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Text by Fran Weaver.
Photos by Fran Weaver and Vojko Bašic.
The clear blue waters of the sea lap alongside Split’s broad Riva promenade, which is lined with palm-trees and chic cafés and bars. Croatia’s lively second city is home to 200,000 inhabitants and has a fascinating history going back more than 2,000 years. Spilt has also recently become a place of pilgrimage for fans of the popular Game of Thrones fantasy series.
“Many of the show’s scenes were shot inside the city’s well preserved Roman remains, at Klis Castle overlooking Split, and in spectacular settings in Dubrovnik,” explains local guide Dino Ivancic, who is an avid follower of the series himself.
“It’s great that so many Game of Thrones fans come here to learn about the history of its real-life locations,” he says. Several enterprising tour operators run day trips and even week-long tours taking in historic and scenic locations used during the filming of the hit series.
Treasures from the distant past
The old city centre bustles with life, but is still compact and easy to explore. Holiday-makers should have no trouble fitting in with the local lifestyle: “People from Split and other parts of Dalmatia are famously proud, but we’re also known for a special attitude called fjaka that lets us enjoy lazing around and chilling out on hot summer days,” explains Ivancic.
As a former history teacher, Ivancic is particularly proud of his city’s well-preserved ancient monuments. “The most important Split personality in our history is the Roman emperor Diocletian, who had a huge palace built here in the 3rd century AD as his retirement home,” he says.
Many of the palace’s walls, towers and courtyards survived intact as the medieval and modern city grew around them. Ivancic explains how the mausoleum of the ruthlessly anti-Christian Diocletian was ironically converted to a cathedral back in the 7th century. The round vestibule where the emperor put on his robes today echoes to harmonious Dalmatian klapa songs performed for visitors by male choirs.
Another impressive site in Split’s suburbs is the Roman ruins of Salona, which date back to the 1st century AD. Other fine destinations for outings on the mainland north of Split include the old town of Trogir, surrounded by high walls, moats and sea channels; historic Šibenik with its ornate St James’s Cathedral; and the cascading falls, lovely lakes and scenic canyons of Krka National Park. Some of Krka’s most photogenic spots have also featured as backdrops for Game of Thrones action in natural settings.
Split is also the best starting point for Adriatic adventures. Catamarans and car ferries regularly head off to the main islands of the Dalmatian archipelago, making it easy to explore the island-dotted sea southward all the way to the enchanting walled city of Dubrovnik.
Brač, less than an hour from Split, is the largest of the Dalmatian islands. Its highest point, St. Vitus’s Mount, offers breath-taking views. Locals are proud that limestone quarried here was used to build the White House in Washington. Brač’s best loved beach, Zlatni Rat (The Golden Horn), is a spit of sand and shingle that juts out into the sea west of the pretty village of Bol, slowly shifting its shape depending on the sea currents.
The next island to the south, long and narrow Hvar, is famed for its hillside olive groves, fields of scented lavender, and lacemaking traditions. Hvar town is improbably picturesque with its old square, two castles and a blue bay where traditional fishing boats bob alongside luxury yachts. Hvar’s lively nightlife and A-list celebrity visitors have earned it a reputation as Croatia’s San Tropez, but the island still has many quiet coves for peace-loving visitors.
Korčula is another elongated island surrounded by cool blue waters. Its pine-clad hills alternate with valley vineyards that produce highly rated wines. Reputedly the birthplace of 13th-century Venetian travel writer Marco Polo, the peninsular old town of Korčula is a joy to explore by walking its walls and stepped alleys.
Heading back to the mainland, historic Dubrovnik is justifiably renowned as the Pearl of the Adriatic. Anyone with a head for heights should circuit the walls, ramparts and turrets that loom over the heart of the old city. It’s also worth hopping on the ferry to the attractive wooded island of Lokrum, and venturing up by cable car to get stunning views over the city and the islands from Mount Srd. A museum in the castle on the hilltop commemorates the tragic and devastating siege of Dubrovnik that took place in 1991–92 during the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia.
