There is a brief but wonderful window in the story of any popular tourist spot when the city or town in question is still catching up with the level interest the rest of the world is showing in it.
It’s the sweet spot when prices are still low, food, drink and service is still authentic and natural beauty spots are yet to be fully commodified. We spoil it soon enough, us tourists, but in the meantime we can use terms like ‘hidden treasures’ and ‘best kept secrets’ and enjoy the fact the place isn’t yet geared up to milk us dry and pander the lowest common denominators of our Western tastes.
In the midst of that joyous, slightly anarchic phase at the moment is Split, the second-largest city in Croatia.
For decades visitors considered Split little more than a waiting room on their way to Hvar, Brac and the other glorious Adriatic islands that sit a short boat ride away from its Dalmatian coast (there an astonishing 1246 of them in total). But today more and more visitors are cottoning on the fact that the city, which began life as a Roman Palace built more or less for fun by Emperor Diocletian in 305 CE, is an attraction in its own right, and treating the island-hopping as a one or two day excursion instead.
In part, you can thank Game Of Thrones. Many scenes from the show are filmed in locations all around Croatia and since it first aired in 2011, the country has enjoyed a boost of ‘screen tourism’ not unlike New Zealand in the wake of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
For the initiated, Split’s Palace has appeared in the show as Daenary’s throne room and the streets of Meereen, but for everyone else, it is simply the city’s ‘Old Town’, a maze of narrow marble corridors, sudden, multi-leveled courtyards and looming ancient pillars that form the jewel in an architectural crown that also includes stunning Gothic and Renaissance buildings. The overall affect makes Split one of the handsome cities in Europe, where you find yourself pointing your phone upwards in dumbstruck wonder at almost every turn. Not for nothing is Split nicknamed the ‘Mediterranean Flower’.
But back to that brief window. There is stretch along Split’s main seafront that has been surrendered to the worst appetites of tourists – specifically the student-on-a-pub-crawl crowd – but the disease is yet to spread northward or breach the palace walls. Within the Old Town’s butter-coloured nooks and crannies awaits a glorious gallimaufry of shops, cafes and bars, some of which are geared towards visitors, some of which are proudly not. The locals, in short, have not been pushed out of their favourite restaurants or watering holes yet, which creates a delicious friodeur for the more experienced and respectful travellers to try and overcome.
Some tips, then. Head West out of the Old Town and find your way to Konobe Varos (‘Tavern Town’), a restaurant that offers perhaps the city’s best example of authentic Croatian cuisine – exquisitely cooked, fresh seafood, roasted vegetables and hearty goulash. The service can be a little abrupt, something you’ll find everywhere in Split, but it is packed out every night for good reason.
Within the Old Town itself is Villa Spiza – meaning, roughly ‘grub’ – a tiny, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it restaurant with about ten covers where simplicity it key. The menu changes depending on what has taken the head chef’s fancy that day from the local markets and, though you should expect to queue (with a beer, natually), it is well worth the wait.
If you tire of the rough and ready taverns, one watering hole that has done an excellent job appealing to Split’s more sophisticated visitors is Bokeria Kitchen and Wine, where quality wines and decently made cocktails (both a relative rarity in Split) make up the menu. This is a great people watching spot, too, located on a wide, busy corner at the edge of the Palace.
What else? Well, aside from eating and drinking, Split is all about the beaches, of which is has several dotted along its northern, southern and western shores; all clean and worth a visit. The most popular one, Bacvice beach, is a large crescent of sand and shingle that is the best served in terms of bars and cafes. Lying back on a beach chair and enjoying a somnolent afternoon gazing at the turquoise stretches of the Adriatic is part of daily life in the city, so you'll be sharing the sea with just as many locals as holidaymakers.
When to go? Well, the annual summer Yacht Week might be a good place to start, when the marina is packed with glistening super boats you can either hire or simply look at with envy and the place is even more alive than usual. British Airways starts its summer flight season for Split from May 2016, with return fares starting at just £95 for hand-baggage only, or £125 return, including taxes and charges, meaning Split is an affordable option for a short romantic break with your better half and a place that has history, natural beauty and glorious weather to spare. Just make sure you get there before everyone else does.