Fresh Eire Blog
Diocletian Palace, From Emperor To Enigma
Few people are so central to the history of Split as the third-century Roman Emperor Diocletian (245-311). And yet it is surprising how little we know about the man. The narratives routinely trotted out by tourist publications are frequently based on a consensus of suppositions rather than hard facts. With new interpretations emerging in the wake of every archeological discovery, however, the sands of historical record are constantly shifting.
Diocletian's status as founder of the city is celebrated every year in the Days of Diocletian, when locals dressed as Diocletian and his retinue arrive by chariot to greet the crowds. Putting his three-day toga-party aside, however, there's a surprising lack of a commercialized Diocletian cult in Split. If you're looking for a Diocletian T-shirt, an imperial signet ring, or even a decent biography of Diocletian written in plain language and with nice pictures, you'll be going home empty-handed. Diocletian is thought to have been born to humble parents in or near the city of Salona (next to present-day Solin just inland from Split), rising through the ranks of the army before being proclaimed as Roman Emperor in 284. He reformed the Roman Empire by establishing the Tetrarchy (basically rule by four - a system of divided sovereighnty in which there were two emperors and two vice-emperors), then abdicated in 305, returning to the land of his birth. The retirement palace he built on the Adriatic shore became the founding structure of present-day Split, its walled precincts re-used, adapted or plundered for their stone by subsequent generations, creating the core of the modern city.
We know a lot about Diocletian's military victories and governmental reforms because they are described in detail by near-contemporary sources. The personal biography of the man is a much mistier affair - we can't say with any certainty where he was born, why he retired, or precisely how big his palace settlement actually was. Wandering around the palace precinct today, Diocletian's heritage is ever present, but the man remains elusive.
The fact that the former palace area now forms the heart of a living city means that it is not a traditional archeological site with everything labeled for the visitor, making it difficult to extrapolate much about how Diocletian lived. Things are compounded by the fact that none of Split's museums provide a detailed picture of Diocletan's era, and the visitor really has to tour the palace area, visit the City Museum and then trek out to the Archeological Museum in an attempt to piece together a picture of what third - and fourth-century Split was actually like.
It's because the palace precinct remains a residential area that it's unlikely that archeologists will ever be able to examine it in its entirety. The best opportunity to discover more about Diocletan's life and times came in the 1950s with the clearing of the palace basement, a substructure in the southern part of the palace precinct which is thought to mirror exactly the floor plan of the imperial apartments that once stood above. The reason why a basement exists beneath this part of the palace is believed to be because the ground beneath Diocletian's planned living quarters dropped sharply towards the sea, so a set of foundations had to be built in order to raise the level of the ground floor.
The basement has since served as a film set for several scenes of the HBO series Game of Thrones; what it was used for during Diocletan's time remains the subject of much conjecture. It was almost certainly used as a living space by the squatters who took over the palace following the fall of Salona in the seventh century. Once they moved up to ground level and started building their own dwellings from the palace masonry, the basement became a huge waste bin and shit hole, fed by the primitive toilets and inadequate drainage channels of the tenements above. When the petrified shit of medieval Split was finally cleared out of the basement by post-war archeologists, several tantalizing lefovers of the Diocletian era were revealed. A fragment of a porphyry sarcophagus, possibly Dioclitian's own, is nowadays on display in the lapidarium of the Archeology Museum. The City Museum displays a large menza or marble food table from which the emperor himself may once have eaten.
The popular view that Diocletian was a true-born Dalmatian who came home is plausible, if not exactly watertight. Diocletian's original name, Diokles, is Greek, so he could have been born anywhere with a bit of Hellenic heritage: multiracial, multilingual Salona certainly can't be ruled out. Contemporary writer Lactantius, who was a civil servant under Diocletian, tells us that the emperor, upon his abdication, left the imperial capital Nicomedia like an old soldier 'dismissed into his own country', suggesting that the old man was going back to where he was born.
However there were many other reasons why Diocletian may have chosen to build his palace here - access to sulphurous springs, proximity to a big city like Salona, and most crucially, good maritime links and ease of seaborne escape. Construction on the palace began at least ten years before Diocletian's abdication, which may indicate that it was initially envisaged as the seat of a ruling emperor rather than the retirement villa of a homesick pensioner. Diocletian didn't just reform the administration of the empire, he also reformed the ceremonial that surrounded the imperial court. The Emperor was henceforth considered a god from the moment of his accession, and people had to abase themselves when introduced into his presence. The desire to build fabulous palaces was an outgrowth of this new culture of adoration, and the palace at Split was by no means the only one that Diocletian built. Diocletian wanted his imperial captial at Nicomedia to rival Rome, and large parts of the city were demolished to make way for his official residence. He also built a fortified palace in Antioch which, although no longer in existence, is thought to have resembled the one in Split.
