Where to stay
Divota Apartment Hotel
Quirky, modern apartments housed in renovated, traditional stone houses in the pedestrian zone, a quiet and well-preserved part of the old town which was once home to labourers. Doubles from £70. Plinarska 75, Split, 00 385 21 782 700, divota.hr
Heritage Hotel Antique Split
Small, elegant, family-owned hotel in the centre of the city, with 700-year-old exposed walls, modern interiors, and a soundtrack of the chiming bells in the nearby tower. Breakfast includes home-made plum jam, pancakes, daily local specialities, and eggs ‘every way’ from the hotel’s own chickens. Doubles from £133. Poljana Grgura Ninskog 1, Split, 00 385 21 785 208
A handsome hotel close to Bacvice Bay and its popular beach, a pleasant 10-minute walk from the market and Diocletian’s Palace. Its large terrace is a favourite local meeting place. Dine on grilled Adriatic fish, pasticada, and other Croatian flavours. Breakfast buffet includes ham cut from the bone, kapari (capers), olives, salted fish, motar (samphire), honeycomb and sweet pastries. Dinner from £31. Doubles from £159. Hatzeov Perivoj 3, Split, 00 385 21 406 400, hotelpark-split.hr
Hotel Vestibul Palace
Share early-medieval walls with the Vestibule, first built in 305AD, and now at the heart of Diocletian’s Palace. The modern interior of this lovely hotel is full of light – you’ll step through the front door each day straight into history. Breakfast on local breads, preserves, olives, bacon and egg dishes, and be sure to try the Turkish coffee, a reminder of the city’s Ottoman past. Doubles from £177. Iza Vestibula 4, Split, 00 385 21 329 329, vestibulpalace.com
Split is Croatia's second largest city, and lies in the region of Dalmatia. Flights from London take around two and a half hours and the time is one hour ahead of GMT. Currency is the Croatian kuna (HRK). The average high temperature in May is 25C and the average low is 19C.
easyJet flies to Split Airport from Manchester three times per week and from London Luton five times per week, from £85 return. easyjet.com
Croatia Airlines offers regular services from London Heathrow Airport to Split, from £98 return. croatiaairlines.com
Split Tourist Board has a user-friendly website packed with inspiration and useful information to help you plan your trip. visitsplit.com
The Return of Philip Latinowicz by Miroslav Krleža (Quartet Books, £13.99) reveals the petty desires of Croatia’s 20th-century bourgeoisie.
Where to eat
Prices are per person for three courses, with half a carafe of wine, unless otherwise stated
Café, bar and restaurant with a large, shaded courtyard in the atmospheric centre of Trogir’s old town. Their traditional specialities change daily – try the flavourful beef pasticada, which takes three days to prepare. Local wines include malvazjia and crljenak (tribidrag, or zinfandel). From £25. Gradska 23, Trogir, 00 385 21 796 413
Locals know this gem as ‘tre volte’, named for its wall of arches overlooking the sea. Its enclosed terrace is home to the only bar within the palace, and is an ideal place for a beer at sunset. Try the small plates of grilled lamb or pork, or share a platter of local three-year-old, wind-cured, prsut and paski sir (hard cheese). From £8.85 for a large platter of ham, enough for two sharing. Dosud 9, Split, 00 385 61 23 456
Wood-framed restaurant with large veranda and grounds. Owner-chef Diana Sušic-Juric makes pickles, preserves and liqueurs such as visnjevaca (sour cherry) and cherry with fennel. Local wheat is in the traditional bread fried in ustipak (lard) and served with prsut, dried figs and olives. Don’t miss the peka (octopus, pork or lamb). From £21. Otok, Ovrlja near Trilj, (35km from Split), 00 385 95 538 2938
Bistro and wine bar in the shade of the palace wall. Try local wines by the glass and craft beers to accompany the imaginative dishes of chef Ivana Zajec. Menus change daily: green pea soup with prawn tails and almonds partner white posip or kasteli wine, rosemary-scented rack of lamb goes with crljenjk, while vanilla cheesecake calls for a sweet prosek. From £18. Pistura 3, Split, 00 385 21 413 139
Friendly restaurant on a narrow, cobbled street in Split’s old town. Flavours are bold: try a first course of goat paté, brioche and olive- oil butter or beef tartare with mayonnaise then move to mains of smoked veal shoulder with fermented garlic purée or fish and scampi in a tomato sauce with home-made pasta – but leave room for dessert. From £23. Bajamontijeva 1, Split, 00 385 98 987 7780, mazzgoonfood.com
It’s well worth the short wait sometimes necessary for this popular old town spot. Owner Ivana Gamulin serves dishes of whatever she considers good in the market that day at the café’s counter and small table. To be sure of having fish, arrive before 8pm. Closed Sunday. From £14. Petra Kružica 3, Split, 00 385 91 152 1249
