Friday - 4pm
As our ferry is slammed into the Adriatic by the force of a
rogue wave, we are all relieved to catch a glimpse of the
approaching shoreline and the sail boats dotted around the harbour
of Split, signalling our imminent arrival into this ancient city.
(We're travelling from the island of Hvar, apparently Croatia's
premier party town which for a Brit, is like comparing the Isle of
Wight to Ibiza.)
Once we've disembarked it's time to try and find our apartment for the next couple of nights, a task made easier by Split's compact centre, but less so by its slap dash attitude towards street signs. We do manage to start acclimatising ourselves though as we wander back and forth through the same few cobbled lanes, and I spy a bakery that looks like it might be a good breakfast spot in the morning. Then suddenly we're here and carrying our suitcases three flights up a spiral staircase, which seems like hard work at the time but once we step out onto our balcony, it's easy to forget our out of breath state.
The smell of cooking fish and the sound of swifts screeching as they flit across the sky greets us, swooping with gusto to catch their dinner against a backdrop that can only be described as Italian renaissance meets Soviet high-rise, a surprisingly scenic combination. The hot sun is starting to set over an uneven terracotta blanket, with people emerging onto their balconies as the heat of the day singes into a pleasant rising warmth. Our host Mia is full of information and hints about where to go for an authentic taste of Split, a destination which seems to burst into life as dusk settles over its Roman ruins, mountain terrain and serpentine coastline. After a few mesmerising moments drinking in our surroundings, we decide to go on the hunt for some food and once we're outside again, we realise it's no longer just tourists meandering through the labyrinthine Diocletian's Palace. Young children burst into piazzas to play exuberant games of football, occasionally kicking them into restaurant forecourts where indulgent diners throw them back as harassed waiters move them on - they run away laughing, disappearing in an eye's blink down the nearest hidden alleyway, their voices carried away by a breeze gently ushered in from the sea.
After a long day's travelling we decide that stodge and fat is what's needed, and with our recommendation from Mia, we find ourselves packed into a tiny little fast food stop, Croatian style. Everyone around us is local which makes the smells coming from the makeshift kitchen even more appetising, and for a couple of Euros we walk out with two steaming buns filled with delicately seasoned beef sausages - a regional delicacy called Ćevapi that is by far the best thing we've eaten all week. It must look so good in fact that two Americans stop us as we saunter along munching, to ask us where we bought them. The atmosphere is electric, and we are carried on a wave of enthusiastic exploration, rubbing the toes of Gregory of Nin for luck (a statue not the man himself) and stopping to listen to a busker's rendition of 'wish you were here' which reverberates hauntingly off the classical colonnades. After a few hours, we force ourselves to go to bed - there's still almost 30 hours to go!
Saturday - 10am
Having successfully remembered the location of the bakery from yesterday, this morning we feast on pastries filled with fig and apricot jam alongside nerve-shreddingly strong coffee - the perfect fuel for our days' planned activities!
As it's the weekend, Marjan Park is playing host to busy city Croats all looking for some down-time, and this leafy oasis is definitely an excellent place to find it. Covering a peninsula that's over three kilometres long, the densely packed trees make for sweet relief from the strong summer sun shining directly overhead, though we do pick a secluded route that results in us taking a rather steep incline that cuts through the centre of the park, but we're rewarded with one hell of a view once we make it to the top. Along the way we come across all sorts of hidden treasures, historic churches carved into the cliff-face, secluded beaches far away from the tourist hot-spots down by the marina, and handily placed benches allowing us to cool off before heading ever deeper into the undergrowth. If you're not feeling so adventurous (or caffeine injected), there's a circuitous route you can follow that offers a much flatter experience, but which will still end with a sharp climb up to Split's most well-known viewpoint - a sight that can't help but inspire feelings of Roman conquest as you look out over the rooftops of this city trapped between summits and sea.
By 3pm we're hungry again and ready to immerse ourselves back in the hustle and bustle, choosing a non-descript café serving typical Dalmatian dishes, which have a definite Italian twist. My pizza is doused in delicious garlic, which goes tantalisingly well with the tang of freshly caught sardines, and a pint of the local larger, Ožujsko, makes the perfect companion. This leaves us well fortified for our next stop, which is like something from the surrealist mind of Dalí.
Froggyland has become something of an underground legend in
Split, and it takes us a while to find the entrance - like someone
is trying to hide it from us. Once inside however, we come face to
face with over 500 dead frogs. 500 dead frogs who've been placed in
a series of ever more bizarre positions. Punting frogs, frogs at
schools, artist frogs and circus frogs, an endless arrangement of
what would normally be recognisable pastoral scenes from the early
20th century - but with frogs.
The brain child of Hungarian taxidermist Ference Mere, whose devotion to his amphibious friends saw him spend ten years painstakingly stuff and position each one by hand (from fat, fully-grown males to tiddly little things barely more than tadpoles), this eccentric display won't be for everyone but the entrance cost is reasonable and the guest ledger gushes with global appreciation for this oddity of a museum.
Back out on the streets, the wind has changed and shop holders and stall owners are pulling in their awnings and covering up their wares. One sees us watching and points ominously to the sky 'rain is coming' he tells us expertly, and no sooner has he spoken than, as if to punctuate his point, a roll of thunder echoes off the peaks behind us. So as lighting streaks the sky, we walk home in the warm summer rain, discussing how long it'll be until our next 36 hours in Split.