Split, Hvar and Dubrovnik: Three Pearls of Croatia
By Terje Raa
My favorite part of Croatia forms a triangle, blue as the Adriatic and with corners made up of three pearls: Split, Hvar and Dubrovnik. Whether you choose Split or Dubrovnik, you can’t go wrong in this part of the world!
It’s an oddly shaped triangle, in which Split marks the upper corner and Hvar Town lies vertically below, quite nearby. The long sides point southeastwards, along the Dalmatian coast, all the way to Dubrovnik. My triangle is simply a sealocked copy of this wedge-shaped part of the country.
Whether arriving by air or sea, Split is a popular gateway. Its splendors must wait, though, for I’m already approaching the island of Hvar in a catamaran due to drop me after one hour at the hippest holiday resort of Croatia, Hvar Town. This paradise comes in two versions; low season offering quiet medieval charms, for example in September, and a high season party zone abounding with yacht-borne celebrities.
Carpe Diem, a famous cocktail bar close to the catamaran’s docking place, has become a trademark of Hvar Town. Around here, I might run into some celebrities at night, when they appear in the bar, on the quarterdeck of their luxurious yachts or under the palms of the Riva promenade. Hotel Slavija, Carpe Diem’s neighbor and contrast, attracts a different crowd; mainly middle-aged couples taking an after-dinner dance to retro pop tunes by Legino Band.
Strains of opera pour out of the Venetian Loggia one morning, part of Hotel Palace. Opera has certainly sounded on many occasions from the stage opposite, Hvar Theater, established in 1612 on the first floor of the Arsenal.
Climbing in Dubrovnik
Loggia and the Arsenal mark the lower end of the spectacular St. Stephen Square, whose upper end is adorned with the Cathedral’s trefoil facade. Promenades on either side of the bay lead to small pebble beaches, whereas the most frequented beaches, some of them for naturists only, are found on the Pakleni Islets in front of town.
The Southern Pearl
The old ship Liburnija is going to do the lower side of my triangle, a line so long that she needs eight hours and allows herself a short stop on the island of Korcula.
At the end of the line, the walled-in city of Dubrovnik is nowhere to be seen, until a local bus lets me off at Pile Gate where St. Blaise, the city’s patron saint, welcomes me from his niche above the entrance. We already met; before the war in the early 1990s, the effects of which are depicted in great detail on a white poster next to Pile.
Circling the defensive walls – 1.2 miles (2 km) long, up to 82 feet (25 m) high and 20 feet(6 m) thick – is a challenge, both physically and mentally. Thousands of new red tiles tell their own story, really striking if you see them from the highest section, the northern land side. With the Adriatic shining on two sides, it’s like having history served on a silver platter, a history including 450 years of independence as a city republic, beginning in 1358.
Southern Palace Wall, Split
Ragusa, as Dubrovnik was named until 1918, was an aristocratic republic headed by a Rector, who was replaced every month, while the noblemen of the Grand Council and the Senate held the real power. The republic based its wealth on trade and a dominant merchant fleet.
As to safety, the defensive walls had of course a deterrent effect, but more crucial were perhaps all the skilful diplomats promoting the republic’s interests through a network of consulates. A devastating earthquake in 1667 left only the city walls intact. The majority of the Renaissance and Gothic buildings were in ruins and most were rebuilt in the more modest Baroque style. In 1808, Napoleon disbanded the republic.
Placa, the merely 1,000-foot-long main street (300m), traverses the entire city from Pile in the west to Luza Square in the east, the latter surrounded by the Sponza Palace, St. Blaise Church and the Rector’s Palace.
Countless cultural events take place on Luza Square, especially during the Dubrovnik Festival in July and August, but even September is lively. Last night, a midnight concert of classical music attracted a large crowd, and this morning, the square was invaded by folk dancers from Korcula, giving everybody a fright when pretending to attack each other with their swords.
A Roman Emperor
An intercity bus does its best to draw the last line of my triangle, the upper long side, although the coastal road to Split is anything but a straight line. The views, however, compensate for that. During four and a half hours, the scenery keeps me awake by alternating between uphill and downhill, sharp bends, peaceful bays with islands opposite, and verdant greenery, particularly in the Neretva Delta.
The bus drops me near Diocletian’s Palace, like Dubrovnik a World Heritage site. Diocletian, Roman Emperor, built the vast palace for his own retirement 1700 years ago, a structure measuring 700 feet. by 600 feet (215 by 180 m), centuries later developing into a medieval town and today the busy core of Split, even containing a hotel, the old Hotel Slavija. Along the southern palace wall, a magnificent palm-clad promenade, Riva, stretches away westwards.
Should Diocletian reappear, and the idea is not far-fetched, for the man considered himself an almighty half-god, then he would probably start his tour on the Riva, enter the palace through Bronze Gate and take a close look in his cellars, in which he used to lock up Christians who refused to worship him as their deity. He could continue to the central square, the colonnaded Peristyle, where his seldom appearances took place.
In his own mausoleum at Peristyle, today the Cathedral of Split, the Emperor might reveal what happened to his deceased body. It actually disappeared at some point in history.
A careful ascent to the bell tower’s top could show him what became of Split: a modern city of 200,000 inhabitants, thus confirming that he chose the perfect location; on a lovely bay backed by bluish mountains. In case he leaves through the western gate, Iron Gate, Diocletian would certainly be tempted to a coffee break on the most beloved square in Split, Narodni Trg.
To see my triangle, at least part of it, in a perspective, I proceed to the far end of the harbor, out where the ACI Marina lies at the foot of a little park, Sustipan, from a distance looking like a green plateau. This abandoned cemetery, the epitome of peace and beauty, apparently sharpens my senses. While admiring
Split through a forest of masts, I sense the nearness of Hvar, and images of faraway Dubrovnik seem to emerge from the gentle waves of the Adriatic.
Terje Raa is a Norwegian freelance writer based in Copenhagen, Denmark.
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