Our first evening meal was at Konoba Insula. We ate alfresco, sitting along a wall in the narrow, impossibly narrow Popovica Ulica. It was well past 8 pm and dusk was quickly turning into night. For lunch, I had grilled bass in sesame seed and that night I had seafood risotto. There was much that was like Italy, especially Venice in Split.
No 1 Popovica was a 5-storey stone building. The main entrance was reddish brown wood, but very definitely not mahogany. The windows had green shutters. We were practically sitting shoulder against the outside wall of No1. Whilst we were eating people arrived to stay at No 1, so that we concluded it must be a hostel: a group of young men and women arrived in shorts, backpacks, vests and Dr Martens boots and displays of tattoos and bangles.
Next morning we arrived well past the busy hour at the fish market that was designed by Ante Bezić. We` arrived towards midday. The stalls that were still open had wild sea bass, majestic and silver in their elegance, skate, immature stingrays, bream, red snapper and sardines. Mussels and whelks were in another hall. There were far too many minnows that the sea here would likely be dead soon, fished dead, that is.
The statue of Gregory of Nin by Ivan Mestrović stood at 8 meters tall in front of the North Gate of the Palace of Diocletian. The Bishop, Gregory of Nin, was holding a bible in his left hand in the pose of Moses with the Ten Commandments and his right hand was raised with one finger about to hurl a thunderbolt.
Above the Golden Gate leading into the inner gate there was a narrow chapel dedicated to St Martin. A wide colonnaded street with Diocletian’s mausoleum to one side (now a cathedral) led to the opus quadratum. It is ironic that Diocletian who persecuted Christians now lies within a church. Diocletian travelled to Egypt and like all warlike plunderers brought a 4,000-year old sphinx that sat in front of his mausoleum. This regal and properly ancient object was carved in black basalt and had all the serenity and confidence of power that is extinct, that no longer threatens by subterfuge, treachery or crass bullying to kill or maim.
Opposite the mausoleum were temples to Cybele and Venus. The restaurant here was called Luxor in honour of Diocletian’s plunderer’s trip to the upper Nile. But, perhaps I ought to be more generous to Diocletian. On the face of it, here was a Roman emperor who shared with Maximilian the empire and appointed assistant emperors to rule over the Roman Empire, a man from humble, Croatian background, who abdicated by choice, after 20years and retired to his palace in Split. He lived another 7 years. When he ruled over the Eastern Empire, Maximilian ruled over the Western empire. Maximilian was also of humble origins and retired to his native Serbian home. This concession to self-imposed time-limited rule flies in the face of the despotism of Kabila and other tyrants of our times. Sadly though, Diocletian’s wife Prisca and his only child, his daughter Valeria were murdered by his rivals out in Syria.
The Temple of Jupiter is now the Cathedral of St John the Baptist. The wrought iron gate was painted green and had the Greek letters for Christus Victor. But, the gate was framed by an older pagan frieze of subtle emblems, Dionysian vines, skull heads, Cherubs with their lower limbs in the mouth of serpents, etc. The real marvel of Split is the sudden and unexpected residue of the Ancients amongst the living: the Forum as an active space in the 21st century.
We had been for our walk along the Dalmatian coast. We then sat by F de Mar, waiting for our dinner, sipping a glass of Merlot. The evening light was lighting up the city and the sea was glistening and moving, dancing in the light. The city was set against the Diocletian hills, wondrous and beautiful, drenched in honey. The masts of the luxury yachts were waving in the air.
In the time between sitting and eating, the sun went from golden honey to peach pink, and the hills too became like the atmosphere above, a more subtle lilac. It was the time for promenades in Mediterranean culture, elderly couples, young couples, families, and troupes of girls in bikinis wrapped in towels, walked slowly, ponderously, deliriously, or briskly. The sun was below the hills and there was a dark glaze rippling over the sea. The temperature was a comfortable high 20s. A breeze, a comforting breeze was blowing. After coffees we went off to watch Turandot. The last time we saw Turandot was in Slovenia, with the Chinese State Opera. Puccini is always excellent. Here in Split, Turandot was played in the open, like at Verona, but a more intimate scale, more human. The music was, well, Puccini, melodious, dramatic, varying themes that were introduced, expanded, suggested and concealed. In Split, Turandot was balletic, well choreographed, and visually ornate. Strangely, the conductor did not come out to take his bow, too exhausted I suppose.
