When traveling to old cities with no real streets or cars, it is nearly impossible to give directions. To a visitor, simply saying walk until you see the Lacoste doesn’t cut it. Well, it does, but chances are, the visitor wont find it on the first go. In asking for guidance throughout my trip, the most common thing spoken was “Just go that way and then ask again.”
So, that’s what I did.
When I got off the (right) bus in Split, bag in tow, I was revived. Refreshed. So incredibly excited to be there. Friends that had been there, both in America and people I had met along the way, spoke highly of this Adriatic town. And, wow. It did not disappoint. Even in the dark of night when I arrived, wandering from the bus station to the old town, asking directions of shop owners, servers and passersby along the way, I remained struck by the city’s ancient beauty.
The bus station is on the eastern side of the harbour, so I had to talk down Obala Hrvatskog Narodnog Preporoda — the waterfront promenade known as Riva — to get into Diocletian’s Palace — which according to Lonely
Planet, is not only a Roman ruin, but the “living soul of Split.” Within the palace there are more than 200 buildings, and more than 3,000 inhabitants, along with the multitude of little shops (and bigger, more commercial shops, restaurants and cafes).
I found Booze & Snooze (aka Split Hostel), tucked behind the newstand in the old town promenade. A single red sign hung in the alley, pointing backpackers up a set of stone stairs, past a terrace and to the reception. Owned by two Aussie Croats, the hostel is known for its social setting, regularly leading packers on tours of the town, hitting up pubs throughout the old town, allowing travelers to get a guided tour of the nightlife.
The hostel, although small in size, proved to be the turning point in my trip. Not that the entire trip up to that point had been amazing, but in terms of setting the course for the rest of my trip, this was the instigator.
After checking in and being informed a group of people were heading to a pub shortly, I grabbed a quick bite down the promenade at a delicious smoothie/sandwich/salad shop (also owned by an Aussie) and returned, beer in hand, to join the backpackers already sitting outside, enjoying the fresh Adriatic night air, drinking and sharing their travel stories. Simon, the Aussie backpacker, stood out amongst the others in our group.
The dark-haired, light eyed and incredibly handsome traveler had previously been in Vis for a wedding, spending three weeks on the island, enjoying the relaxed culture with his family and friends. Split was only his second stop on his trip, which was planned to end on Dec. 5 with a flight from Cairo taking him back home.
“It’s my goal to miss that flight home. I want to stay in Europe until I miss me mum,” he had said.
There was no doubt in my mind he would not do just that.
Simon dominated the conversation that evening at the hostel, telling us of his previous travels throughout the world. A handyman by trade, he had visited third world countries providing his services in exchange for food or whatever villagers would give him, although he never asked for any of it. It was his desire to help people live better lives. I sat in my metal chair that night completely captivated by his stories, his passion for life and his unending desire to help everyone who crossed his path throughout his journeys.
That night, apparently, was a recovery night for the backpackers sitting outside, chugging wine straight from the bottle. It was only a few of us, a 21-year-old from Seattle, a 23-year-old from Atlanta and her friend from Kansas City, and a 26-year-old Aussie. We sat around a too-small table, bottles clamoring for room, and chatted about our travels. After about an hour, we left the terrace and headed out to a pub to sit outside and enjoy the late summer evening.
On our walk to the bar, we stopped in front of one of the Roman ruins. It was a sight, the dimly lit exterior gave way to a square with stairs where people sat on cushions, eating, drinking and listening to the music wafting out of a restaurant. The five of us stood there for a few minutes, taking in the beauty of the night, the ambience and the ancient buildings before our eyes. I looked to Simon and simply whispered “beautiful,” and he nodded his head in agreement. It was all that was needed to convey the magnificence of the moment. Of our surroundings.
We ended up at an Irish pub — ironic, I know — and sat outside. In need of unwinding after my day of Croatian bus riding, I ordered a round of the cherry brandy for everyone. We sat outside on the cushioned chairs until the pub closed and then headed back to the hostel, with one last stop — the sole Mexican restaurant in the city, which happened to be owned by an American whose girlfriend worked at the hostel.
The night before, Simon had introduced himself to the owner of the restaurant. He wanted to stick around Split for a bit and get some work to fund some of his travels, so we were immediately ushered into the restaurant. We sat around until the wee hours of the morning, drinking beers and enjoying drunken conversation with the owner. For that night, we were just a bunch people united by a common language and our love of beer, sitting and talking about life and the randomness traveling affords.
When we finally made it back to the hostel, the four of us stayed up a little while longer. I made plans with Simon to head to the beach the next day, after he cleaned the hostel, and said goodbye to the girls who were Budapest bound in the morning.
A few hours later, I was up and ready to explore Split. I was already in love with the old city from the night before.
With no map in hand, I set about mid-morning, knowing I wanted to climb the hundreds of steps to the top of the belfry. I stopped a few places along the way to admire the way locals lived — every alley in the palace included clothing hung on lines from window to window. The marble walkways of the palace were offset with beautiful flowers, plants and palm trees, adding a perfect sprinkle of color to the town.
I walked for a couple of hours, meandering here and there through the maze of small streets.
At one point, I walked by a wall which had windows that provided stunning views of the sea. Someone had scrolled on the marble wall next to the view “This could be heaven …”, a spot-on description and one I use now to describe Croatia’s second largest city.
An hour or so later, after walking through the pre-Romanesque church of St. Benedict and purchasing some dried lavender from a local, I ended up at my destination. After paying the 10 KN, I began to climb the stairs to the top of the bell tower. At first, the steps were intimidating. I was in flip flops and the slick marble steps with the large spaces between and the lack of handrails easily gave way to images of me plummeting down. After a few flights of these steps, they gave way to more modern, metal steps with railings, which I was very thankful for.
At the top of the bell tower was one of the most stunning views. The 360-degree top of the tower afforded magnificent views of the city and its outskirts, mountains and, of course, the stunning turquoise of the Adriatic. From the top, you could see everything. It was perhaps one of the most picturesque stops on my trip. Framed by ancient columns, every step you took lead to a picture-perfect memory.
After spending some time at the top, I made my way (carefully) back down, and then returned to the hostel to find Simon so we could head to the beach.