Split makes for an idyllic break. With well-preserved Roman buildings and fascinating neighbouring islands, you'll love this World Heritage site.
IT WAS a tough job running the Roman Empire. So in 305AD Emperor Diocletian chucked it all in for a cosy retirement palace by the Adriatic in his native Dalmatia. Today it's the heart of Split, a World Heritage site that delights visitors as much as it did the emperor. As my partner Carol and I stood on the Riva, the coastal city's smart tree-lined promenade, it wasn't easy to distinguish Diocletian's former home. But after climbing the cathedral bell tower we had a bird's eye view of the ramparts and towers, defining a walled palace the size of a small town.
Today it's a tightly packed mix of Roman splendour and medieval charm with a photo opportunity round every corner. Although there's the Ethnographic Museum, where Croatian folk costumes are displayed in atmospheric medieval rooms, this is no heritage park but rather a living, breathing city. Click here now for more amazing deals to Split!
Wandering the warren of alleys and gothic courtyards, you can buy local goodies such as olive oil, wine, rakija (the local firewater) or arty pottery, jewellery and pictures in smart shops. As we strolled home on our first night, triumphant at beating a crowd of locals to the last table at the popular Konoba Varos restaurant, where we feasted on roast lamb, fresh fish and ripe Dalmatian red wine, quiet squares and alleys had sprouted bars vibrant with Split's stylish youth.
Much of Diocletian's palace was recycled into the current medieval centre but the pillar-lined Peristyle, or piazza, hints at its atmosphere.
Off to one side is a temple to Juno; on the other is Diocletian's octagonal mausoleum, now St Domnius Cathedral. With exquisite irony, a bust of the emperor famed for persecuting Christians glowers down on magnificent medieval altars to those he martyred. The vast vaulted cellars beneath the palace, a mirror image of the rooms once above, give you an idea of its original size.
On our visit, a farmers' market was in full swing. A moustached honey seller in Dalmatian national dress proffered a jar in dramatic Serbo-Croat. "He says it is very good for the, er, love life, " a nearby woman laughingly translated. Staggering away with bagfuls of cheese, sausage - and, yes, honey - we felt tipsy from free samples of fruit brandies.
In more sober mood we brushed up on the area's past at the small but beautifully informed (in English) Archaeological Museum, a short walk from the centre. Want incredible last-minute deals to Split? Click here now...
Just outside the palace's main entrance, the "Golden Gate", looms the giant statue of a medieval bishop.
Nicknamed The Wizard, it's by Croatia's most famous modern sculptor, Ivan Mestrovic, who died in 1962.
Much of his work - a mix of often tortured, Rodinesque black bronzes and cool, white marble Art Deco-style figures - is dazzlingly displayed in his white-pillared seaside villa. Nearby, an old mansion houses Mestrovic's agonising masterwork, 28 huge wooden panels telling the story of Christ.
Later that day we admired the spectacular coastal mountains set against the Adriatic Sea as we joined locals on a ferry to the Riviera-glam town of Supetar, on Brac, one of the nearby islands.
Chilled out from a beer by the bistro-lined harbour and a paddle on the beach, we explored a dramatic headland cemetery where the early 20th-century rich bought eternal chic with exotic art nouveau memorials by renowned sculptors.
Brac has other attractive harbourside towns such as Milna, where stone houses spill down to the sea, and Bol, its port jostling with small boats and its big attraction Zlatni Rat, a long finger of fine shingle beach backed by pines.
THE refugees who colonised Split fled from Salona, a Roman city now a 15-minute bus ride away. The ruins were golden with rockcrop and ablaze with poppies, while a nightingale led an airborne chorus. Yet here is the amphitheatre where Diocletian butchered Christians, including his own bodyguards. But in the cathedral and basilicas that sprung up once Christianity was legalised in 313, sarcophagi galore jostle to be close to those of the martyrs.
Catch a bus outside the amphitheatre and you're soon in Trogir, another World Heritage site.
Set on a tiny island, its medieval walls cram in churches, a castle, cathedral and a maze of arch-strewn, terracotta-roofed streets rich in jewellers dripping gold and coral.
We lunched alfresco on hearty sausages in a tiny square.
Then, meandering along a promenade lined with wooden charter yachts we reached St Lawrence's Cathedral, a jewel in itself. Its Romanesque marble doorway, guarded by Adam and Eve perched shyly on huge lions, swarms with intricate scenes of everything from saints to a man cooking sausages.
In the Renaissance baptistry a flock of sculpted cherubs looks set to flutter down from the roof to frolic; and St Ivan's chapel's ceiling is a cloud of 100 carved angels.
Heaven? This compact corner of Croatia certainly feels like it. GETTING THERE:Bond Tours (01372 745 300/www.bondtours.com) offers three nights B&B at the Atrium Hotel from £499pp (two sharing), including return flights with Croatia Airlines from Gatwick. Hertz (0870 844 8844/www.hertzeurope.com) offers car hire from Split Airport from £60 per day. Croatian National Tourist Office: 020 8563 7979/www.croatia.hr