If you do a quick search on Google (or an alternative search engine of your choosing – no bias here!) for “what to do in Split“, the first result would probably be ‘Diocletian’s Palace‘.
I say probably, but I mean definitely because I just checked. It’s a fact. Diocletian’s Palace shows up.
Now, I love scouting out a good palace on my word adventures, I really do. But, of all the palaces I’ve frequented, I don’t think I’ve ever actually been inside one. And I promise, there really has been a fair few!
Off the top of my head there’s Austria’s Schonbrunn Palace, Jaipur’s City Palace, Buda Castle (Wikipedia says it counts as a palace, okay), Udaipur City Palace, Beijing’s Forbidden City and, of course, not forgetting our very own Buckingham Palace.
When I say I’ve visited all these palaces, what I actually mean is I’ve stood outside, looked up, ooh-ed and aah-ed like those little green aliens on Toy Story, took some photos and then gone on my merry way. Because ain’t nobody got time for paying entrance fees.
I tell a lie. I did once go into a palace. Sort of.
In Kochi, Kerala, there’s this place called Bolgatty Palace and Island Resort which is, as the name would suggest a resort.
My friends, being the useful and dedicated tour guides that they were, and having already tried (and failed) to show me the synagogue in Jew Town a good handful of times, decided we’d try our luck at visiting this really nice old Dutch palace that was eventually handed over to the British in India. Because history and culture.
Except these days the ‘palace’ is a fancy-pants hotel and resort. Still, we soldiered on and I had to pretend I was some really important visiting British architect-loving person who had a deep interest in wood panelling. I will tell you this for free – I’ve never looked so intently at a door before, and doubt I ever will again.
Rewinding back to the topic at hand… Diocletian’s Palace.
My idea of researching something on Google is to glance at the first page of images and maybe click on the first couple of web links.
So, having only a few pictures of an intimidating looking entrance, a giant sphinx, and a big tower to go on, I kind of anticipated this being just another palace I had no intention of paying to enter. Still, a palace is a palace and their mostly kind of pretty so why the devil not go and have a gander, right?
On my first full day in Split, I woke up early-ish and, after wolfing down a hearty and nutritious breakfast of orange juice and Milka biscuits, went for a wander to find this super old palace that Google was raving on about.
I retraced my steps from the night before and, after about 5 minutes found myself face to face with a gigantic statue of none other than Gelert Grindelwald!
In the spirit of being honest and open and totally transparent with the whole of the Internet, this is where I confess that the bloke above is not, in fact, Gelert Grindelwald, but Grgur Ninski, a nice Christian guy who had a bit of a falling out with the Pope and did a lot of good stuff for Croatian language in the church.
As far as I know, Mr Ninski had nothing to do with Diocletian’s Palace, but is merely conveniently located right outside the Golden Gate, which was the entrance used by Emperor Diocletian back in 305AD, when he first entered the palace.
As you can see from my fantastic and very neatly aligned photography (lol), the Golden Gate isn’t so golden these days. Although, you know, it’s very very old so has probably faded over time and perhaps was once a nice shade of parchment.
Walking through the entrance, I kind of thought “Oh wow, this is a nice entrance to the Old Town, I like it“. It sort of felt like I could have been walking into a time machine, such was the difference between the outside (Grgur Ninski and a big open grassy area with water fountains) and the inside (cobbled floor, narrow alleys and the distinct feeling of being an extra in A Knight’s Tale).
But it wasn’t until I spent a good 10 to 15 minutes wandering around aimlessly trying to find the palace that I realised I was IN THE PALACE. And no entry fee was paid! How bloody fantastic is that?!
Okay, so it wasn’t exactly the jaw-dropping, luxurious Disney-esque type setting I’d always imagined a palace to be (think the Sultan’s Palace from Aladdin and you’re not far off) but it was pretty darned cool all the same.
Who was Diocletian and why did he have a palace?
Diocletian was a bloke who lived in Croatia way back when it was known as the Roman province of Dalmatia. He had a Greek name but wasn’t Greek. He wasn’t born in line to become emperor. In fact, he wasn’t born in line to become anything. His family was pretty lowly in terms of status, and so, although there isn’t that much information available about his life pre-military (because Wikipedia wasn’t around in 244AD), it’s safe to say that his birthright was more pauper than prince.
Despite his social status (if such thing existed back then) being so questionable, he somehow managed to rise like a phoenix through the military ranks, eventually becoming cavalry commander to the emperor of the time, Emperor Carus.
Unfortunately, I don’t speak modern military, let alone ancient military, so I have no idea what the role of cavalry commander actually entails. I like to think it’s the old-time equivalent of the guy who sits in the White House with full control over all the big red buttons that say things like DO NOT PUSH and NUCLEAR MISSILE: DO NOT INITIATE.
So, in short, he was pretty hot stuff.
Then Emperor Carus died, and so did his son Numerian, and so somehow Diocletian was proclaimed emperor. He faced a little bit of opposition though, in the shape of Carus’s other son, Carinus. But have no fear, my friends, for Diocletian wiped the floor with him in battle and regained his title. Ding ding ding, we have a winner.
Then, because he was even hotter hot stuff than before, he changed his name to suit his new, super important role, and became Caesar Gaius Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus Augustus.
A year or so later, he nominated one of his buddies, Maximian, to be his co-emperor and help him run shop. Despite a lot of battles and losing and winning and losing again, it seems they made a better coalition than anything the U.K. has coming for it…
The palace was originally built as a retirement home for Diocletian, at the turn of the 4th century, as he was of ill health and intended to abdicate the throne sooner rather than later. His official retirement date was 1st May 305, and from that day until his death in 312 (as a result of either illness or suicide – nobody really knows) he lived there in that palace.
Although according to most sources, ‘palace’ is a pretty broad term for what the structure actually was, and still is today. At around 30,000m² it’s pretty big – just under half the size of Buckingham Palace, including its grounds.
In its heyday, it was more of a fortress, with half of it designated for Diocletian’s personal use, and the other half as a military garrison.
Because all retired emperors need round-the-clock military protection.
Wind the clocks forward about 1700 years and it’s pretty surreal to find yourself sitting down on the exact same steps that once upon a time an emperor was settled on (give or take, what with restorations and the likes).
These days, at first glance there doesn’t seem to be a lot of the palace still standing. Although if you properly look into it, it’s kind of astounding just how much of the palace is still intact and almost in its original condition. Not only is it of utmost local importance, but is of unique importance worldwide as the world’s most complete remains of a Roman palace.
It’s also pretty special in that to this day people live, eat and work in the palace. As in, inside the structure there are a crazy amount of houses and restaurants and shops and all sorts of other businesses, as well as what is claimed to be the one of the world’s narrowest alleys (aptly named Pusti me da prodjem, or Let Me Pass). It has its own TripAdvisor page and everything. Basically, the Old Town is the palace and the palace is the Old Town and that, to me, is pretty damn snazzy.