The Know Nothings – Split: A Tour In Ruins (Traveling The Croatian Coastline #55)

Split offered a quandary. Rather than to be or not to be, it was to do or not to do. With only a half day in the city before our ferry departed for Dubrovnik in the mid-afternoon, I had to decide how to would spend that time. It was an either/or choice. Either try to make the most of limited time by hurrying from one site to the next or try on various attitudes of repose while waiting for the appointed time when the ferry left the port. The fact that I had spent four days in Split eight years earlier meant there was not much left to see or do on the well traveled tourist paths. I was pretty much left to my own devices on this brief visit. Of course, I started off with the obvious, taking a stroll through Diocletian’s Palace, the palatial retirement home of Roman Emperor Diocletian (284 – 305).

A tour in ruins – Diocletian’s Palace in Split

“Now People” – Embellishment, Emotion and Exaggeration
In the years that had passed since that first visit, I had forgotten the fragmented nature of the palace and its history. One moment there is the splendor of late antiquity, the next a medieval church, then there are modern tourist trinkets for sale in the palace’s depths. Clothes are draped for drying atop classical architecture. The ancient and the modern coexist side by side. Anyone looking for historical verisimilitude with the palace’s classical past will search mostly in vain. The closest they can get is an artist’s rendition which can be seen supersized on an information panel along the Riva, Split’s waterfront promenade. The rendering shows the sea lapping up against the palace walls. That stretch of seafront has long since been covered over by the Riva. The rest of the rendering shows a fully intact complex, one that has ceased to exist for well over a millennium. The amazing thing is that so much of the palace still stands today. One thing we wanted to do during our half day in Split was to learn more about the palace and the city from a local. In my experience, there was no better way to do this then to take a free tour.

One of the most enlightening ways to spend an hour or two in an Eastern European city is by availing oneself of a Free Tour. At least that was what I thought until the experience of one in Split. The tour met an hour before noon at a park that was within a five minute walk of the Riva. The tour guide was a woman with long brown hair, wearing a light dress. She looked to be the very essence of Croatian chic, gliding from one participant to the next, ingratiating herself with the future audience. There was a flair for the dramatic in her voice as she exuded emotion. Her modus operandi was to embellish sentences by exaggerating the pronunciation of words and sentences. Her favorite phrase was “now people.”

She pronounced the latter word with a certain zest that would rise to an irritating crescendo each time she said it. It was her way of addressing the group in a rather didactic manner that drove me to distraction. It became rather obvious that this woman liked to hear herself talk, but then again doesn’t every tour guide. This one was a sort of self-anointed voice of authority. While she was not rude, her presentation smacked of condescension. She felt the need to tell us that she was something of a scholar when it came to Diocletian and late antiquity. She promoted her bona fides as having written a book about him. As though this bit of self promotion, rather than her presentation, would somehow confirm her legitimacy. I was interested in what she had to say rather than her academic background.

Passage into the past – Gate at Diocletian’s Palace in Split

The Cabbage Patch – Details & Diocletian
The tour got off to an inauspicious start with the guide telling us how she knew everything about Diocletian. The corollary according to her, was that we could ask her any question and she would have the answer. In my experience, when someone says they know everything about a historical figure, it is a combination of arrogance, condescension, and ignorance. It is impossible to know everything about a man such as Diocletian, an extremely complex figure who lived over 1,600 years ago. The historical sources are relatively thin and much has been left to supposition. To take but one example, very little is known about the early life of Diocletian. For that matter, there are whole parts of his life we know nothing about and most likely never will.

For instance, one of the most oft repeated stories about Diocletian’s time at his retirement palace in Split, concerns his mention of the pleasure that he derived from growing cabbages. This was in reply to a plea for him to reassume the post of emperor. While the anecdote is certainly telling, we have no idea if he did other gardening or if his green thumb was confined to cabbages. And while this pithy story of the cabbage patch emperor is quite memorable, we can scarcely imagine the hundreds of other tales of Diocletian’s exploits in retirement that historians will never know. When the guide said she knew everything about Diocletian, she was really saying that she knew more than a group of random strangers who had shown up for a tour out of curiosity. In comparison to this Free Tour group, the guide probably was an expert, but that was not saying much.

Seeing is believing – The ruins of Salonas amphitheater (Credit: Carole Raddato)

Follow The Leader – “Nothing Worth Seeing” 
Perhaps it was the heat or maybe it was the guide’s continuing condescension that made me begin to have second thoughts about the tour. Then again, the tipping point may have come when the guide mentioned Salona, a major Roman city whose fragmented ruins can be found in the town of Solin not far from Split. The guide dismissed these as “nothing worth seeing.” This self-professed authority on Salona had supposedly spent a great deal of time there as part of work on her book.

Contrary to what the guide said, Solin does have quite a few ruins, including those of its ancient aqueduct, amphitheater, baths, basilica, and city walls. That is not surprising since its ancient iteration had over 60,000 inhabitants and was the capital of a Roman province, The ruins might interest those looking to learn more about the probable site of Diocletian’s birth. The guide’s dismissiveness led me to dismiss myself from the tour. This was the first free tour I had ever decided wasn’t worth the effort. In our guide’s words, there was “nothing worth seeing”, especially when she was involved. At least I can say that I went on a Free Tour of Split, the memory of which still comes at great cost.

Click here for: Early Arrivals – Ferry At Split: Kinetic Intellects & Kindred Spirits (Traveling The Croatian Coastline #56)

1 thought on “The Know Nothings – Split: A Tour In Ruins (Traveling The Croatian Coastline #55)

  1. How interesting. And how irritating for you. Did you see the synagogue within the palace walls. It is one of the oldest surviving synagogues in Europe but unfortunately in sad need of funds. It has about 100 in its congregation – I’m sure there is a better word. When I was there last November I found out for the first time about the horrendous concentration camp in Croatia, rivalling Auschwitz in its intensity and cruelty

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