Though I would later regret my decision, I take the ferry from Trpanj to Ploce and ride to Split along the coast. Someone talked me out of taking the ship to Korcula, and then from there take another ferry to Split. “Are you here to ride or get ferried around in boats?” the local guide asks. Candidly, I am here to do both. Yet he made a good point. I thought until I found myself in a trance riding the traffic-congested coast road. I would rather relax on a boat.
While on the ferry I take advantage of the wifi to search for accommodations in Split. I want to stay close to the Diocletian Palace, but most of the guest houses are inside the palace complex closed to motor vehicle traffic. Nearby the only options are very expensive or fully booked.
The most important factor I consider when choosing accommodations in a larger city is the parking and the security of my motorcycle. While apps like Booking.com or others offer a variety of private apartments, I avoid these because I prefer a place that has 24-hour reception and security. In small villages, this is not a concern, but that’s what I would prefer in Split. But here, I’m out of luck.
One apartment I find looks good, has excellent reviews, and when I contact the owner/manager and address my parking and security concerns, she tells me that there is no problem, the apartment is located in a small and secure neighborhood, yet is still a short walking distance to the palace. I book it.
As I roll into Split, passing gaudy big concrete block shopping centers with huge scenery-killing signs of brand logos and other marks blatant consumerism. There’s even a store named “Konzum.”
After some difficulty, I find the apartment. It’s on the fourth floor of a five-floor building. There is no elevator. To be sure, I usually take the stairs to keep the step, floor, and activity count climbing on my Apple Watch. But when I first arrive at a new place, I unpack my bike and carry everything to my room. If I were a typical cruise-ship or airplane trailer, I’d be bringing a single piece of wheeled luggage and a backpack. On a motorcycle, it’s challenging to consolidate luggage.
So for me, I’ve got two duffels, a photography backpack, laptop, and a few miscellaneous items like the GPS and such that must come off of the bike. This amounts to more than a handful of smaller things I must carry. I’ve only got two hands. At a hotel often there is someone to help, or I’ll make a couple trips. Here, I must carry these items about 50 meters to the entrance of the building. Then up four floors. This means multiple trips, and one more reason I’d rather be a full-service guest house or hotel.
So I pull all my stuff off the bike and bring it into the lobby of the apartment. Then I make my first trip up where I meet the host and manager of the apartment. She’s on her way out, and we walk down the stairs to the lobby. Seeing my stuff sitting on the floor she looks concerned. “Don’t leave your things unattended here.”
“I thought you said this was a safe neighborhood,” I reminded here of our email exchange. Then I ask her for parking. She tells me just to leave the bike on the street.
“Really?” It’s a narrow alley, more than a street. She says it doesn’t have a lot of traffic, so it should be okay. I question her. She assures me.
By the time I get sorted in my room, changed, and ready to explore, its almost sunset. I walk to the nearby 1,500-year-old Roman palace or fortress set in the center of Split on Croatian’s Dalmatian Coast. Along the way, I stop to enjoy a cold beer and music in a park holding a Jazz Festival. Then I head to the 1,700-year-old Diocletian Palace.
Built in 305 AD by Diocletian to serve as his home after retiring as Roman Emperor. To call it a palace is misleading as it’s more of a fortress complex with many buildings and courtyards. During Diocletian’s time, half of the “palace” housed a military garrison, while the other half was for the Emperor’s use. I will share more about the palace in a future post, for now, let us get on with the evening and my exploration.
I pass into the palace through the “Golden Gate,” one of four gates that lead visitors into the complex. The maze of narrow pathways and alleys is crowded as tonight the city is teeming with people. Without a map or any orientation, I wander the town aimlessly. I walk outside the city to the harbor where in the air I hear the echoes of conversation, clanking silverware, and muted music from the busy restaurants lining the waterfront.
Back inside the palace, I grab a table at Zinfandel, a small and cozy restaurant and wine bar where an acoustic duo entertains diners with traditional songs. The menu features Dalmatian fare served in small tapas-sized portions, while the wines by the glass are diverse and plentiful. For my first dish, I choose a crisp and fresh Posip from Korcula. From there, I move on to a rose, and many reds, including a deep rich Postup from the Peljesac.
When the restaurant notifies the remaining diners it’s last call, I order a glass of Ivancic Griffen Estate’s Dark Side Barrique, it’s a red wine made from the purtugizec grape in the Plešivica region of Croatia. It’s got plenty of fruit with subtle oak undertones and smooth tannins, an elegant and drinkable reasonably priced red by the glass.
Afterward, I continue my aimless wander around town. By the time I’m ready for a cold beer, it’s late, and I’m struck with self-imposed decision fatigue. I don’t want to go into the many bars with high-decibel thumping house music, so I continue to wander, just happy in my gaze. I’m delighted to delight in the architectural lighting that enhances the Roman ruins, and that reflects off the polished marble stones of the walkways.
I find a small pub tucked into a dark corner in the old town near the palace’s “Iron Gate.” Here I’m not surprised but fascinated to find two women from California, Neya, and Malaki. They ask me if I have a light. Where I live, ashtrays are extinct, like payphone and CRT screens, nobody has them, nobody uses them. But here in Croatia, everyone seems to smoke, I don’t. I join my new friends while they sip their wine and share a charcuterie plate with me. One is from San Diego and the other in Orange County. They are dressed for a night on the town and politely ask for a few photos. I oblige.
