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.
A sense of history pervades Chania old town; layer upon layer from early Minoan ruins to later Classical Greek and Roman archaeological sites, Byzantine remains, the Venetian lighthouse and shipyard buildings, wonderful examples of Ottoman architecture, as well as evidence of the destruction of World War II all survive. In the centre of all this you’ll find The Archaeological Museum of Chania, aptly situated in a stunning stone building and former Venetian monastery of St. Francis. The museum focusses on the city’s earliest Minoan civilisation through to the Roman period – comprising pottery, glass, coins, jewellery, metal ware, sculpture and mosaics. The vast majority of finds come from excavations in the city itself or nearby, which helps contextualise and humanise the artefacts on display and offers visitors a sense of where and how these items were used by people thousands of years ago. As you explore under each archway numerous standout antiquities can be seen in glass cabinets, notably a clay tablet dating back to 1450 BC inscribed with Linear A script (an early Minoan text academics have still not deciphered), decorative gold disks from a female burial site, as well as an array of seal stones offering lucid images and comprehension of each era. Outside of the display cases you can find numerous painted clay sarcophagi from cemeteries across Western Crete, stone stele (grave stones), a mosaic floor depicting Dionysos and Ariadne from the 3rd century AD, and a marble bust of the Roman emperor Hadrian. A final treat is provided in the small garden which houses an unusual octagonal ablution fountain from when the building was turned into a mosque during the Ottoman period. Costing just two euros admission, the museum not only provided much needed relief from the Cretan afternoon sun but also offered a fascinating insight into Chania’s rich and unbroken past.
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The Shell Grotto opened as a visitor attraction in 1838 yet very little is known about it prior to that date. Today local legend continues to debate whether it was originally built as an ancient temple, a meeting place for a secret sect, a smugglers cave or a wealthy mans’ folly – and following my visit, its purpose remains ambiguous (though I would like to believe it was commissioned by an idiosyncratic family as a whimsical cavern for their children). Unusually for Margate it is located inland; away from the beach, Turner Contemporary, Old Town, and Tudor House, but is well sign posted. The grotto lies just two metres below a residential garden, and is 104 feet long. It is punctuated with archways, a rotunda encouraging visitors to explore in either direction, a stunning dome where the shells glisten in natural light, and culminates with the Altar Room where the only non-local shells (Caribbean conches) can be seen. Somewhat frustratingly, it is difficult to describe my visit without contradicting myself… whilst the grotto itself is wonderfully eccentric and fantastical, it left a lot to be desired in a “museum” sense and offered little in terms of interpretation or explanation. Although there is a small orientation room before entering the grotto, the layout feels clumsy and cluttered and despite being keen to learn more about its origins and history, I found myself skipping this room as trying to make sense of it was quite hard work. However, once inside the grotto all is immediately forgiven and forgotten as the intricate floor to ceiling mosaic of approximately 4.6 million shells is absolutely breath-taking! Regardless of whether you believe in religious or cult symbolism, the delicate patterns made from regional cockles, muscles, whelks, limpets, oysters and razor clams is astounding and well worth the humble £3.50 adult entry fee.
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