Zlatna Ribica (Golden Fish)
Owner and cook Anita Bejo and her mother Dinka Buha work marvels with a deep-fat fryer and the superbly fresh fish on sale in the fish market just a few metres away – calamari, prawns, whitebait, mullet and more. Fritto misto platters come with crusty bread, green salad and tomatoes to a few small tables inside, and out on the cobbled street. Barrel wine and local beer. From £8.85 for a seafood platter for two sharing. Kraj Svete Marije 8, Split, 00 385 21 348 710
- A red pepper, onion and aubergine relish
- Garlic, which is used extensively, especially in stews
- Strips of pastry that are deep-fried, sprinkled with sugar,and served with home-made preserved fruits
- Kiseli kupus
- Sour cabbage. Often used in salads and casseroles oras a side dish, especially with pork or bacon
- Pork, ham or bacon sausage, flavoured with garlic and pepper, sometimes smoked
- Olives, for both table and oil. Oblica is a commonly grown olive variety in the region
- Samphire, which is usually lightly blanched and pickled,and served alongside olives, capers, tomatoes
- Gnocchi, a legacy of Venetian times. It's traditionally servedwith peka (see below) and other stews
- Beef larded with garlic, carrots and ham, marinated in vinegar, then cooked with onions, prunes, parsley root, nutmeg and prosek (see below). A good pasticada takes at least three days to prep
- Peka (or, locally, cripnja)
- Octopus, lamb or pork cooked slowly,with vegetables and herbs in a dish under a large, metal ‘bell’(the peka) over a wood fire
- Fortified, sherry-style dessert wine made from sun-dried grapes
- Wind-dried ham, similar to prosciutto; often smoked over oak and carved straight from the hock
- Distilled liquor (like Italian grappa and Greek raki), which is used to make herb (travarica) or fruit liqueurs, too
- A custard flan that's delicately flavoured with rose liqueuror served with rose petal jam
- Sir Cheese
- One of the best is paski sir, or cheese of the island of Pag
- Large, round pie filled with cheese, chard and spring onions, and baked under the ashes of a wood fire
- Split cake
- Egg-rich, vanilla-scented local speciality cake filled with layers of dried figs, raisins and hazelnuts
- Stew of octopus, fish, shellfish, meats or vegetables
- Cheers! (Literally, ‘live’)
Food and Travel Review
Croatia-born Diocletian was the only Roman emperor (284-305 AD) to abdicate voluntarily. This could explain why he was one of the few to die a natural death. Or perhaps it was because the retirement home he had built was a huge fortress, large enough to hold a military garrison as well as a big vegetable garden, which the green-fingered tyrant spent his last years tending. Diocletian’s Palace today covers much of Split and is on the Unesco list of World Heritage Sites. It’s a warren of narrow, cobbled streets and marble squares where more than 2,000 people live, work, shop and play. In among the ancient stonework there are bakers, butchers, barbers, cafés and boutiques, a Roman temple, cathedral, and countless lines of washing hanging from balconies like carnival bunting.
There’s a whiff of alchemy, too, in this atmospheric maze of Roman and medieval buildings. Local economics graduate and bakery owner Anand Štambuk understands this. ‘Croatia has always been a wheat culture – for medieval Venetians, we were their breadbasket – and we like our bread fresh each day. Our kruscic (little loaves) connect us to the farmer and miller outside the city, and to the magic around us, the yeasts that transform flour, salt and water into a loaf.’ Anand’s favourite local bread is bracera, named after the 16th-century wooden ship that was used for transport and fishing along the beautiful Dalmatian coast.
Wheat’s special place in local life very nearly disappeared. At the beginning of this century, years of occupation, upheaval and an imposed agricultural system had left a legacy of unemployment, confusion, and standardised, tasteless bread. For the villagers of Trilj, just north-east of Split, this was an opportunity. ‘Our farmers replanted an old Dalmatian grain that suits our terrain, we brought our mlinica (water mills) back to life, and young people worked with baker Kaja Grubšic to energise her traditional bakery, Zavrsce.’ They bake magnificent three-kilo loaves, or ‘heads’, the old-fashioned way, each one under a large metal dome set over a fierce wood fire. Eight years ago, daily production was five heads, but now this has risen to 100, with many of them going to Split’s market. The fine flavour and crumb of these additive-free, crusty, long-lasting loaves relies on the character of their flour.
