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.
Approximately 40 kilometres west of Chania old town, you’ll find the town of Kastelli Kissamos. Despite being smaller, it is no less rich historically, and its name alone bears both the ancient Greek (Kastelli) and Venetian (Kissamos) monikers. A narrow road littered with tavernas, traditional fishmongers and cafés leads to a square where The Archaeological Museum is located, in an imposing repurposed Venetian monument known as Diikitirio – ‘the Headquarters’. The museum focusses on the areas’ Minoan, Hellenistic and Roman periods and displays household items, pottery, coins, jewellery, gravestones (stele), relief sculptures, marble free standing sculptures and mosaics. Minoan artefacts from excavations at nearby Nopigia which date back to 9th – 8th century BC dominate the opening gallery, and the historical development of western city-states in Crete is explained through the evolution of these objects from primitive Minoan artefacts onto more advanced examples from the Hellenistic era (4th – 1st century BC). This development is evident in one of my favourite items on display in the museum; a Hellenistic marble sculpture of a Satyr in which the sculptor has managed to capture the impish nature of the subject to perfection. As you move to the second floor, a small excavation taking place under the stairs of the building itself, highlights how inescapable archaeology is in this area! The second floor is devoted to findings from Kissamos, and houses two stunning floor mosaics from local Greco-Roman urban villas. The first is huge measuring 9.7 metres by 8 metres and features Dionysus surrounded by hunting and drinking scenes associated with Dionysiac worship, and the second depicting Horae and the four seasons is more humble in scale but in perfect condition. Despite only stopping in Kissamos to buy a drink, I’m so pleased I did, and got to experience another archaeology museum putting local history in the limelight with some outstanding finds.
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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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