Split, Croatia: Forget Dubrovnik - this city is a dream destination for visitors

There is no such thing as a free tour, but there will always be gullible tourists.

My travelling companion, Trish, and I have barely set foot in Peristil Square – a colonnaded Roman courtyard in Split's magnificent Diocletian's Palace – before we are pounced on by Doris, an unlikely-named Croatian sporting an official tourist guide ID and sales technique to rival a used car salesman.

A black-granite sphinx looted from Egypt watches silently as Doris tells, not asks, us that we are here for a tour.

"We spoke yesterday," she says, accusingly.

"Er … no," I mumble, mentioning the free tour we'd found on the internet.

"There is no free tour," she snaps. But for 100 kuna – roughly $20 or 10 glasses of perfectly drinkable local red wine/paint stripper – Doris offers us a tour of Diocletian's Palace, which is mere seconds away from starting, led by a professor of history.

"But I only have three places left," she adds.

She pauses. We hesitate. She sighs and offers a 10 per cent discount. Trish and I look at each other, not wanting to appear cheap – although obviously we are, since we sought a free tour.

Squashed between the Dalmatian mountains and crystalline waters of the Adriatic Sea, Split is a dream destination of natural beauty, historic sites and astonishingly cheap cigarettes and alcohol. It is little wonder the Roman emperor Diocletian chose this location to retire after leading one of the empire's bloodiest persecutions of Christians.

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Yet Croatia's second-largest city tends to be overshadowed by its better-looking Dalmatian sibling, Dubrovnik. Split's ramshackle train station won't win a prize for beauty or cleanliness, but it is close to the palace, surely one of the few UNESCO World Heritage sites where you can get a cheap slice of pizza and a schooner of beer.

Diocletian's Palace, built between the late third and the early fourth centuries AD, forms the architectural heart of the city's Old Town and is rendered in a fetching shade of green on the 500 kuna banknote. A sprawling maze of narrow alleys, hidden courtyards and bustling squares, the Roman palace and military fortress is home to more than 200 buildings, including the Cathedral of Saint Domnius, with its murals, carved altars and a towering belfry, a temple dedicated to Jupiter and a 16th-century synagogue.

Doris plays her trump card – mentioning that Game of Thrones was filmed in the stone-paved passageways and gelato shops of Split's Old Town. A juggernaut to rival the Roman Empire, the television series is responsible for the hordes of tourists crowding the city. Trish and I eventually decide Doris' offer is too good to refuse. Our knowledge of the Roman Empire does not extend beyond the Asterix books and travelling 1500 years into the past surely requires expert hand-holding.

Doris snatches the kuna from our hands and sends us over to a man who looks and smells like he has just emerged from one of the many bars inside the palace walls.

Croatians, we discover, are not judgmental about drinking before midday.

It soon becomes apparent that the urgency and scarcity of the tour may have been exaggerated as we wait 10 minutes for the professor to appear while Doris manages to squeeze another half-dozen tourists on to the excursion.

Eventually our guide, Ivana, shows up, looking remarkably youthful for an academic expert in Roman history in the first centuries after the birth of Christ. But her history seems accurate, or at least accords with my dog-eared travel guide picked off a friend's bookshelf in London.

In busy Peristil Square, Ivana tells us how Diocletian would loiter while the common folk knelt and kissed the hem of his scarlet cloak, before leading us down into the palace's underground vaults, built to elevate the emperor's chambers but now housing stalls selling an array of tourist tat.

A woman on a tight schedule, Ivana marches our group out of the palace and along the Riva waterfront promenade, lined with restaurants that seem to cater to tourists on a diet of seafood and gelato. The harbour opposite is jammed with fishing vessels as well as yachts, ferries and cruise ships waiting to whisk tourists off to Croatia's countless sun-scorched islands.

Abdicating after two decades of rule, Diocletian spent his twilight years in Split, much as well-heeled Australians might retire to Noosa, basking in a lifestyle of sun and warm waters lapping the coast, such as it does at the nearby Bacvice Beach.

Ivana sings the praises of what she calls a sand beach until Trish points out: "It's dirt. I'm sorry, but it's dirt." This beach rivalry threatens to degenerate into a gladiatorial clash when a member of our group pipes up to defend the honour of Croatia's coast.

But Ivana quickly steers us back inside the palace complex to take in its history as holiday home and military fortress for Roman rulers, religious centre and far-flung outpost of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Wandering the cobblestone alleys, some barely wide enough for wide-hipped tourists to pass each other, is the highlight of the tour. Thousands of residents still live in the palace complex, their laundry hanging from poles high above and chatter mingling with the chorus of tourists' voices.

Ivana finally leads us out of the Roman maze through the Golden Gate – the palace also has iron, silver and bronze gates – to admire its impressively high walls and the towering statue of Bishop Gregius of Nin, a medieval Croatian bishop whose toe shines from having been rubbed so many times for good luck.

Just as impressive are two strapping young men holding spears and dressed as Roman centurions in plastic armour, capes and sandals as they pose for photos with toddlers and stout tourists.

They might not enjoy the same wardrobe budget as the cast of Game of Thrones, but are easy on the eye and, unlike Doris, don't try to fleece us of our hard-earned kuna.

TRIP NOTES

Andrew Taylor travelled at his own expense.

MORE

traveller.com.au/croatia

croatia.hr

FLY

Singapore Airlines, which code shares with Lufthansa, flies from Melbourne and Sydney to Split via Singapore and Munich. See singaporeair.com

STAY

Airbnb lists a number of properties to rent in Split. Prices start from about $40 a night for an apartment. See airbnb.com

TOUR

Discover Daenerys' throne room and the streets of Meereen on a Game of Thrones tour of Split. See gameofthronestourcroatia.com

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