Diocletian was infamous for his persecution of Christians but famous for retiring successfully as an Emperor–as opposed to dying in office or being assassinated. His retirement home and mausoleum, built in only ten years, is the highlight of a visit to Split, Croatia, a coastal town. The Palace is a living antiquity as locals took over the place with the fall of the Empire some time after Diocletian’s death. Ironically, his private apartments house churches.
Although an amazing historical site, it’s rather surprising that more fiction has not been set in its confines. My initial search yielded a satiric piece in Apocryphal Stories by Karel Capek (translated by Dora Round) and an epic poem, Diocletian’s Palace, by Neda Miranda Blazevic-Krietzman (2008, 147 pages, PB). It’s also included in Rebecca West’s wonderful Black Lamb and Gray Falcon, her description of a trip around Yugoslavia in 1937; the first part focuses on Croatia, and thankfully, much of it can be accessed through Atlantic Monthly, which serialized parts relevant to a Croatian voyage.
An aside: A Traveler’s History of Croatia is often recommended as preparatory reading, but I much preferred Rebecca West’s history. G. B. Shaw termed her one of the best writers of the 20th century, and Starling Lawrence (author of Montenegro and an editor at Norton) concurs in his armchair traveler recommendations.
Although mature readers might not turn to fiction written for young adults, the novel that truly embraces Diocletian’s Palace is The House of Hades (Heroes of Olympus series, Book 4), by Rick Riordan (2013). The young heroes—half mortal, half god—face adventure and potential harm in its pages. The bust of Diocletian that the boys accidentally break can be seen in the lower floors of the palace.
At noon daily, the “emperor,” his wife, and the guard make an appearance and “welcome” visitors. Diocletian has the right note of disdain. A cappella choirs of men entertain the choirs with more modern greetings, called klapa music.
A word about Split. My desire to visit Croatia centered on seeing the famed walled city of Dubrovnik, picture postcard perfect. George Bernard Shaw said, “If you want to see heaven on Earth, visit Dubrovnik.” It truly is beautiful; however, it is rapidly becoming a museum city, filled with restaurants and souvenir shops and as many as 15,000 visitors per day. The tourism industry in Croatia believes that 8,000 visitors is sustainable, but mega-cruise ships dump passengers within the city walls for shoulder-to-shoulder tours, particularly crowded in “the season,” which begins mid-June and extends through the very hot months of July and August. Ghastly.
Fewer people know about Split, which has residents who live and work in the ancient town. Walking its narrow, cobblestone-paved byways is a treat. If a stream of water comes from above and lands in a receptacle in the middle of a square, look up to see a provocative sculpture—what might be termed the Mannequin Pis of Split.
For even less crowded venues, Trogir provides relief. Hvar Island, named one of the ten most beautiful islands of the world, can be congested on one side but quiet on the opposite. Island hopping by ferry or other boats can be a relaxing experience, certainly true in the three-masted ship that housed 25 other passengers in a Road Scholar tour that I took.
Coda: 14 July 2016
Girl at War by Sara Novic (2015) is a critically acclaimed novel set in 1991 during the war that separated Croatia from Yugoslavia. Its narrator, Ana Juric, is a ten-year-old through whose eyes we see the heightening terror and horror of war. After a tragic event, she escapes to the USA and returns a decade later to try and put her nightmares to rest.