Split, Croatia: Sleeping with Diocletian


Sleeping with Diocletian

Last month I spent three or four nights sleeping with Diocletian.

I can’t say that they were nights of great passion or excitement – after all, he has been dead for 1711 years, and necrophilia antiqua has never been one of my known passions … although as Mr Google tells me … in amore cum praeterito … or … in amore in praeteritis … is. (Mr Google is not so hot on his ancient languages – should the Dative be used here or the Ablative or possibly the Genitive …?)

My 1964 Grade 10 Latin class with Headmaster Keith Dan, at Slade School, taught me that “amore” is something to do with love, and that “praeteritus” possibly indicates that the Praetorian Guard will soon be bashing on my door with their swords demanding that I leave them to their centuries-old sleep. But as Mr Google tells me again (and as Mr Dan could have told me immediately), I am apparently just talking about … a love of the past.

Why on earth could they not have said so before all this …?

Sleeping around at my age is just too damn tiring.

As are datives, ablatives and genitives.

But my love of times past – and present – continues ever so.


D’s Palace – my hotel was inside the left-hand walls

So perhaps I should say I spent some time with the great Roman Emperor’s long-dead spirit, nestled in a hotel built within the walls of the superb palace he built for himself far from the worries of Rome – on the beautiful Adriatic coastline of what is now Croatia, in the relatively modern city of Split.

I had visited Split a couple of times before – in 2004 and 2006 – although my memories suggest that it was far more recent than that! Ten years ago! Surely not. On one of my earlier visits I took the overnight ferry from Ancona, in Italy, across the wide waters to Split, and carefully assessed the local geography:

  • If I go THAT way I should arrive at my hotel without too much trouble
  • If I go THAT way it will take me a Roman decade or two to get there

Naturally, I took THAT road, up hills, over dales, beside lakes and under waterfalls and arrived at my hotel a mere Roman decade or two after the ferry docked at the Split harbour. Had I taken THAT road, I would have arrived there in about fifteen minutes, with flat, evenly paved footpaths leading me onwards, ever onwards.

On this visit to this magical city I arrived by train, grabbed my bag, and sallied forth to the taxicab area and gaily waved a hand for a car to take me to my hotel.

  • Take me to my hotel please, good sir!
  • Sorry sir, that hotel is in the old city. Cars are not allowed in that region.
  • Thank you … but how do I get there …?
  • Please sir … walk … it is only a few minutes away …

Watney’s Red and red-faced Tourists

 Grumph … OK … drag bag … smile … past the chip shops with sunburned British package tourists swilling their Watney’s … past the tourist offices and restaurants and bars with happy smiling (and well-accommodated) guests … drag bag … and ask again:

Hello … I am trying to find the Hotel Vestibul Palace …8-slh-logo

Ah yes! Go that way … turn left … take the next right-hand turn past the a cappella group singing in the old tower, do the hokey pokey and shake it all about … and there you are!

And indeed there I was.

At the wrong hotel.

I am still not sure how I was awarded or how I won a three-night stay at any SLH (Small Luxury Hotel) hotel in the world (see www.slh.com). I had taken a year’s subscription to the travel magazine Destinasian and was quite surprised shortly afterwards to be told that as a result of my subscription I could pop my clogs at any participating SLH hotel in the world. There are many SLH hotels in Thailand and Asia generally, but I thought I should venture further afield.

St Petersburg, and Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia, were not available, and after a bit of tossing the double-headed penny and throwing darts into a world map, I decided to return to Split, where I booked the lovely Vestibul Palace Hotel … but subsequently found that they had assigned me to their equally lovely Villa Dobric annex, a few minutes away from the parent property.

The Vestibul Palace Hotel is built within the walls of the vestibule to Diocletian’s palace and it – like the Villa Dobric – features ultra-modern rooms with superb facilities and occasional centuries-old stone walls poking their noses into the present.

Split is a beautiful bustling modern city of about 200,000 people – so it is about the size of Hobart in Tasmania or Chiang Mai in Thailand, but unlike either of these Australian or Thai cities, its history goes waaaaay back to my friend Diocletian in the fourth century AD and his even earlier friends.

