I was very unpopular in beautiful Croatia. Despite my best efforts to abide by all spoken and unspoken rules and to be apologetic for my ignorance as I navigated the country’s unpredictable off-season transportation and accommodation logistics, the people I came across were decidedly impatient with me. I was almost tossed off of long-distance buses more than once and took verbal abuse with my head down and my fist holding out money during bizarre ticket and reservation-related misunderstandings. Of course, I may just have been unlucky, but the group of fratty types I encountered in one of my hostel rooms that was tagging their Instagram photos with “#broatiaincroatia” made me slightly more understanding of the apparent local hostility toward tourists.
And there’s no shortage of tourists in Croatia these days, particularly in Dubrovnik, the so-called “Pearl of the Adriatic.” In fact, everyone’s in such a hurry to get to Dubrovnik that Split, a larger city on the Dalmatian coast, hardly gets a mention; its image remains largely that of an incidental stop on journeys elsewhere, and even its name is unassuming when compared to the more exotic and Eastern European-sounding Dubrovnik, Hvar, Plitvice. But it doesn’t deserve relegation to stopover status; in fact, I would argue that it’s a more rewarding destination than Dubrovnik. Split is like the girl next door who goes unnoticed, everyone falling over themselves to invite the homecoming queen to prom, until Next Door shows up at the dance solo, glowing and self-possessed.
Don’t get me wrong. Dubrovnik is well worth a visit for everything you’ve heard: sparkling blue water, red tile roofs, a web of narrow streets boasting camera-ready architecture and the television crews shooting it, fortress walls you can walk along and seafood served at pier and cliffside bistros. It’s gorgeous, but it feels somewhat artificial. The touristy Old Town is set apart from the rest of the city like a theme park, and the only businesses there are geared toward visitors: food, accommodation, and plenty of kitsch, all overpriced. I visited during the off-season, but the crowds were already starting to swarm.
I’m partial to tourist destinations that feel inhabited, and Split does (though it too is stunning enough to star on HBO, the New York Times tells me). The most incredible thing about Split is that an entire neighborhood is nestled inside the roofless shell of an ancient Roman palace. Cafés and shoe stores and apartments are embedded in crumbling walls that feature stone detailing and windows that once sheltered royalty. And just outside the palace walls sprawls the local market with its heaps of produce and locals greeting one another in Croatian. To me, nothing is more exotic than the foreign quotidian.
At the center of the web of narrow palace passageways is an open square dominated by Café Luxor, deservedly a tourist hot spot, as it offers outdoor cushions abutting the Cathedral of St. Domnius and its bell tower. The day I sat there, a male a cappella group rehearsed inside an adjacent, acoustically ideal chamber and made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Sunshine and coffee fill this aboveground space, while underfoot is a basement souvenir market enclosed by huge fortress doors. In Split, the fleeting does occupy the eternal, but it doesn’t overwhelm it.
A walk through bustling shopping streets, along the litter-free harbor, and up through gardens takes you into the hillside Marjan Park. Next to a small chapel, high above the city, I munched a tidy little lunch I’d picked up at a local grocery store, day-drank, and marveled that I had ended up in Split by default. Like many who fly into Split or pick up one of the cross-country buses there, I might never have seen it in daylight if I hadn’t slowed down.
“Pretend I’m The Hound,” I overheard a fellow tourist say to her companions atop Dubronik’s Lovrijenac fortress. My advice: pretend in Dubrovnik, but don’t miss Split.