It's also an open question whether Diocletian's palace really was just a palace, or a part of an already exisitng settlement. The name Split derrives from the Latin Spalatum, which in turn is a corruption of the greek Aspalathos (which really means hairy broom, the wiry, yellow-flowered plant that covers this stretch of the coast), and it is assumed that the Greeks got here before Diocletian did. Stone fragments of a well found at the entrance of the palace basement predate Diocletian's time by several centuries. The recent renovation of the Split waterfront revealed wooden beams which confirmed the existence of a port here in the pre-Roman era. It's entirely possible that Diocletian demolished parts of an existing settlement in order to make room for his palace, much in the same manner as Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who cleared large parts of downtown Bucharest to make way for the brand-new Centru Civic in the 1980s.
Although we know a great deal about the shape and function of Diocletian's palace (imperial apartments in the south, accomodation for guards and servants in the north), the question of what lay immediately outside the palace walls remains the subject of much fervant debate. Recent excavations have suggested the existence of a hppodrome just outside the palace, and an amphitheatre (or at the very least a theatre) just inland. This might mean that the palace was not just an imperial retirement home but a much bigger settlement comprising entertainment facilities: 'some kind of Roman-era Las Vegas', the Croation magazine Globus suggested in April 2014. The idea that Diocletian's Split was a resort seems to be a backward projection of our present-day preoccupation with the travel and entertainment industries. However it's certainly plausible that Diocletian's settlement was more than just a palace and served a wider purpose. It is possible that the retired emperor was still an important player on the imperial chessboard, making his palace a political centre to keep the old man out of the way.
Ultimately there's a huge amount of ambiguity about Diocletian's role as local hero or imperial villain. Sure, he built a palace here, but he also presided over the last, greatest persecution of Christians in the annals of imperial Rome. And in a solidly Catholic city like Split, Diocletian's heritage can never be regarded as something entirely positive. The patron saint of the city is after all St. Domnius (Sveti Dujami), the third-century bishop of Salona who was decapitated in the city's amphitheatre on Diocletian's orders in 304AD. St. Domnius's feast day is marked on May 7th with church processions and a city-wide fair - an annual celebration of the fact that Diocletian did not end up on the winning side.
In a very real sense central Split is both a monument to Diocletian and also a solemn shrine to those he had executed. The early-medieval Christian civilization that took over Diocletian's palace engaged in a deliberate attempt to demonstrate its mastery over the emperor's pagan heritage. Diocletian's mausoleum became the Cathedral of St. Domnius. One of the cathedral's most famous altars (carved by Croatian Renaissance master Juraj Dalmatinac) honours St. Anastasius the Fuller, a Salona Christian who was thrown into the sea with a stone around his neck. The crypt of the cathedral, formerly a shrine to Mithras, was rededicated to another of Diocletian's martyrs, St. Lucy. Diocletian's sarcophagus, which once rested in the mausoleum, is assumed to have been thrown into the growing shit pile in the palace basement.
Diocletian shares the fate of many Roman emperors in the sense that there are so few reliable likenesses of him that we can't really be sure what he looked like. Busts of Diocletian may well have been destroyed because of his status as a persecutor of Christians, and the only surviving likeness we can be sure of is a head of Diocletian belonging to the Istanbul Archeological Museum. It shows a bearded, rugged, resolute man, and rather like the images of emperors that appear on coins, it may well be a stock representation of imperial power rather than a genuine portrait. Ultimately the most iconically recognizable character to emerge from Diocletian's palace is not the emperor himself but the granite sphinx that crouches on the balustrade beside the cathedral. One of the several that Diocletian had imported from Egypt, this is the only sphinx that survived in its complete form. Early Christians beheaded all of the others, as if the best way to get at the dead emperor was by decapitating his stone pets. For an emperor like Diocletian, a historical riddle remains unanswered, maybe the sphinx is the most appropriate symbol of all.
This has been reproduced by kind permission from the website Split In Your Pocket.
Johnatan Bousfield, Diocletian, From Emperor To Enigma, Split In Your Pocket, Autumn 2015
San Sebastian, also called Donostia in Basque, is a city located in the north of Spain but also the capital of the province Guipuzcoa belonging to the Basque Country. The city was an important military and naval base during the Middle Ages. Nowadays San Sebastian is a lively university town and a major economical pole.