When they leave, I suspect they will wander to one of the house-music thumping clubs. When I go, I wander, adding more to my fitness-tracking step count on my Apple Watch. Once again, The thumping music of many of the clubs irritates me, so I look elsewhere, but everyplace else is closed. Yet just off one plaza, I notice a small group of guys sitting at a few tables outside a restaurant drinking beer. Laughing and talking among each other with loud voices, they are having fun. I’m drawn by their jovialness, but when I ask if they’re open and try to order a beer, the English speaking waiter informs me the restaurant closed an hour ago. Those cockling around these tables is just the crew, waiters, cooks, bartender and dishwasher winding down after a busy night.
I walk away. Before I get 20 meters outside the seating area, I hear a voice.
“Wait! Are you alone,” I nod. “You just want a beer?”
“Yeah, a cold one!” I answer with a smile.
“Sit down, sit down,” he points to the table and brings me a cold frothy beer.
They talk among themselves for a moment, all in Croatian, I listen, drink my beer.
“I don’t know why…” the waiter turns to me and speaks in English. “I tell these guys,” he explains what they’ve been talking about. “All the time when people come by after closing and ask for a drink, I say no.”
He repeats himself. “Always no, I work here for five years. It’s no, no, no. But you…” he points at me and sports a warm smile. “You… I say yes. And I wonder why.”
He’s not regretting his decision. But something in my presence struck him. I have no answer for him. But I wonder if it’s because my energy, and approach might differ from the typical tourist. Plus I’m alone. I’m also a traveler, and I travel with no itinerary and have no bucket-list I need to check off. Most often I have what other tourists don’t have: time
Though Split is not as crazy as Dubrovnik, it is one of Croatia’s top tourist destination and its second largest city. It’s the primary port for embarking to Croatia’s famous islands such as Hvar, Brac, and Korcula. It’s Saturday night. These hospitality workers worked all week catering to the demands of an international melee of tourists. This is the time of the evening they can let go.
I notice my waiter handing over a few credit cards to the chef. I’m curious and ask about the exchange. My waiter friend tells me he has a gambling problem. Ever since he and his wife split up, he racks up a massive debt at the local casino. His friends at the restaurant know this and on weekends demand he turn over his credit cards. They want to protect him, help him. He whispers in my ear, “don’t worry Allan, I have another credit they don’t know about.
I finish the beer, and he brings me another one. The happy crew breaks out in song—I suspect a Croation traditional tune. It’s fun, so I capture the moment on my iPhone.
I hear the unmistakable sound of a suitcase rolling over the cobblestones nearby. Two elderly women approach the restaurant and ask for help. They tell the waiter they just arrived from the airport and have been wandering the city for an hour. They are lost. My waiter friend gives them directions, but the woman looks at him cross-eyed.
He calls the hotel and convinces them to meet the ladies here and help them back to the hotel. After the hotel worker arrives, my waiter friend turns and says, “Let’s go!”
“Where are we going?”
“With us, come on.”
So I join the waiter and chef and begin a fast-paced walk out of the city through the Silver Gate and into a taxi. I think he’s taking me to the casino.
“We go to disco,” he tells me. “You like disco, girls?” I nod.
After a twenty-minute ride we’re wandering through a seaside complex of restaurants, bars, and after marching some 40 steps down to the waterfront, he walks me into a busy bar. Thumping Serbian pop-music blasts through massive speakers.
He squeezes through the crowd and wedges himself into the corner of the bar. Before I can say anything the bartender slams a bucket of ice on the bar with a bottle of Jack Daniels and a half-dozen mini-bottles of cokes.
He makes three drinks, hands me one. My new friend is social. He starts a conversation with a leggy-blond wearing too much makeup. She’s from Split and also works at a nearby hotel. He buys her a drink. I imagine he will use the secret credit card.
They both know the words of most of the songs. They are Serbian songs, he tells me. This evening seems to be a repeat or déjà vu from my time in Mostar. The evening progresses with more conversation, more girls, and more Jack and cokes. By 3AM the bar is packed, and I’ve lost my friends.
I run into a few other travelers, a few guys from the Netherlands. The mass of people cramming in the bar makes it uncomfortably hot.
It’s 4 am when I’m outside getting fresh air. I chat with the bouncer. More people stroll in. “When do you close,” I ask him.
“When everybody leaves,” he tells me, then with his massive hand gives me a pat on the shoulder. “It’s Saturday, probably see the sun before I go home.”
I look once more for my friends, but the swath of people and their kinetic moves combined with the noise of the music, I give up.
Should I go home? Probably. What am I doing tomorrow? I don’t know. Whatever it is, I’ll do it.
Outside the club, I realize I don’t know where I am. To be sure, I’m well outside the old town. So, I resort to following the GPS on my phone. But my connection is so slow that the GPS cannot keep up with my pace. I keep walking.
It’s dark, and there are no cars, buses, or trucks. I think I’ve found my way when I pass the only sign of life on the streets. It’s a bakery. It’s bright fluorescent lights a stark contrast from the dark, quiet streets. Three women inside are hustling about, moving bread, pastries, and cookies onto the shelves. The smell of fresh bread, croissants is seductive. In my buzzed state, I give in and buy something dangerously good. It’s like a midnight snack. Except it’s 4:30 AM.
I find my apartment, check on my motorcycle, climb four flights and stumble into bed.
This happens when hanging with locals.
No complaints. So fun. So good. Even the pastry!