Castles, Hangovers, and Culture: An Art Guide to Croatia

Croatia

Europe

Nursing a hangover from the infamous ‘tequila boom booms’ of the night before, I tentatively place my foot on a ledge, and realize I’m close to 2000 feet above sea level in Omiš, Croatia. It’s hard to explain the magnitude of how high above sea level I feel. Yes, my head is slightly spinning, but it’s not solely based on last evening’s beverage choices. It’s the sheer height of this mountain.

 

So why did my corona-clutching companions and I decide to make this uphill trek?

Oh no, we didn’t do it for the vine (RIP Vine) – we did it for the art history.

Spending a week sailing around Croatian islands was like a mixed drink in itself. There’s a little bit of everything when it comes to art history in this epic country – a contemporary gallery located in Hvar, ancient Roman architecture in Split, and filming locations of Game of Thrones in Dubrovnik. That, along with the otherworldly natural beauty and geography, kept me in awe as I spent a week island hopping.

It also led to me dancing with a Brazilian man in a medieval fortress nightclub, and wandering into an ancient palace when ya girl was just trying to find a bathroom. But more on that later…

Peeing in palaces…

Do you ever just want to escape a stressful life and move to somewhere with a great view? (hint hint, Shut up and Gooo!) Well, if you answered yes, you’re in the same boat as the Roman Emperor Diocletian. He peaced out of Rome and set himself up in Split, Croatia to retire and create a huge palace there.

It was partly used for him to chill in – like any good palace should be used for – and partly used as a military garrison back in the fourth century. As with a lot of these really old Roman buildings, it was later, like in the seventh century, used by local people for their own business and residences. And even more recently in 2014, Game of Thrones was filmed there.

Nowadays, Diocletian’s palace is still the heart of the Old City in Split. The walls are clearly visible along the shoreline, and in what used to be the basement halls – wedged between two wings of a museum – are shopping stalls.

Just a lil’ moment to appreciate that us humans have been using that space for THOUSANDS OF YEARS.

In the basement, you can wander around huge rooms that were once dining rooms, courtyards, and hang out spots. Outside, cafes and restaurants line the ancient walls. After downing a coffee, I naturally had to find the nearest bathroom. The barista pointed to the stairs and after I peered out the window… I realized that I was currently standing in the palace.

Bathroom ranking 5/5, would pee again.

You can stay in an airbnb or rent a room that has the walls of the palace intact. If you’d rather just hostel it up, you can still check out more of the ancient Roman history by stopping in the nearby city museum. Carefully (and I mean carefully) follow the signs – because everything is a little mushed together in the narrow, old streets, and you’ll find Split’s museum.

The City Museum of Split is another huge combo of different periods of art history all rolled into one. It’s part of Diocletian’s palace (mentioned a bit earlier) but it also has more recent additions like a Gothic palace. Gothic being the art style – not the subculture that favors black lipstick.

You can also learn about how Split came to be and check out weapons in the armory.

Once you’ve explored ancient basements, used a bathroom in a palace, and managed to make it to the City Museum without getting too lost – it’s time to head to Dubrovnik.

To the windows, to the city walls…

Bright orange rooftops, limestone streets, and a 1,940 meters wall to walk along. The sweat will definitely be dripping down your… back. Bad jokes aside, walking along Dubrovnik was easily one of the best ways I’ve ever managed to surpass 10,000 steps a day.

Not to get too nerdy, but something I love about architecture is that it’s a type of art that you can physically experience. The walls were made to be practical – literally as a defense for the city – but by experiencing them now you can see the changing artistic styles.

And there’s a ton of history in the walls. As you walk, you get to pop into different fortresses, gates, and towers that are situated along the wall. There’s the Minčeta Tower which was made in 1463, but then another tower was added to it once there was new technology.

Like an iPhone software update… except towers!

And from the top, you can get a pretty kickass view of this ‘unconquerable’ city. But, after spending the day pondering art and history, I’m ready for a break. Luckily, a nightclub is built right into the walls as well.

Yep, that’s right.  I didn’t add the word ‘hangovers’ to the title without a good reason – Culture Club Revelin is a 15th-century fortress turned into a contemporary club. I headed there in the evening – still sweaty from the thousands of steps – but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. Plus, as an art historian, isn’t it my duty to investigate it?

While my memories are slightly foggy, there are a few things I can report: one, it still blows my mind how we, as humans, are constantly changing buildings for new uses, whether we’re in the 14th century or 21st.

Strobe lights and booming bass against ancient walls and arches.

And the second thing – Daniel from Brazil, if you’re out there, obrigada! Your dancing skills were fire.

Okay, before I embarrass myself further, onto the next stop.

Contemporary in Hvar

I usually make an effort to stop and see contemporary art when I’m traveling – but with so much older art and architecture, as well as outdoor activities to do, it was hard to squeeze even more in. But! In Hvar, I was able to slip away from the group to check out a gallery.

The Arsenal Gallery in Hvar is right off the main square and hard to miss. I found it by chance, however, because I was feeling nosey and saw some stairs. And at the top of the stairs, to my delight, was a new exhibition featuring works from the collection of Damgar Meneghello who owns an Art Resort.

The show had a whimsical feel with bright sculptural pieces and works that used the natural light from the windows to create shadows. And it definitely felt like I discovered a really cool secret, as I sort of stumbled upon this nifty show.

Forget the stairway to heaven, I found a stairway to art.

Starigrad Fortress: An Old Man’s Wise Words

After hiking for about 45 minutes from the shore to 860 foot peak, my group and I reach a man sitting at the entrance of Starigrad Fortress in Omiš. We buy tickets from him for the equivalent of a few USD, and I, still exhausted from the hike, ask the ticket man, “oh my god, do you have to do that everyday?”

He gives me a blank stare. “No, I jump off a private jet or just take the elevator.”

Yes, my question was a little dumb, but I’ll blame it on the fact that I was so astounded by the sight of it all. I’m from Illinois, so my usual experience of altitude is flatter than the road to the State Fair in Du Quoin.

But up here, it’s easy to picture why it would be such an advantage during the Croatian-Ottoman wars. It was designed to be a lookout and stronghold, and boy does it look out. There’s a two-story tower, a barbican – like a gatehouse but super protected – and an inner bailey – the heart of the whole thing.

Feeling the breeze from the Adriatic, it’s moments like this when I get another reminder of how lucky I am to travel and experience this all.

Loving art history was a major reason why I started traveling in the first place – I didn’t want to just read about art and architecture, I wanted to physically see it with MY OWN EYES TOO.

I never imagined coming to Croatia, but after a week of fortresses and hungover hiking, I can’t imagine not seeing it. But, I clear the deep thoughts from my mind. It’s a long hike down and one of my friends just asked me to hold his beer.

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