In July and August downtown Dubrovnik and other Dalmatian hot spots may teem with tourists, but there are still plenty of peaceful places to escape to on the islands. During May and June the sights are usually less swamped. In autumn the sea stays warm into October, making conditions pleasant for visitors from more northerly climes.
A sailor’s paradise
Split and the islands are particularly a mecca for lovers of water sports from swimming, diving and sea-kayaking to trendy pursuits like stand up paddling, windsurfing, kiteboarding and paragliding. On speed-boat excursions from Split visitors can discover hidden beaches and blue caves. But most of all, Dalmatia has ideal settings for those keen to voyage by wind power.
This spring’s international Adriatic Easter Regatta was based at Hvar. “These waters are perfect for sailing, as we have reliable winds and so many beautiful routes to explore. This might be why Croatia has more Olympic medals in sailing than in any other sport!” says regatta coordinator Sonja Ničevic.
Croatia has 1,244 inviting islands, of which only 66 are inhabited, so there are countless secluded havens for picnics and overnight moorings.
“One good way for visitors to experience sailing here is to sign up for a week long sailing course,” says Ničevic, who also runs the Ana Adriatic Sailing Academy north of Split. “Sailors with an internationally recognised skipper’s licence can hire yachts from various marinas, or then groups keen to sail together can charter a sailboat with a skipper for a week,” she adds.
Chartered sailboat skippers advise their paying crews on the best routes to explore, depending on their interests and the weather conditions. They allow all hands to muck in with the sailing work according to their abilities and enthusiasm. Crew members are also permitted to adopt the Dalmatian fjaka attitude and just laze around on deck in the sunshine and enjoy the seascapes.
Dalmatian cuisine clearly reflects the cultural influences of the many foreign powers that have ruled the region over the centuries. “On the same menu you can see Greek-style salads with olives and cheese, Mediterranean seafood with a Venetian-Italian flavour, Croatian kebabs called Ćevapčići with a Turkish touch, Hungarian Gulaš, and Austrian strudel,” explains Dinko Bašić, who runs Split’s Varoš Konoba tavern. “Our food varies a lot seasonally as we always use fresh ingredients bought from local fishermen and farmers’ markets,” he adds.
Split specialities include sardines, anchovies, black risotto cooked in cuttlefish ink (much tastier than it looks!), and peka meat casseroles baked under charcoal in a fireplace beneath a dome-shaped iron lid. Varoš Konoba also serves the local favourite Pašticada, which consists of stuffed veal cutlets lovingly marinated in wine, spices and fruit, and served with gnocchi pasta.
The most typical Dalmatian dessert is Rožata, a richly flavoured crème caramel. Banana Split does not feature on the menu.
Hrvoje Tomičić, chef at the Hvar tavern Kod Kapetana (Captain’s Corner), explains that islanders are even more dependent on what local fishermen can catch. “For an introduction to our cuisine I’d recommend octopus salad, shrimps braised in wine and olive oil, and then John Dory fish grilled on wood,” he says.
These tasty treats can all be washed down with excellent and seriously underrated Dalmatian wines such as white Pošip from Korčula or red Plavac.
Top Split lodgings
For a splendid splurge in Split, the boutique Hotel Vestibul Palace (Ulica Iza Vestibula 4), right in the Roman quarter, is unbeatable. Some of the hotel’s walls and structures are 1,700 years old, but its facilities are 21st century.
With an ambience dating back to the age of Austro-Hungarian rule, the grand old Hotel Bellevue (Bana Josipa Jelacica 2) lies on charming Republike Square, modelled on St Mark’s Square in Venice.
The stylishly modernised Hotel Luxe (Ulica kralja Zvonimira 6) makes a handy base for exploring Split and surroundings, just a short stroll from both the old town and ferries to the islands.
This article was first published in the May 2015 issue of Finnair's monthly in-flight magazine Blue Wings.