San Sebastian counts 3 of the 7 Restaurants in Spain that hold the highest distinction in the gastronomy world , which is to say the coveted Michelin 3 stars. This is a true testimony and proof of the know-how of the culinary artists of San Sebastian.
- Akelare - Pedro Subijana:
This Michelin 3 star restaurant is located 7km west from the train station so you will need a car to reach it . If you have never been there, you may legitimately wonder why the restaurant is decentralised. Once you have seen this breathtaking location, you can understand all the magic of this place which is overlooking the Bay of Biscay. The famous chef Pedro Subijana is an emblematic figure of the gastronomy world and his numerous awards speak for themselves. He has been working and improving a base of three menus that will help you to discover his culinary world. You will explore a variety of new tastes in an incomparable setting.
- Restaurante Martín Berasategui:
As for our previous recommendation, this other Michelin 3 star restaurant is not centrally located, it is a 20 minutes car ride away from the centre which is totally worth the detour. In 2016, Tripadvisor has ranked his restaurant the best in the world for the second year in a row; not only for the unquestionable quality of his food but also his work ethic and philosophy.
- Casama Cámara:
The restaurant is situated in the east part of the city and is found inside a seventeenth century house at the entrance of the Pasajes harbour. Casama Cámara was founded in 1884 and has always belonged to the Cámara family. The perfect geographical location has allowed the restaurant to develop a strong reputation for its catering which is exclusively composed of fresh fish and sea food. Even if the restaurant does not have any Michelin star, the authentic and traditional setting combined to products of quality will leave you a lasting memory.
- Hotel Arrizul Center:
The Hotel Arrizul Center is located in front of the Kuursaal Congress Center. The traditional style of its exterior façade gives a charming first impression and is just a few steps away from the city centre. There are 12 beautiful well-groomed rooms available. During the Film Festival of San Sebastian you will see the artists come to present their films or as you have a direct access to the centre you can also enjoy the tapas bars and shopping centres at the local rhythm.
- Hotel Niza:
This 3 star hotel offers a wonderful view of La Concha beach as well as its surroundings. You will enjoy a panorama of the beach surrounded by hills and beautiful houses with a typical Basque style, overlooking a passage through which the sea flow into the Bay. The central location will allow you to walk everywhere in the city, and the multilingual, attentive staff will advise you of their top tips of the town.
- Hotel Maria Christina:
The Hotel Maria Christina was built in 1912 and is an institution of San Sebastian as it is a magnificent 5 star hotel contributing to the international outreach of the city. This is an exceptional hotel with a customer satisfaction rating of 96%. The hotel is just a few blocks away from La Concha beach. However, what really distinguishes the Hotel Maria Christina is its environmental awareness and, in 2016, it was awarded the gold medal of the project ICARIUS from the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA).
Vienna is an ideal post-trip destination following our Prague - Vienna Bike Tour - Vienna Bike Tour
Vienna is the capital of Austria and its largest city. Usually regarded as the City of Music, thanks to its music legacy, and as the City of Dreams, because it was the home to the first psycho-analyst Sigmund Freud. Vienna is rich in arts and culture, from theatre to opera and fine arts. Vienna, and especially its historic centre, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site, has a huge variety of architectural styles which reflects the city’s willingness to be an open, cultural, globalized city. The city is ranked first for its high quality of life and considered to be the most prosperous city in the world.
-The Guesthouse Vienna:
Located right behind the State Opera House and famous Albertina, the 5-star Guesthouse Vienna is a perfect starting point to visit the city and to have a cosy, relaxing vacation. Rooms are elegant and well-equipped with everything you might need, from an espresso machine to a wine fridge where beverages are free of charges. To fully appreciate and enjoy your stay you cannot miss the Brasserie and in-house Bakery where you will find freshly baked goods.
- Hotel Sacher Wien:
The 5-star Hotel Sacher Wien Hotel is right in front of The State Opera House and it is one of the world’s greatest luxury hotels. You will be provided with all the greatest comforts and every modern technology you might need. John F. Kennedy, Grace Kelly and Queen Elizabeth II have stayed here. While enjoying your stay at this hotel you can’t miss the speciality of the house, the Original Sacher Torte, the world-famous chocolate cake with apricot filling.
- Reinthaler’s Beisl:
Reinthaler’s Beisl, situated at the heart of Vienna, is a traditional Austrian restaurant. As the word ‘Beisl’ itself indicates, it is a typical, cosy, traditional Viennese dining establishment. There's more to life than Schnitzel afterall, but when it's this good...