At Trogir, we found the cathedral. It was a welcome respite from the heat. But, even here, in the splendid limestone walled space, it was still hot and I was dripping wet in sweat. Ivan Trogirski’s chapel has his tomb and the treasury had his relics including his hands, I think, encased in ornamental silver replicas of the living flesh, with a gem on each palm. It was strange to find in a Catholic church, the hand of Fatima, to ward off the evil eye. The last time we saw that was in Fez.
Trogirski lay on his left side, his shepherd’s crook beside the whole length of him. His head was on a pillow and guarded by two angels. He was asleep in the never-ending rest and repose, as if he might just wake up.
A frieze of Adam and Eve standing on Roman lions, fig leaves covering their privacy, surrounded the cathedral’s entrance. There was also a display of the monthly calendar, turning pigs into sausages, shearing sheep in April and so on. There was a lot of mythology about Trogirski’s hands- how one arm was torn off and taken to Venice and how it magically flew back to its rightful place at Trogir. Even more preposterous, how his body and coffin were lost and found after revealing themselves and their whereabouts in a dream to whoever, I suppose that’s what tells you that Trogir was a medieval city with a superb cathedral, a town hall, a legal/administrative space and narrow streets and wall.
We had lunch at an Italian of sorts and then there was the 3 hour drive to Plitvice, up and upwards and across, and switchback, and downhill unto the far and beyond, the remote wilderness of Croatia.
We stayed in an Alpine style house up in the hills. From our attic room, we could see one of the lower lakes, blue-green in the distance where Swallows were swooping and every now and again we caught sight of their flashing light coloured breasts. There were pine, larch and olive trees. Our abode was genuinely idyllic in its remoteness, its lush green colours and the sky held in place by the circle of hills.
The next day we walked the length of the numerous lakes and waterfalls: Milanovački, Milanova, Veliki, Movakovića, Prošóansko, Giginovacetc. I had not expected or imagined that there would be so many people. A continuous single file of them, walking along the boards, stopping for selfies and photos of fish, ducks, the waterfalls and string of lakes laid down like lapis lazuli on a string. And the fish too, the ones skating under the surface of the water: first were the rainbow trout, swimming against the tide; it must take undue energy to stay still, not merely to swim against the current, their tail fins were an iridescent turquoise. Further down, perhaps carp that changed their fins from royal blue through to astonishing black. There were the surprising eel, slithering away among the bulrushes and carp that looked for the world like swordfish without the sword, its fins an intricate working of wine red and oyster buff.
The lakes and waterfalls in magnificent attire that nature wore lightly sang the watery sigh and hush against gravity and limestone. It is easy, far too easy, to think of a time before man, with primeval forests and the cascade of waterfalls and the lakes- an abundance of fish, of wild boar, deer, bear, and a sky so vast and infinite to truly be infinite. There was restfulness and mystery, a depth and darkness of feeling, something almost spiritual or religious, sacred is a much better word, in the immensity of the space at Plitvice.
There were emerald and turquoise dragonflies, glistening in the midday sun, flapping their wings, slowly in some kind of code unknown to humans. There was a surfeit of water skaters, balanced on the tension of the lake’s meniscus. Then butterflies in amongst the willow and bulrushes. The lake was suddenly glistening with millions of pinprick points of light, diamantes, it was quite impossible to do justice with words to the grandeur of it all.
The following day, we came upon a path that was far from the madding crowd. It hugged Lake Kozjak. Only a few other people had discovered it. There was the faintest hint of a centrifugal ripple of water coming out to the edge, much like the perfume of a woman long gone but now momentarily disturbed as you open the door to her boudoir. After sometime, we found the most restful place to sit, watching fish swim by in the blue-green and clear water. There, fir and beech were in abundance. Ferries glided on the water with a wake that was like two strings slicing the water. An occasional German or Russian voice, a strained equivocal English, halting, accented, but mostly it was silence that predominated.
