By SUSAN LADIKA
SPLIT, Croatia -- This is probably the only place to drink brandy with an 83-year-old nun before receiving her blessing, where TV antennas and clotheslines jut out of 1,700-year-old palace walls, where an Egyptian sphinx and an ancient Greek column stand within earshot of a jazz combo.
Touring Diocletian's Palace is likely to shatter all preconceptions of staid, stuffy palaces. It is the heart of the seaside city of Split, and it still pulses with daily life.
Built as the retirement home for the Roman emperor Diocletian around 300 A.D., today the palace throbs with the comings and goings of people -- about 3,000 who live within its walls and others who eat at its restaurants, sip in its cafes and work and shop in its stores.
Come along for a tour, which begins near the Cathedral of St. Domnius. The guide, Ante, points at a small black sphinx perched near the entrance. It is one of 16 sphinxes that Diocletian had his minions bring from Luxor. Nearby is a column he had expropriated from Greece.
For Diocletian, it was good to be ruler of the eastern half of the Roman Empire and Egypt.
The first stop is the cathedral, originally built as a mausoleum to hold the remains of Diocletian. The irony is that he was infamous for his persecution of early Christians. "He was the last pagan emperor. He was evil, merciless," Ante says.
But after his death and with the rise of Christianity, the mausoleum was transformed into a Catholic cathedral. Pope John Paul II stopped by when he visited Croatia in 1998.
Inside, a mural depicts two Christian martyrs. Their faces, however, are those of Diocletian and his wife, Prisca.
A belfry, tacked onto the cathedral in the 13th century and rebuilt six centuries later, still towers over the city.
In front of the cathedral is the peristyle, a sunken courtyard that was once the entrance to the emperor's quarters. These days, a cafe faces the peristyle, its bright red tables spilling into the courtyard. At night, a jazz combo fills the air with music.
Born nearby in 245 A.D., Diocletian was crowned emperor 40 years later and ruled for two decades. Toward the end of his reign, he had the massive white stone palace constructed, covering nearly 10 acres of land.
Three centuries after his death, nearby residents fleeing invaders locked themselves behind the palace walls. Diocletian's Palace, with its narrow lanes and broad squares, has been home to commonfolk ever since.
As Ante leads his tour along well-worn stone streets, he stops to chat with a friend who, while knocking down walls to remodel his home, found a heated, mosaic tile Roman bath.
A toe-rub and a blessing
The tour stops just outside the palace's Golden Gate, by the towering statue of Grgur Ninski, or Gregorius of Nin. The sculpture, by Ivan Mestrovic, honors the 10th century bishop who fought to allow the use of Croatian in church services.
Apart from its size, the most remarkable aspect of the statue is its shiny, gold-colored toe. Legend has it that rubbing the big toe brings good luck. As if on cue, a well-dressed, middle age woman pauses to rub the toe before heading through the palace gate.
Ante's tour members also rub the toe, then head to the cloister housing the ninth century chapel of St. Martin. Sister Ksaverija, spry at 83, lets the tourists in and sends them up the stairs to the tiny chapel, hewed into a narrow space between the palace walls.
There is a simple stone altar, a crucifix, and room for a handful of people.
As the visitors trek back downstairs, the Dominican nun invites them into a dining room, where she pulls out a bottle of homemade brandy, known locally as rakija, and a pitcher of water. Sister Ksaverija, dressed in a white habit and black wimple, exuding serenity, pours tiny shot glasses of the potent home brew and tumblers of water to wash it down.
With Ante translating, she recounts how she joined a convent nearly 70 years ago and for the past 65 years has been "without any doubts" about her commitment to serve God.
As the group takes its leave, Ante urges everyone to make a donation to the cloister. Then Sister Ksaverija blesses each and wishes them well as she says goodbye.
Now it's time to catch a ferry to the nearby Croatian islands.
The scent of lavender
Before the 1991-95 wars dismembered former Yugoslavia, Croatia was a tourist mecca, drawing flocks of Germans, Britons and Italians. Most of them crowded along the coast, where pretty white stone towns fronting the Adriatic Sea back up against imposing karst mountains.
The foreign tourists are returning now, though not as many as before. This particular ferry to the island of Hvar is filled with Croatians, though there are Brits, Australians and German-speaking backpackers onboard.
A gaggle of local women is waiting when the ship docks in Hvar town, hoping to whisk tourists away to the rooms islanders rent out in their homes.
Among them is Lucija Bibic, and she takes a couple of Americans to a room just steps from the quay. A riot of plants lines the stone steps outside the home, and Bibic's warmth and enthusiasm convince the visitors to take this lodging. As they unpack, Bibic returns with slices of homemade apple and cheese strudel.
With its warm, dry climate, Hvar produces lavender, and its scent tinges the air. The town frames the harbor, and a handful of booths along the waterfront promenade sell souvenirs -- particularly bottles of lavender oil and lavender-filed sachets.
At one booth, college student Kalinka Mihovilcevic, whose family grows and produces lavender products, explains how the herb is used to relieve stress, migraines and insomnia.
Overlooking the town is the ancient Spanjol Fortress. Its foundations date back more than 2,000 years. Construction of the present-day fortress began in 1282, and it has been strengthened several times since.
The most impressive thing about the fortress is the stunning view it affords of the stony gray mountains to the north, the red roofs of the old town and the sparkling blue sea, which is punctuated by forested islets to the south.
Dinner is at the restaurant Gostionica Junior. On the menu, fish dishes are labeled as first- and second-class. Asked to explain this, the waitress pauses for a moment, groping for the right words, then announces simply: "First class and second class, like on an airplane."
The fish platter for two is really enough to feed three or four. It includes sea bass, grouper, red mullet, calamari, shrimp and mussels. The waitress apologizes for the delay in serving it, explaining that the fish is so fresh, the restaurant staff had to clean it after the order was placed.
During a post-dinner stroll along the town's promenade, the setting sun transforms the dusky blue hills and pink and purple sky into a Monet painting, and lavender scents the air.
If You Go
GETTING THERE: Connecting flights to the Croatian capital of Zagreb can be made from London, Frankfurt, Munich and Vienna. Several buses a day run from Zagreb to Split.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Check the Croatian National Tourist Board's Web site at www.croatia.hr. The helpful Lonely Planet Croatia, second edition, is $19.99.
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