The first time H and I went to Croatia was just after the end of the war, 1996 or thereabouts. I remember being annoyed with the travel agent (that’s the way we did things in those days) who advised me not to go to a country where there was a war on despite the fact that it had been over for some time. As part of the former Yugoslavia, Croatia had enjoyed a healthy tourist trade: the last thing they needed was visitors to be discouraged. We spent a week on the lovely island of Korcula, staying in a hotel with a terrace overlooking the sea, then went to Dubrovnik which was full of facades hiding bombsites, but still beautiful.
Split was spared the sustained bombardment that Dubrovnik endured, its old town seemingly unscathed. It’s quite unlike anywhere I’ve been in Europe, made up largely of a Roman palace built by Diocletian who became emperor at the age of thirty-nine in 284 CE. The palace was to be his retirement home, not something that emperors usually planned or managed to achieve but he did, taking up residence twenty-one years after gaining power. Diocletian, it seems, liked to make an entrance, sailing his ship into the flooded vaults of his palace from the sea rather than disembarking at the shore like the rest of us plebs. Many additions have been made to the complex throughout the centuries including a cathedral in Diocletian’s mausoleum. Somewhat churlishly, the Christians who built it looted his body or what remained of it, putting their stamp firmly on his palace. It’s all very fetchingly got up now, a maze of alleyways running through the complex filled with a multitude of tiny shops, cafes and restaurants. A gorgeous place to wander around as we did the evening we arrived but chock-full during the day.
We turned our backs on the weekend crowds the following afternoon, walking up the hill above the old city to explore the wooded Marjan peninsula. What was to have been a pleasant amble turned into a seven-mile hike for which both of us were somewhat overdressed. Sadly, we failed to find a cake shop, the promise of which had kept me going for the last hot, crowded stretch, full of people heading in the opposite direction to us. Worth it for the magnificent views, though.
Split is Croatia’s second city after Zagreb but it’s charms are confined to a fairly small area unless you’re a fan of high-rise apartment blocks so we’d planned a couple of day trips one of which was to Trogir, a little gem of a walled city on its own tiny island. Getting lost on the way to the bus station we stumbled across a patch of rough ground populated by around fifteen peacocks, one of those odd sights you sometimes come across in an unfamiliar place then later wonder if you dreamt it. We arrived in Trogir after a long, hot, stop-start bus journey but it was well worth all that jolting and jarring, not least for the lovely lunch on a shady terrace finished off with a scrumptious dessert: wine soaked dried figs with lavender-scented honey, mascarpone cream and a little chocolate sauce. Fabulous!
Our second outing was to the Krka National Park, yet another UNESCO-listed site, to see the Skrandinski buk waterfalls set in lovely woodland, one of those spectacular sights that’s hard to do justice with just a phone camera but you get the idea. Unsurprisingly, it’s a hugely popular place to visit but the walkways are so artfully laid out that despite the large number of us admiring the jaw-droppingly beautiful scenery, it never felt crowded. After lunch we headed off to the lower reaches of Roški Slap which we had pretty much to ourselves. A much more tranquil, lower-key beauty than Skrandinski buk, made all the more so by constant, mellifluous birdsong.
The rest of the week passed in a pleasantly lazy haze. It’s taken us over twenty years to return to Croatia and after a week soaking up sun, stunning landscape and architecture, I hope we won’t wait another two decades.
And the books? The first was Hannah Rothschild’s The Improbability of Love, shortlisted for the Baileys back in 2015 which is what made me want to read it. In essence it’s a literary potboiler about a lost masterpiece made interesting thanks to the author’s knowledge of art history. There’s a nice little edge of suspense running through the novel but ultimately it’s somewhat soapy. Julia Pierpont’s Among the Ten Thousand Things was much more of a success. It begins with a young girl opening a box addressed to her mother, full of emails printed off by the woman with whom her father has had an affair. The novel explores the resulting fallout through the girl, her brother and their parents which may not sound startlingly original but Pierpont’s writing is striking and the novel is utterly engrossing. It’s always a gamble when you choose your holiday reading but at least this one turned out to be a winner.
Back to the endless litany of electioneering which will drag on for the next month here in the UK, wistfully remembering our last Croatian lunch looking out to sea from the restaurant’s sunlit terrace…