We sat under a crown of beech trees and the wind picked up, the branches swaying and dancing, the leaves in an ecstasy of tremors. But, the real wonder was the rustling of the leaves, in that indescribable currency of a stream splashing against rocks or of endless brooms against a tiled floor. The lake was far below us, at this point, and it stretched to the other bank, and even further away to the imagined horizon- that is what hope is this stretching to imagined horizon– the unseen but providential future against the possibility of an abrupt unforgiving bank.
In the late afternoon, as the sun was starting to set we travelled to Radoke, a town that was built on a network of springs, streams, rivers, waterfalls and cascades. Houses had their floors as bridges over a dense network of waterways. Surprising gushes of water cascaded down gullies into rivers far below. I had never seen anything quite like it before. Jan went for a swim where the locals swim in the evening- families and young couples and troupes of teenagers lay by the river, some diving and some lazing in the water or simply paddling. The sunset was spectacular; a motorway bridge seemed for a short time to prop up the sun before its final descent.
At dinner we sat next to F, a Scot-Australian lawyer/businessman who was travelling through Eastern Europe for 4 months. He had driven from Slovenia, Ljubljana and Lake Bled, before then Budapest. He told us about his wife who died 3 years before from breast cancer. He talked endlessly about his business concepts, his firm, his law practice and his difficulties with his daughter. He was one of these superficially jolly people, who if he stopped speaking for a minute might breakdown into tears- that was how controlled his emotions were but threatening to breakthrough to the surface were the dark surges of his melancholia.
I woke up well past midnight to look through the skylight at the night sky and, yes it was spectacular. The stars were absolutely incredible- the myriad galaxies and formations of my childhood, everything was pinprick clear and luminous, like chinks of glass in an echo chamber.
We travelled back to Split, stopping at Zadar for lunch. Zadar was another medieval walled city built circa 10th century. It was an elegant city with a monastery complex belonging to the Benedictine Order. The narrow cobbled streets and the terrazzo bridge from the new town to the old town was charming, in an English old-fashioned sort of way. We had lunch just off the main street and then set off back towards Split.
Back in Split we stayed at B luxury suites in the new city. Our room was on the 2nd floor and was large and airy. The security was second to none. The door was steel plated and heavy, probably bullet proof. We couldn’t have been safer if even we were Mafiosi.
It is probably fair to say- there were far too many beautiful women in Split. Along the seafront, if you just sat for a drink and watched the world pass by, you would find the greatest variety of the female form and of the male for that matter. There were bronzed lissome limbs in the most graceful melodious bodies. A young, tall woman close to 6 foot walked past, leaning back with her chin jutting out and her shoulders square, her long hair and dress blowing in the wind. The shorts are cut so low that crescent shaped gluteus maximi like under slips peeped out.
Our last evening in Split was spent going up to the summit of Marjan hill -as sunset approached we climbed further and further upwards, stopping at each viewing station to take photos of the dying light over the city. It was a hot humid evening. We were dripping in sweat and the sweat was literally like runnels from the forehead into eyes and running in the natural crevasses of the nose and then dripping into shirts and the floor. We raced on to attain the peak before 2014 hours to witness the actual sunset and phew! We made it in time and it was worth the effort, the breathless expenditure of energy and the strain on the heart and muscle. Briefly, the sun was balanced like a Chinese lantern, yellowish-red, poised between two branches or forks of a faraway tree. It floated still and then it set behind the hills.
Our walk back downhill was leisurely but the air was still warm and humid, sticky as the English would say. Night was closing in over the Adriatic and the incomplete moon shone straight down. A young woman was stuck up a high wall and as J said I rescued a damsel in distress, gave her my hand to rest on as she worked her way down, all apologetic in apologetic English.
Our last dinner was at O’zlata, a fine restaurant for fine dining- very pricey. After 20,000 steps and 52 floors we retreated to bed.
Photos by Jan Oyebode