- Beim Czaak:
Beim Czaak bistro, at the heart of Vienna’s historic centre, will surprise and spoil you with its wide selection of traditional wines and beers fresh from the tap. The menu is mostly comprised of classic local dishes served in a relaxing environment which makes it hard to forget (unless you enjoy too many of those beers!). Last, but absolutely not least, the restaurant has a large garden opening in summer, making this restaurant a perfect place to taste some traditional food and wine while enjoying the Viennese summer breeze.
Here, Fresh Eire Adventures intern and Sardinian native, Domenico Cubeddu lists some of his favourites along with recommended restaurants and hotels, inns B&Bs and activities and attractions.
Main traditional events
Seneghe, a small village in the Province of Oristano, West Sardinia, should absolutely be visited during carnival. Its traditional carnival is one of the most diverse, interesting carnivals in Sardinia. It always starts on January 20th and from this day on, each Sunday, there will be traditional dances in the main square of the village. This will last until the "Mardi Gras", and can last anywhere from 2 weeks to a month, this is the day when everything turns fantastic; you will be able to see more than 40 couples of dancers, dancing around all dressed up with the traditional costumes. A dreamy performance of colours and amazing choreographies.
Cagliari, the capital and main city of Sardinia, should be visited on May 1st, the day of the city patron, Saint Efisio. The main attraction in this day is the parade where you will be able to see and be amazed by all of Sardinia's traditional costumes parading through the main streets of the town. After the parede there is music in all of the city squares, where you can listen to some traditional Sardinian music and enjoy the traditional folk group dancing. It is an explosion of tradition, colours and music.
- Affitta camere da Francesca:
This is essentially a Bed & Breakfast, located at the heart of the village. A perfect place to stay for enjoying the marvellous carnival in Seneghe. The staff are friendly and the rooms are traditional and cozy.
- Hotel Regina Margherita:
Near the city centre, this 4-star hotel is a perfect place to stay to enjoy the 1st of May parade. You can choose between a large variety of rooms which are modern and comfortable.
- Hotel Italia:
Hotel Italia is a 3-star hotel which punches above its weight and feels like a more prestigious property than its three star status. It is located right near the harbour and where the parade takes place. The environment is warm and the rooms are cosy and equipped with everything you might need.
- Antica Cagliari:
Antica Cagliari is located in the historical centre of Cagliari, called Marina. It serves traditional dishes mostly based on fish or meat. This restaurant is perfect for a break between the parade and the performances.
Sabores is the traditional restaurant, for a perfect Sardinian experience. Here you will taste all the different "sabores" (flavours) of Sardinia. Located near the centre, this place is perfect to taste the finests local food, including cheeses, oils, and of course the local wine. Salude!
Dubrovnik: Attractions and Day Trips
Dubrovnik Cable Car
Join the 778 meter long journey in the cable cars and be amazed by the most beautiful, breathtaking views the Adriatic has to offer. The upper station has two panoramic terraces equipped with binocular telescopes, a snackbar, a panoramic restaurant that overlooks the Old City, a souvernir shop and more. The lower station is at the beginning of King Petar Kresimir Street (opposite of the fire station) where tickets can be bought, also in Restaurant Panorama at the top of mountain Srd, or in Restaurant Dubravka close to the Pile Gates where you can pay in kuna or by credit card.
Island of Lokrum
The island of Lokrum, a special nature reserve under the protection of UNESCO is Dubrovnik's favourite swimming and relaxation place. It takes only 10 minutes by boat from the Old Port to "teleport" into an oasis of peace and quiet, breathtaking nature and crystal clear sea. Once on the island there are plenty of things to see and do, from an impressive botanical garden, to the remains of the 12th century basillica, the 15th century monastery and the Habsburg summer residence dating from the 19th century. You can also enjoy lunch in one of the island's restaurants, coffee in the shade of the pine trees or simply chill under the centuries old olive trees in the olive grove.
Montenegro Private Tour
This exclusive private, guided tour in the luxurious comfort of a BMW 7 series, follows the route down the enchanting Adriatic coastline, starting from Dubrovnik towards St. Stefan. You will discover all the beautiful, natural and historical sites in Montenegro, including visits to the scenic coastal towns of Kotor, Budva, Perast and St. Stefan with an optional lunch stop at the famous Catovica Mlini at your own expense.
Full day private tour to Montenegro from Dubrovnik
Optional lunch at Catovica Mlini
Montenegro coastal towns visits
Possible swim-stop upon request