So often, when something is beautiful, we say it takes our breath away but how frequently does it actually happen? As with most sayings, it’s just a figure of speech but shortly after I crossed the Hungarian border on a quiet, pensive bus bound for Split, it all became less figurative and all the more real and fiercely emotive.
As the bus traveled up a serpentine road tangled between mountains, nature’s bazaar displayed its most splendid wares, still wholly spectacular through the bus windows hazed over by the sun-singed dregs of the road.
Beside the road were bodies of water, either attached to small bays or large lakes, that gobbled up the sun. Sanded-down peaks circled the bus while the fleeing day tickled the mountain tops with a clean stream of pastels.
It was a wondrous display, a dome of beauty hovering above that gifted me the best of nature free of charge. It was a little overwhelming, enough to make me actually gasp, perhaps confusing some of the Croatian passengers who are accustomed to such ravishing beauty.
Yes, Split has taken my breath away, slapped me in the face, and now all I can say is everything about this place is just…wow.
I’m still struck by the wow of Split as I sit on this public lawn chair (made of clean wood) at the edge of the quieter part of the promenade. Directly in front is an endless mass of blue, folding against a crowd of empty boats. Small groups of locals pass by in both directions, many wearing long, woolen coats because what feels like the beginning of autumn to me is the middle of winter to them. Seagulls reach and dive while the scent of salt water and freshly caught cuttlefish ride a soft breeze teasing the masts of tethered boats. The edge of an ancient and vivacious city wraps party around the furthest point in view, both in partnership and servitude to the Adriatic Sea.
In other words, Split=WOW.
I arrived in Split a couple of nights ago, reaching the edge of the harbor after taking only a few steps from the bus station. The air had that amazing seaside smell that somehow makes you breath deeper and fuller. Across the way was the beautifully-lit promanade, lined with palm trees, small stalls, and a big mess of Christmas lights. Christmas music rumbled past as I walked to my hostel, renewed by the warm and jovial air.
Here in Split, people are as friendly as their Italian neighbors while the most prominent of buildings stand with assured authority, the kind of authority automatically afforded to a building over a thousand years old.
Yes, the Dioletian’s Palace, a mix of Egyptian marble and Roman stone, is over a thousand years old. It was constructed between 200 and 300 AD and still stands largely intact. It has survived war, industry, and Danenerys’s dragons (Game of Thrones fans, you should know that some of the more memorable scenes of season 4 were shot right here in Split.) Dioletian’s Palace is now composed of small shops, narrow alleyways, and rustic cafes but it’s impressive history is still the commanding force that moves locals and tourists alike. I could wander around this impressive piece of architecture for hours, especially in December evenings when every corner is dressed in red ribbon and amplified by live music. December in Split may be considered low season for tourists but as far as I’m concerned, it’s the best time to visit.
No matter when you visit, however, your reaction will be the same. The bustling promanade, the less-populated parts of the harbor, the gorgeous sunsets, the sight of red roofs encroached by the sea on top of Marjan Hill will amaze you. And the people you bump into will make you smile and scale walls.
Scaling walls? Why, yes! I spent the end of my first day walking along a small path wrapping around the shore. The sun was still bright and warm while the tide slowly arose at night’s calling. I sat down on a cooling rock by the edge and looked out at the blue expanse, lost in deep thought until a upbeat Croatian passed behind.
“Hello! Excuse me, where are you from?” he asked with a friendly smile.
“Oh, hi, the States!” I replied.
Soon enough this friendly man whose name I have sadly forgotten led me to another part of the rock-encircled shore. He pointed towards a wall balanced on a small cliff and suggested we hop over the technically restricted part of the rocky shore. Ironically, he told me he worked as a security officer. Perhaps this is why I trusted that I could easily hop over the wall just as he had but in my clumsy scramble, I scraped my knee and bruised my heel much to his kind amusement. Moments after hopping over the wall, the avid Croatian swimmer was fully-submerged in the hidden pool of water on the other side of the wall while I only dipped my feet in the winter-tinged sea.
He was friendly, not creepy or forward, just friendly and perhaps one of few strangers who can get me to climb up a wall immediately after shaking my hand.
Dalmatian’s have that effect, I’ve learned. Yesterday, I spent most of my time reading Gabriel Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude in a rocky alcove close to the wall I climbed the previous day. Marquez’s depiction of the fictional town of Macando, filled with inhabitants destined to solitude, didn’t quiet ring true to my current state of bliss and comfort. The sun was shining directly in my face, the ocean was calm and lulling. I was perfectly alone until the most amazingly dressed woman stepped in front of me.
This woman, whose name I never learned, was polite and intriguing, both standing-out and blending into the surrounding landscape. Only in Croatia can an older woman, presumably in her sixties, make a clashing of patterns, colors, and textures look so elegant. She was wearing red leather boots with woolen trim, lined with star-patterned socks. Above her boots hung the flarred ends of topaz-colored leather capries, contrasted with a red sweater, a red, flower-adorned hat, and red, red lips. The outfit was finished with a fur vest and dark sunglasses.
It was a funny sight to watch such an intricately dressed woman lay in the sand, smoking a cigarette until she got bored of the habit. Her eyes, the “windows to the soul” as they would say where shrouded in the black-out curtains of sunglass lenses but I’ll venture to say that her soul was evident in her unabashedly bold clothing.
How I ironic it was that I was reading a book about prolonged loneliness yet here was one of many interesting characters who interrupted my solitude. Because of her and the wall-climbing security guard and the older man who ran after me while I was running only to tell me that running is a good sport and the Singaporean I met at my hostel who climbed part of Everest and gained humility and an enduring respect of nature, because of them, I do not fear the inner malice of solitude, even when I’m alone.
Split is quick friendship and slow living. No need to rush here; the stunning beauty of this place won’t allow you.
With one full day left here, I already have a plan for tomorrow. I’ll trundle over to my favorite reading spot by the water and let the sun burn my cheeks and nose. My watch will sit idle in the deepest part of my backpack as I jump from Marquez’s Macando to an entirely new world, knowing that even in my solitude I am not damned to loneliness because there is body in the sand, a rippling pulse in the sea, a city with lungs over a thousand years old passing along aerated life from sea to land to solitary reader.
There are characters, stories, and conflicts galore. Thousands upon thousands of distinct tracks converging, crossing, departing. A woman in Topaz leather capries takes a drag in a rocky alcove while a sprightly security guard hops over walls and dives into the pooling afterthoughts of the ocean. There is an old man complementing a tired runner, a hiker praising nature, a fisherman watching his crumb-anchored twine squirm and wiggle in the cooling waters.
So many nameless people with full faces and fuller lives are adding to my story which begins in solitude and continues to move forward with the push of an ever-evolving and revolving community of people, of place. I may not live to be one hundred years old but the years I have lived, the days I have spent here in Split are sweating sun, gurgling saltwater, casting a topaz reflection on a solitary figure by the shore, free from the grips of loneliness. I am one of countless characters in everyone’s favorite story, the story that reminds us that even in moments of complete solitude, there’s are many lives to be lived.
And even on the emptiest part of the beach, the fullest part of life awaits.
Live in Solitary Refinement,