Chalkmarks Why my home in Dalmatia had a Split personality

SITTING on the shores of the Adriatic Sea, Croatia is winning thousands of new holidaymakers every year.

The main city of Split is the gateway for sun seekers who sail out to the islands of Hvar, Brač and Vis.

In English, Split is an unfortunate name, conjuring up an idea of a place divided and perhaps it is. At one end there’s the grand palace built for Diocletian, the Roman emperor, in the second century.

Chalkmarks Why my home in Dalmatia had a Split personality

At the other, is an area known as Split 3, home to the concrete blocks of the Communist Empire. This is where I stayed, in a socialist tower covered in graffiti. It didn’t match up to the glamorous images of the Dalmatian coast I’d seen on Google.

I remember my first reaction – I was afraid. It was dirty and ugly. I noticed the grey cold entrance with a metal door and peeling yellow paint.

I was worried there’d still be iron curtains inside.

Not only did it look unwelcoming, it looked like it might collapse. At night, it would be even scarier. No, I really didn’t want to stay here. So I stood outside for a while. 

Chalkmarks Why my home in Dalmatia had a Split personality

Feeling uneasy, I slowly went in and climbed up the stairs. I made my way along a dark and bleak corridor. 

Then I unlocked the door and inside it was spectacular.

All of a sudden there were bright white walls, my eyes hurt as the sun streamed through the windows. The two rooms were splashed with purple cushions and drapes. 

On the shelves were pictures of a stylish Split in its heyday and on the walls Croatian words in italic.

I was worried there’d be iron curtains inside!

This conflicting image stuck in my mind. How could the view from the inside be so different to the outside?

I closed the door and settled into my new home for one month.

Most days I headed to Riva, the waterfront promenade, which is a magnet for tourists wanting to sit in front of Diocletian’s Palace.

Or I’d go down to Znjan beach for the cafes and bars right on the sand.  After a while though, I started to explore Split 3. 

A dim tunnel took me under the road and in to the shopping area known as Prima 3. Time stands still and it feels like 1989 Eastern Europe but it wasn’t intimidating any more. 

It’s not pretty or polished – it’s just another massive slab of concrete that evokes the past but this is where I found the locals. 

Chalkmarks Why my home in Dalmatia had a Split personality

It was here that I also found my favourite shop Borovo, which sells rubber shoes. I learned a bit about the factory which opened in 1931 by the Czech Republic’s most famous shoe maker Thomas Bata. In the 1980s the brand Startas was created and very quickly I owned two pairs.

I came to adore my little flat and joked that I was off to Yugoslavia when I went home. When I passed people in the corridors everyone said hello.

It was spring so I would dry my clothes on a line outside the window but when I pulled them in, the paint came along too.

I started to wonder what life would’ve been like under Tito. I asked a few people but no-one wanted to say very much. 

That seemed more revealing than any story they could have told me. I guess they didn’t want to dig up the past and everyone will have their own interpretation.

Croatia declared independence in 1991. Many of the flats are still occupied by families who would have lived through the old regime.

My small one-bed apartment might have been communal and crowded with a family or two, whereas I have the whole place to myself.

This could have been mass housing for the thousands who worked in the shipbuilding yards. Now their children choose to rent them out to visitors like me.

Yet the outside has been left to crumble as I was told that no-one was responsible for their upkeep.

When I left, I looked back at the building that had frightened me so much. I saw what I didn’t before.

It might look abandoned, severe, and half-dead but it’s harmless. It’s a survivor and it shouldn’t be left in the background.

This is the heart of Split where transformation begins, on the inside.

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