 7th Century, this remarkable city was a country unto itself for six centuries – from 1358 until 1808 – when Napoleon conquered the region. During the 20th Century, Croatia and the other Southern Slavic countries were folded into a single nation that became Yugoslavia, part of the Soviet Eastern Bloc, with Belgrade, Serbia as the capital. After the fall of the Berlin Wall In 1989, Croatia, like many Eastern European countries, began to reestablish its autonomy. From November 1991 to May 1992, Dubrovnik was particularly targeted by the Yugoslav army. The world watched in horror as the city was cut off from electricity, water and food, and the august structures — already a UNESCO World Heritage Site — were shelled. In the end, international outrage helped end hostilities and donors from around the world worked to restore the city.
These days, Dubrovnik is awash with tourists eager to see the Adriatic treasure. And, you can’t blame them. The terra cotta roofs and whitewashed buildings are dazzling. Enormous 10-foot thick walls, over a mile long, surround the entire city. Turrets and towers crown the walls to add to the grandeur.
The playwright George Bernard Shaw observed: “If you want to see heaven on earth, come to Dubrovnik. Because the beauty there will leave anyone breathless.” Shaw didn’t exaggerate. Inside the city, wide streets paved with intricately placed tiles, lead to beautifully constructed cathedrals and monasteries. Ornate columns and statuary decorate the facade of St. Blaise. The imposing Franciscan Monastery is also the site of one of Europe’s oldest pharmacies, dating from 1318.
A 15th Century Sephardic Synagogue, the second oldest in Europe (The Synagogue in Prague is the oldest.) was built by Jews who had been expelled from Spain in 1492.
One of the most striking buildings is the Rector’s Palace. Built in late-Gothic and early Renaissance style with an arcaded loggia, this was the home of the Senate when Dubrovnik was still a Republic. Now a museum portrays a history of Dubrovnik’s golden era until the city fell to Napoleon.
Exhausted from touring, I collapse at one of the cute bistros on the plaza. The table next to me is piled with pizzas. On the other side are risottos and pasta. The aroma is tantalizing. I’m wondering how to say “linguine” in Croatian, when a smiling waitress gives me a menu in English.
SPLIT: DIOCLETIAN’S LAST RESORT
I’m spending the night in an Emperor’s palace!
Split’s old city center is the site of a lavish villa, almost one-square mile in area, built for the Roman Emperor Diocletian and his large staff. The palace was constructed in 295 AD, on the Adriatic, with soaring walls, watch towers and massive gates.
Diocletian’s choice for a villa far from Rome might seem odd initially, but then he wasn’t Roman. He was from Salona, an area near present-day Split. Born to a low-class family, he defied the odds to became a successful military leader, powerful enough to eventually become emperor. His rule, however, was less successful — marked by unstable finances, threats from abroad and a vicious persecution of Christians.
Exhausted and ill, Diocletian left his throne in 305, becoming the only Roman emperor to voluntarily abdicate. He retreated to his native country and spectacular palace, where he lived for another six years.
After Diocletian’s death, families from the surrounding areas moved into the palace and split up the vast rooms. By the 11th century, settlements extended well outside the original walls. Today, Split is a large, commercial city and Diocletian’s Villa — huge as it is — seems dwarfed by the urban development.
I park my rental car several blocks away from the ancient site, since vehicles aren’t allowed within the old walled city. It’s evening, the sun is setting and the seaside promenade is filled with diners at cafes and bars. It’s an exceptionally lovely setting. I can imagine the old emperor watching sunsets from his grand terrace centuries ago.
Inside the walls, it feels as if the 21st century has disappeared along with with the vanishing daylight. I walk through a maze of narrow streets, small shops, more cafes and architectural digs — looking for my hotel. There are only three within the old site, and I’m schlepping my luggage as I search. The GPS apparently stopped functioning with the change of centuries. Painful! But I’m thrilled by the ancient Roman buildings and eager to experience every inch of this architectural marvel.
A VENETIAN LEGACY
Out early the following morning, I get a whiff of the sea — a slightly amplified jolt. I’ve come across a fish market doing a brisk business. Anchovies and inky cuttlefish are in great demand.
Exiting the market, I make my way to the Peristil, the public square where Diocletian once addressed his subjects from the grand entryway to his palace. Now, during the Summer Festival, the area is used for opera performances.
What was once Diocletian’s mausoleum sits impressively nearby. During the 7th Century, the tomb was converted into a church. And, in a justly ironic twist, Christians renamed the church in honor of Bishop Dominus of Salona, who had been executed for his religion by Diocletian himself. The cathedral’s main door, created in 1214, has 28 carved wooden reliefs portraying scenes from the life of Christ. The 200-foot Romanesque-Gothic bell tower was built between the 12th and 16th Centuries.
A temple, originally dedicated to Jupiter, was also converted to a baptistery. Incongruously, an Egyptian sphinx still guards the entrance while a strikingly contemporary sculpture of John the Baptist, by renown Croatian sculptor Ivan Meštrović, adorns the interior.
Another renowned Meštrović work of art sits at the north entrance to the palace — a colossal statute of Bishop Grgur Ninski, a local hero who campaigned for the use of the Slav language in Catholic churches during the 9th Century.
Since the 15th Century, a beautiful Gothic clock has marked time in Split. It presides over an especially pretty corner of the old town, across from the 14th Century Cipriano Palace, built by the Duke of Korčula. For 374 years, from 1420 to 1797, Venice ruled Split. Ornate Renaissance buildings, like that of the Ciprianis, are a testament to those prosperous decades.
Walking through the worn marble streets, I come across a large section of the exterior wall that is badly worn.Tufts of grass are growing out of decayed rock and sediment. Bare bricks and stones are exposed. A TV antenna has been callously screwed into an ancient stone lintel.
Initially the scene strikes me as a kind of sad metaphor for the temporality of the human condition, lost empires and art treasures, etc. But then I think about the fact that the entire structure has been around for over 1,700 years — much of it beautifully restored. I realize instead that I’m witnessing something miraculous.