Nearby, on Grab Hill, miller Vid Samaražic works the huge wooden levers in his centuries-old device to control and channel the water gushing below while the grain descends from the storage troughs into the mill. Once well rewarded – however poor a household, everyone ate bread – this hard, skilled work is done now out of appreciation for the land, and is a source of local pride.
Over the centuries, many occupiers – Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Avars, Slavs, Hungarians, Venetians, Ottomans, even Napoleon – have taken advantage of the bountiful supply of food here. Evidence of their presence remains in the commanding fortresses that dot the landscape, in the shape of villages, and in local food preferences. ‘We have everything for our purposes,’ cheesemaker Andrijana Poljak tells me, in her family farm just outside Sinj. ‘Three oxen and 33 cows, Austrian and Croatian breeds, that come inside from our grass and clover fields only when the winter weather is bad, and to enjoy their favourite pop music (it’s Italian) while being milked.’ Andrijana produces five kinds of cheese, all organic, traditional varieties. Creamy, tangy one-day-old curd cheese quickly sells out locally; older, and aged cheeses are sent to be sold at Split’s market, along with the farm’s fresh produce – potatoes, onions, carrots and lettuces.
The pazar (marketplace), just outside Diocletian’s Palace wall, is
divided into well-defined sections. At the centre, stalls are stacked high with strawberries, apricots, pale green lemons and cherries
– sweet ones to eat fresh, sour ones for every other occasion.
Bunches of beetroot, garlic and onions crowd next to village
women selling wild asparagus, dried figs and green walnuts:
‘Cut in half, cover with sugar and pour over rajika (schnapps). Drink
it on your balcony later this year, in the low October sun,’ I’m told.
I ask about the huge bunch of St John’s Wort, too. ‘The flowers
help us. We leave them in the sun to dry, then in a jar with olive oil.
Later, you have a cure for sunburn, stings and backache.’ More
dried herbs are for teas – chamomile, fennel, balm, rose – and one
woman sells a chicken, fat and yellow, complete with its head.
Nearby are stacks of crusty loaves, forest honeys, black and
green olives, olive oil, carob beans (once an important Dalmatian
cash crop), fruit preserves, pickles (sour is a popular local taste)
and soparnik, a country pie that’s sold by the slice. A divine
fragrance draws me to the chatting flower sellers along the palace
wall, before I head for the small shops on the market’s periphery selling cheese, yoghurt and prsut
(smoked ham), sliced from enormous hocks on the butcher block.
Across from the market, ferries leave for Brac, the closest island
of the Dalmatian archipelago to Split, and the producer of around
30 per cent of Dalmatia’s olive oil. ‘In the old days, we had two
million trees here, but now far fewer, and our olive oil doesn’t taste
the same,’ sighs my host, while he offers me mali zalogaji (meze,
or small bites) of anchovies, fresh fava beans, smoky bacon and
olives. I had no complaint – the olives, black and a little shrivelled
from one month in salt and a wooden barrel, and the light, lemony
olive oil were both refreshing. But my host, like other islanders,
prefers the ‘old taste’, from when the olives were stored in
seawater. This arose out of necessity.
