Split's Personality: Although Tourists Have Been Rediscovering Croatia's Potential as a Holiday Destination for Several Years Now, Split Remains Something of a Hidden Gem. Jo Sargent Unearths One of Eastern Europe's Best-Kept Secrets Hidden among Some of the Adriatic Coast's Oldest Roman Ruins

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Sprawling around the remarkably well-preserved remains of a Roman palace in southwestern Croatia, Split is one of Europe's oldest cities. It's also the country's second largest. Considered the cultural heart of Dalmatia, it has become the main gateway to the 1,100 islands that hug Croatia's coastline.

Archaeological evidence suggests that Split's origins date back to as early as 300 BC, when Greek settlers made the peninsula between the eastern part of the Gulf of Kastela and the Split channel their home. However, the city's real story began 600 years later, when Roman emperor Diocletian chose to build his retirement home on the peninsula. Rulers from all over Europe, from Venetian emperors to Hungarian kings, have since made their mark on the city, creating a curious patchwork of architecture. In 1979, UNESCO declared the palace and the old town around it a World Heritage site.

Walking through the streets on the eve of the city's 1,700th anniversary, it's easy to see why. Split is a charming, bustling city with an abundance of historical landmarks. Its winding streets double back on themselves, snaking around the palace's outer walls and leading down to the open market. Held daily, this chaotic bazaar is an assault on the senses: old women wave home-bottled olive oil and wild herbs as snails slither in buckets; the smell of cheese matured in a goat's stomach hits me like a spade. But even without the sales pitches coming from every side, navigating the tightly packed tables proves tricky--the city is teeming with people who've come from all over Croatia to help celebrate Split's longevity.

Roman origins

Diocletian, Split's founder and the last person to govern the Roman Empire in its entirety, was primarily famous for issuing a decree that outlawed Christianity in 303 AD. It's thought he was born in nearby Salona, then capital of the region. He abdicated in 305 AD, something few emperors lived long enough to manage, and returned to his native country to begin a life of leisure in his newly constructed retirement palace.

Built just five kilometres from his birthplace, the building had taken ten years to complete, with more than 600 slaves working at any one time. Made from the same stone as the US White House--quarried on the nearby island of Brac--the palace is still an imposing sight. An irregular quadrangle, it has four main entrances and three looming lowers. Only the southern side of the structure was left unfortified in order to allow the emperor private access to the water from his apartments. These rose directly from the sea, although a bustling promenade now separates the buildings from the water.

After Diocletian's death in 313 AD, his remains were interred in a purpose-built mausoleum in the centre of the palace and the building was retained as a residence for exiled and retired Roman leaders. Given his persecution of the Christians, it's rather ironic that the tomb was consecrated in the seventh century and converted into the Cathedral of St Dominus. Aside from the addition of a Romanesque bell tower between the 12th and 16th centuries, the cathedral has remained practically untouched since its construction and is now one of the oldest cathedrals still in use.

When Salona was almost obliterated in 614 AD by the Avars--a Turkic people whose empire extended across most of Ukraine and the former Yugoslavia--the survivors fled to Diocletian's palace. The rich moved into the emperor's old apartments, while the poor had to make do with whatever space they could find around the outer walls. Although Salona had been almost entirely rebuilt by the end of the seventh century, many of the locals chose to remain within the palace.

A city at war

When the Croatian war of independence broke out in 1995, Split once again became a place of refuge. Like the people of Salona before them, Bosnian refugees fled to the city, and hotels and public buildings throughout the palace were turned into makeshift hostels. …