Today – and indeed even yesterday and probably even tomorrow or on Thursday 27th October – Split is visited by those arriving by ferryboats from Italy, by train from the seedy Croatian capital city of Zagreb or from the distant and romantic and tragic city of Dubrovnik, and of course by air from the rest of the world.

There are also those who choose to drive to Split.

They arrive in their eighty- or umpteen-metre-long motor launches with matching helipads and scuba-diving decks and crews trimly dressed in uniform grey Prada T-shirts loading the crates of Veuve Clicquot Brut and fresh Tasmanian Barilla Bay oysters (www.barillabay.com.au) from the docks to the seaborne cellars. There may even have been a truffle or two snuffling about the place.


4-centurionsThe Praetorian guards are still there, representing perhaps the Senate and the populous of the Roman Empire – not dressed in grey T-shirts – but in proper centurion uniforms with swords and spears and handsome faces ready to clutch plump Japanese matrons or tattooed young men to their arms as they pose for photographs in front of the Cattedrale di San Domino, just a few paces from my hotel in the 30,000 square metre palace built in the fourth century AD as a retirement home for Emperor Diocletian.

My retirement home in Chiang Mai is a more modest 125 square metres … but Diocletian’s place (unlike mine) is now a UNESCO World Heritage site visited by tens of thousands of visitors, and featuring beautiful ancient ruins and reconstructions, as well as newer buildings, bars, restaurants, souvenir shops, bars, marble-paved footpaths (no cars allowed – see earlier comments by the taxi driver!), an ethnographical museum, the 7th Century cathedral, bars and one or two more restaurants. A stone’s throw away are improbably named Diocletian’s Wine House and the famous Lushiya Self-service Laundry.

My retirement home in the historic city of Chiang Mai has the equally famous Christopher Hall self-service laundry and the hang-it-out yourself drying service on the balcony. Beware the pigeons.


Small boy and the toe of Gregorius

Not far away – but outside the palace walls, and moved there by the occupying Italian army forces during World War II – is the huge bronze statue of Gregory of Nin, a medieval Croatian bishop who opposed the Pope and as a result has his big brass toe rubbed daily by hordes of passing tourists and locals who may be wishing for good luck or who may be showing their support for anti-papist policies. No wonder the Italians wanted him out of the palace.

The palace dominates the old city of Split – and is visible from most of the newer parts of the modern city.

One early morning jog took me along the splendid promenade, past the many piers for inter-island and international ferries, up the hill that I had so erroneously taken all those years ago, through modern streets and past apartments buildings and parking lots, into the Eastern edges of the vast Marjan Forest Park and then down endless stairs and steep streets back to the promenade – and for almost all of the time the bell tower of the cathedral was visible as a directional beacon.

The tower is visible from all parts of the old port – a busy working port of ferries, fishing boats with their immensely long-line baited hooks, a few skidoos, motor boats offering day cruises to the Blue Cave … and the Toto travel office and Toto’s hamburger shop.

9-toto-travelsThanks to my brother Paul, my family nickname is Toto, and perhaps my alter ego lives in Split! I should have popped in:

  • Hello – I am Toto
  • No – I am Toto
  • You mean Toto too?
  • No … you are Toto two
  • Exit stout party in confusion …

A few minutes west of the port are the beaches of the Marjan Park – including the Kašjuni nudist beach I mentioned in an earlier story – and even more restaurants, a boarded-up casino and a superb Deco-style building that houses the Museum of Croatian Archaeological Monuments, and, thankfully, an ice cream shop or two. Further west – and I have now added them to my “Must Do” destinations for a future journey – are Joe’s Beach Lounge and Bar near Kašjuni Beach.

Split is an ancient city and a modern city. It is the port for so many of Croatia’s wonderful islands, it offers ancient history and a chance to sleep with Diocletian – and a chance to experience the dynamic growth of modern Croatia – and of course to experience the chubby Japanese woman posing with the centurion guards in Diocletian’s vestibule.


  • Journey: September 2016
  • Text and photographs © Christopher Hall 2016 and Vestibul Palace images from Internet
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