Story and photos by Alison Gardner
After four visits to the Croatian Adriatic coast in 10 years, I am convinced that it is a yachting paradise – and the city of Split (population 200,000), its heart and soul.
The long, crenulated coastline is dotted with protected coves to anchor in, uncountable islands and islets to explore, and picturesque towns rich in history dating back hundreds, even thousands, of years. It is no wonder that there are 22 Adriatic Croatia International (ACI) marinas, stretching from Dubrovnik in the south to the Istria peninsula in the north. ACI, the Mediterranean’s largest marina chain, is 80 percent-owned by the Croatian government.
A meeting at ACI Marina Split with Priscilla Zelić Čarija, the marina’s chief of reception, was my introduction to the ACI collection. Zelić Čarija, who was clearly the face of the marina, had her finger on the pulse of every operation around this extensive land-and-water facility that dominates one side of the entrance to the crescent-shaped Split harbor.
While reviewing the facilities and services offered, we strolled along walkways between hundreds of moored yachts on a blistering hot August day, even waving a send-off to the 70-meter luxury yacht Felix as it pulled away from the dock. The marina’s 318 wet berths and 30 dry berths accommodate visits each year from about 100 recreational yachts of 20 to 90 meters. All standard needs are met on-site, including currency exchange, grocery and nautical equipment stores, free WiFi and internet, a repair and maintenance shop, a sail repair shop, a large crane and a slipway. The fuel station and customs are five minutes across the harbor.
Several restaurants and cafés are on the marina property, and knowledgeable reception staff help guests make the most of their time in the city and surrounding area. Steps away, on the outdoor terrace of Zrno Soli (Grain of Salt) Restaurant, overlooking the Split waterfront that dates back 2,000 years, we indulged in seafood chowder and sample platters of seafood starters. Then we hailed a water taxi from the marina and crossed the harbor in less than 10 minutes to the grand entrance gates of Diocletian’s Palace, built of white marble in 305 AD. It is an elegant, old part of town worth wandering for several days – sampling Croatian cuisine, local wines and brews; attending open-air concerts of every genre; and joining a walking tour to explore the palace, from its massive basement to its highest ramparts.
Roman soldiers still patrol this UNESCO World Heritage Site that was built by Emperor Diocletian, who just happened to be a native son of a nearby village. He did something pretty exceptional in rising from foot soldier to head of the Roman Empire from 284 to 305 AD. Equally amazing, he was a rare Roman emperor to retire voluntarily from the job, mainly pottering in his palace garden until his natural death in 311. A Split walking tour led by our archaeologist guide Ina took us inside and all around this edifice, which has never been abandoned or conquered in all its long life.
“Game of Thrones” is one very contemporary reason why Split tourism is thriving. Fans of the eight-season TV series flock to the area from around the world to walk in the footsteps of their favorite characters in settings filmed on location at Diocletian’s Palace, the mighty Klis Fortress 10 kilometers away in the mountains overlooking Split, and other film sites fans will surely recognize. A five- to six-hour “Thrones” tour visits Klis and other fortifications, and includes dinner at a film shoot location. My “Thrones” immersion was enriched by the personable Goga, who served as a film extra for most Split-based episodes. She delivered vivid, behind-the-scenes stories about the stars and the filming challenges – so book ahead to guarantee Goga as a guide.
Anyone visiting Split will be intrigued by the towering limestone mountains that rise behind the city. An off-road 4×4 tour is a great way to discover that the landscape is as rugged as it looks. Mostly on rough tracks, we explored with Opcija Tours off-road specialists Frane and Toni, visiting tiny pilgrim chapels, crumbling cliffside lookout towers, and an impressively restored eco-village presenting aspects of the ethnic life of Croatian country folk long before GPS and tourists arrived. Our 4×4 tour concluded with a rustic meal of Croatian food on the terrace of a mountain home with a steep drop to the city thousands of feet below.
Traditional Croatian food has characteristics of Italian, Austrian, Hungarian, and Turkish food. Dalmatian coastal cuisine is typically Mediterranean, with a heavy emphasis on seafood, vegetables, olive oil and garlic. Seafood caught daily is surprisingly varied, ranging from shellfish, octopus and shrimp to a dozen different plate-sized fish, tuna and swordfish that all thrive on Croatia’s narrow Adriatic doorstep.
In Split’s old quarter, I sampled two exceptional restaurants with creative menus that emphasized local Croatian flavors. Konoba Varos, a veteran among Split eateries that is noted for its grilled meat and seafood, has been a popular city “konoba” (tavern) for more than 100 years. And Cucina Mare is a new restaurant that has risen quickly to culinary stardom. Set in the courtyard ruins of a traditional Croatian stone house, it is difficult without a reservation to get a dinner table here before 9 p.m. With an enthusiastic – yet perfectionist – personality, Chef Ćiro Sabljić anchors his creative kitchen where most ingredients come fresh from the sea and local villages, including flavorful cheeses and sausages. Half-day Croatian cooking classes are also offered in shoulder seasons.
Split is an exciting hub for a variety of active adventures, all accomplished with half- or full-day tours. For example, Zip Line Split heads into the hinterland to sample six zip wires totalling 2,500 meters in length and with amazing views of inland Dalmatia and the Adriatic Sea. Iris Adventures (adventurescroatia.net) offers canyoning, sea kayaking, hiking and rock climbing with professionally licensed guides. Split Outdoor Adventure specializes in ATV quad tours in the Dalmatian interior, white water river kayaking, or Jeep tours – all ending with a delicious barbeque meal of homegrown food prepared by a local family.
There is no such thing as a bad review for Split, as far as I’m concerned. It was Diocletian’s dream destination, and now it’s mine as well.
Victoria-based Alison Gardner is a travel journalist and editor of the online magazine Travel with a Challenge, www.travelwithachallenge.com, a richly illustrated resource for mature travelers featuring ecological, educational, cultural and volunteer vacations worldwide. Comments on this story are welcome below.