There used to be only one press on the island, yet all the olives – mostly the oblica varietal, the native buhavica is now rare – ripened at a similar time, so growers would keep their crop in seawater during their long wait. Later, the olive oil was stored in locally quarried stone ‘basins’. These, too, had an impact on flavour, and also risked some spoilage, unlike today’s modern production methods. There are frequent village fjera (fiestas) on this historic island of Roman-era stone quarries that make good use of the wealth of indigenous ingredients. Brac is home to over 100 species of edible wild plants used in all manner of cookery. Melissa and sage flavour syrups, while myrtle and fennel are used in rakija (liquour) and honey. Others infuse the goat and sheep milk that makes the island’s soft, fresh cheese, skuta, as well as a sought-after hard cheese that’s stored in olive oil. Small restaurants serve their own specialities: pickles, pine nut tapenade, tender peka (stews) with njoki, or gnocchi, sour-cherry cheesecake and home-made wine. On a terrace among slate-roofed houses, Ivica Jugovic grills vitalac (lamb offal, skewered and wrapped) over a blazing wood fire, and later I enjoy hrapocusa, a cake with its own protected cultural heritage status made from walnuts, eggs, sugar and orange peel. In forest-covered Omis Province, just across the water from Brac and a little south of Split, Gata village cooks take pride in their traditional pie, soparnik, which also has protected status. It requires only the simplest ingredients of flour, chard, onion, parsley and salt, and a cook’s skill. ‘We make the dough an hour beforehand,’ explains Ivanka Radmilo, as she rolls out half the dough on a large wooden board with a long, thin rolling pin, ‘and simmer the pie filling the day before. Older leaves are best because they contain less water, which would ruin the pie.’ Ivanka works quickly, and soon her dough is an 80cm circle. She spreads over the filling, rolls out the remaining dough to a similar – in fact, exact – size to cover the filling, plaits the pastry edges together and covers the pie with a lid, then hot ash from the oven. Sweeping the ash to one side, she pops in the pie and, around 20 minutes later, produces something truly beautiful. Surrounding small farms are home to pumpkin-fed pigs that become the raw ingredient for prsut, a wind-dried, oak-smoked ham that’s cured only when the winter Bora – a cold, dry, gusty north-easterly wind – blows.
To the north of Split, the ancient Greeks and Romans built Trogir and Solin, capital of the Roman province of Dalmatia in the first to fourth centuries AD. Vines would have covered the surrounding coastal hills then, and they do again today, as Dalmatia is once more producing acclaimed wines. Kairos (translated from Greek as ‘opportunity’) Winery is named after the Greek god who protected nearby Trogir, on the coast. ‘We recognise our Greek roots,’ winemaker Lubomir Jelavic tells me. ‘Before we started planting, this hill was used by shepherds grazing their flock. A total of around 140 plant species grew here, with many used locally for medicine.’ Fava beans grow between the vines, providing fertilising nitrogen for the stony soil. One third of the planted vines are the tribidrag, one third plavac mali (both indigenous red varietals), and the remaining third are international varietals. ‘Tribidrag is a high-sugar, high-alcohol grape that barely survived phylloxera,’ Lubomir continues, ‘but it was taken to Apulia in the 18th century, becoming primitivo, and to America later, where its DNA is found in zinfandel.’ The grape harvest takes place in September, except for some of the winery’s plavac mali grapes. These are left on the vine until late October in order for their sugar to develop, and are then made into varenik, or grape syrup.
While wines made from indigenous grapes benefit from modern technology, local people stay with their preferred taste of barrel wine. ‘I don’t know anyone here whose family doesn’t make their own wine,’ I’m told, while I watch Villa Spiza’s chef, Lada, prepare a bowl of crayfish in tomato, olive oil, parsley and garlic sauce. They have no freezer, so once the fish – crab, sea bass, tuna – and shellfish bought that morning in Ribarnica, the nearby fish market, has been sold, food service is over for the day. Housed in an elegant 19th-century building wisely built over sulphur springs (an effective bug repellent), Split’s fish market has outgrown itself, and stalls selling cuttlefish, prawns, squid and lobster, as well as fierce-looking skrpina (scorpionfish) fill the small square outside, too.
Split’s old town is a place of delightful squares like Republic, People’s (St Lawrence’s), Fruit (Vocni trg), which still serve as local meeting places. The village feels close-knit – chickens peck in tiny yards of small houses – and the Venetian bell tower is a welcome landmark among the maze of buildings. Through the Vestibule (the ancient courthouse), along medieval Rodrigina Ulica, once the centre of Split’s mostly Sephardic Jewish population, and past St Martin’s church, built into the palace wall, local musician Marinko Biškic sells handmade artisan chocolates in his small shop. In his love of homeland, yet deep desire to connect with others elsewhere, Marinko personifies this alluring part of Europe, a place where locals know exactly how to deal with their problems. ‘Find a shady tree and lie under it. All shall pass,’ he says. Food, fresh, and cooked with love and skill, has been part of this city’s fabric since Diocletian planted his artichokes and beans. Since then, Split has survived invasions, pirates and dictators, yet its many cafés, restaurants and bars welcome all, and a pervasive feeling of community remains happily hovering over the old town.
Get Premium access to all the latest content online
Subscribe and view full print editions online... Subscribe