So after the tour ended in Split, I had a place booked to stay in Split for a few extra days. After all, how often do you get to go to Croatia? The weather was set to be great, the introductory tour of the town centre had thrown up some intriguing tourism possibilities, and best of all, several people from the tour were also staying. Things were looking good. However, it didn’t turn out to be nearly as eventful as expected, for a couple of reasons. It turns out that after over a week of going hard on the tourism all day long, even if you spend a lot of it on the bus, is enough to make anyone – or at least, enough to make me – dog tired; and when the weather is hot and you’re not super sure what you want to do and were planning to wing things a bit, and your room is upgraded to a snazzy studio a few minutes walk from everywhere interesting; when you’re a bit gross because you haven’t had much time to do laundry or get a haircut in a while…it gets to the point where you’re more likely to take things a little slower, maybe start a little later in the day, maybe come home for a siesta in the middle of the day. In any event, the cumulative effects of all these things meant that there’s not actually a whole lot to say about what I did in Split, past the first day (I was there for two and a half). The second day was spent on essentially nothing, aside from hunting for a pharmacist, and the morning of the third day was meant to involve visiting a ruined Roman town about 8km away, but halfway along the walk a giant thunderstorm broke out and I had to turn around and go home again, and work out ways to dry out my clothes and shoes (along with packing to fly across to Rome). But thinking back now, the first day is well worth writing about, so here goes.
The first thing I did was take delivery of my new place of residence for the following couple of days (we had been all staying together in a hostel on the last night of a tour, but I had booked on my own well in advance). The lady who was meant to be hosting me in her spare room – this via airbnb.com – had messaged me a few days before saying that she was doing some renovations, but had spoken to a friend and secured me a studio apartment that typically is rented at $100 a night, and would I be happy to do a swap? Naturally, having paid about $30 a night for my room, I said ‘absolutely,’ and it was a done deal. The studio turned out to be entirely comfortable – very convenient for the city, two single beds (one for sleep and one to spread all my stuff out on), a little but fully equipped bathroom, and a stove, sink, cupboards and wardrobe. It was roomy and equipped enough that I could happily imagine a single person living in it, if they swapped out one of the beds for a couch or a dining table and chairs. It was certainly well fitted for my purposes.
After liberally spreading my stuff out, I put on some laundry, had a shower and then went out to find a place for a haircut (me and another guy from the tour had found one the previous night, but we were on a time budget and they didn’t have time to get to me, but at about $9 a haircut, I was very willing to go back the next day). It took a bit of finding – I knew that the name wasn’t listed online, even if I had remembered it, and so there was no way of knowing exactly where it was except by following my nose – but eventually I did and had a very acceptable coiffeurring. This done, I proceeded to walk around the old city of Split. Now, the city is built around a fourth-century palace, constructed by the Roman emperor Diocletian some 8km from the Roman town of Salona as a retirement home. Since then, it has been gutted and liberally crammed with houses, shops, restaurants and the occasional museum, but – here is the good bit – they retained the walls and several of the old buildings, square and ruins, so that the whole edifice still gives off the character of a vast (in palace terms) but tiny (in old city terms) walled palace. The combination of tall buildings and modernity with random ruins makes the centre of Split an exceedingly charming place to wander around in.
However, I did at this point reach a point I had been aiming for but not deliberately navigating my exploration towards: the Split Ethnographic Museum, recommended enthusiastically by our tour guide the previous day. I was not aware at the time that it was to be my only museum experience in the city, but if I did, I would not have minded. The exhibits were offbeat and engaging – bringing to the fore the great gulf between Croatia and Western Europe that is the Adriatic Sea. I was drawn into a world of wooden fishing instruments, traditional costumes, hill tribe jewels and curved swords. The Dalmatian region and its surrounding mountains never seemed so simultaneously alien and endearing. An added delight of the museum was its seemingly endless supply of surprise rooms and mezzanines, including a fully furnished 19th-century bedroom tucked away in an attic – my enjoyment of each enhanced less by the quantity than by the fact that the museum seemed so open and straightforward at the ground floor – and the discovery of several cool, comfortably furnished terraces with which to rest outside before tackling the next floor. The piece dé resistance was suggested to me by the helpful lady at the front desk: an historic tower right round the back of the museum – I had no idea it was there as it wasn’t directly connected – which commanded an excellent view of the city, and moreover, a view straight down into the great pot-shaped barbican that we had visited the previous night. I can tell you, leaning over the edge of that great hole and waving to bemused Germans below gave me an intemperate amount of enjoyment. When the lady enthusiastically invited me and anyone else I cared to bring along to a display of traditional Croatian music and dancing at the museum later that night, I was only too happy to accept (not least because I knew that an ethnographic museum would be well-placed to put on a cracking show, anecdotally evidenced by my experience of a similar event with flamenco at the Jewish Museum in Cordoba, and it being free didn’t hurt either). I took the flyer in Croatian, bought a postcard, thanked the management effusively, and took my leave into the blazing summer heat. The whole affair had cost me less than three Australian dollars – and that included the postcard.
Having scouted out my apartment, and knowing that some of my new friends from the tour were in cramped hostels, I invited them to come round and hang out for a while: I would cook up some pasta and they could byo. This was settled, and I headed out to buy some ingredients for a solid slag bol (I learnt a recipe in a uni-run cooking class earlier in the year, and it always came out excellently). It was a bit of a struggle (apparently Croatians don’t eat celery, and tomato paste only comes in 500-millilitre cartons rather than the little cans you and I are used to; furthermore, though the apartment was abundantly supplied with flour, sugar, salt and coffee there was no oil and I was not inclined to buy a whole litre just to fry a ragu, and there was no grater) but using salt water and some extra carrots I managed to create a pretty serviceable plate, and everyone arrived just late enough for it to be on time. We hung out and chatted for a while, there was a general positive response to my proposal for us all to go to the traditional show, the pasta was a hit, everything was going swimmingly. An hour later, my ear was pierced.
I had been wanting to do it for a while, but never really said it out loud. Everyone was very keen, so keen that they offered to pay for it. Well, how could I pass that up? The four of us trooped down to the Riva (not river, but riviera) and up some stairs to a very clean and friendly English-speaking tattoo and piercing parlour. The lady carefully checked that I wasn’t drunk before proceeding, and honestly it didn’t hurt much more than a regular injection. One of the girls at the same time had her nose-stud hole widened to fit a ring in, and that hurt, so I know mine was a picnic. The lady was very professional and chatty (though of course not while actually piercing people) and happy to explain on request the mechanics of the more unusual kinds of piercings and the general life of a late-evening tattooist and piercing artist. It was all rather convivial. Unfortunately, we missed most of the traditional dancing, but did manage to catch the last one, which was excellent. After that, there was a guy busking in the main square, which somehow doubles as the vast outer area of a restaurant, and it was quite heartening to hear ‘Land Down Under’ so far from home.