The term ‘Museum-town’ would be an understatement to say the least to describe the old town of Split in Croatia and the area now dubbed Diocletian’s Palace. The name is slightly misleading in the sense that it does not refer to an actual palace, but 38,700 square metres of narrow, labyrinthine streets brimming with restaurants, tavernas, bars, shops, galleries, locals and tourists alike. Construction started in the 4th century under Emperor Diocletian with white stone transported from the nearby island of Brac as well as marble imported from Greece and Rome, and columns and sphinxes from Egypt. It has been extended over the subsequent centuries and now houses Roman, Byzatine, Croatian medieval and later Venetian, Ottoman and Hasburg architectural elements. Each of the four exterior walls has an ornately carved gate at its centre; the Golden Gate on the north wall, the Bronze Gate on the south, the Silver Gate on the east and the Iron Gate on the west which enclose a treasure trove of other buildings and substructures. At the heart of the palace lies the Peristil – a picturesque ancient Roman colonnaded courtyard where locals are dressed a legionaries during the day, and you can sit on the steps with a glass of wine and listen to acoustic live music being played by night. Nearby, the bell-tower looms above the courtyard offering amazing views across Split and its’ harbour if you can stomach the 180 rickety metal spiral stairs to the top! Back on ground level, the vestibule which originally acted as the formal entrance to the imperial apartments has a stunning brickwork domed roof open to the sky. The scents emanating from the fish market, fruit and vegetable market, countless traditional bakeries and coffee houses mingle in the air across the palace – and even the simplest activity feels pleasingly grand and extravagant amidst this stunning backdrop.
I was a Novigrad newcomer until last month (and embarrassingly must confess to thinking it was a town in Russia rather than Croatia) however was utterly charmed by the Istrian town. Old Venetian city walls from the 13th century enclose a space littered with historic bell-towers, churches, a colourful harbour, and narrow streets decorated with bright umbrellas and other artworks! I was also fortunate enough to be visiting during the 8th International Festival of Visual Arts, breathing additional life and activity into this small but progressive town. This years’ theme was ‘Let there be… bicycle’ to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the invention of bikes and incorporated modern and contemporary art, a photography exhibition, performances, film screenings, workshops and other activities emanating from the Museum Lapidarium – the nucleus and organiser of the festival. Outside the museum you were greeted by a large-scale installation by Italian artist Marco Milia, created from interconnected blue plastic circles. Its site-specific nature, lack of clear boundaries and circular rhythms forced viewers to interact with the space differently; kids explored, locals and tourists were absorbed, and the sun and wind played with it throughout each day and evening. The museum building itself was animated with sculptures of cyclists hunched over their bikes created by Croatian artist Vasko Lipovac, Braco Dimitrijevic’s bicycle themed artwork ‘Tryptichos Post Historicus’ decorated a nearby window, and a selection of vintage photographs of cyclists was displayed in the Gallery around the corner. As night fell, festival activity stepped up a gear as films were projected in the main square, performance art took place in small parks and on street corners, and visitors were able to both watch or help with a workshop led by London’s Bamboo Bicycle Club to build a rideable bike out of bamboo from start to finish in just three days. With both a permanent archaeological collection and changing programme of contemporary art exhibitions, I left eager to return to Novigrad and see what future exhibitions hold.