Croatia: our second motorcycle gang, ferry to (at long last) Split

The ferry ride to Split was our longest ferry ride yet: 2 hours. It left from Stalingrad, I mean, Stari Grad, which meant we had another hair-raising drive across the mountain to get to it. Ante steered us well! While Ante went to park the car in line with all the other cars, Rachel and I went to a nearby cafe to get some coffee. (Note: it wasn’t as good as the coffee in Trpanj. Nothing was.) We sat there, sipping coffee, watching the sea, watching the cars line up, and … watching the motorcycle gang roar in again, lining up in their own separate groupings. There were even more of them than before.

I don’t know why I was so fascinated by them – all I can say is they were clearly such a well-defined and tight sub-culture, people you would clearly not see hiking the wall in Dubrovnik, etc. (Nothing against tourists. We were tourists, and happily so! But you don’t want to ONLY hang out with visitors. You want to be in local places, you want to get a glimpse of people’s real lives.) So with these bikers, it’s hard to even grasp what all of the varying connections might be among all the different clubs, separated out by nationalities. There were women among them, what my pal Mike would call “tough chicks”, and it was clear the established couples. Again, maybe because we were visiting slightly off-season, but in a lot of places we visited, tourists did not dominate. (In Dubrovnik and Split, they did, but in a lot of other places, we were clearly the only Americans.) This was certainly true on the ferry to Split. You didn’t hear much English being spoken. And the bikers far out-numbered the regular passengers. The noise on that upper deck was deafening, laughter, conversation, cigarette smoke, beers.

It was hot, sun shining, and Rachel and I – in our matching hats – found shelter under a little roof on the main level (which, unfortunately, acted like a greenhouse). Once the boat got far out into the sea, the wind picked up, a gorgeous cool wind. Around Hvar are all these little islands, but once we passed that area, it was a huge open sea, with the mountainous mainland far far away, like a mirage.

I sat in my seat, and watched the Biker Show.

The ride was so long and the movement of the ship so soothing there was something almost sleepy about it. We wandered off downstairs to buy some sandwiches, came back up to sit down amongst the motorcycle gang. We went off to find railings where we could look into the distance, cool our faces.

I was mostly filled with a sense of anticipation that was almost … scary? … because Split was approaching.

What I knew about Split: the Roman emperor Diocletian “retired” there (which was amazing in and of itself, because Roman emperors didn’t tend to retire. They tended to be murdered.) Diocletian grew up in the surrounding areas. He built a palace (which is really more of a small city), down on the waterfront. After the Roman Empire fell, the palace went into ruins over the following centuries. But unlike other areas, which were deserted, emptied out of people, the people of Split never left. They basically just moved into the abandoned palace. They built structures on top of its walls, rickety little buildings – some of which are still there. But since the Roman knowledge of architecture and engineering died with the Romans, the people left behind had no idea how to build things. So you have this gorgeous elaborate palace, with little buildings perching on the walls, huddled in the corners, from later eras. Time collapses here. You have different eras existing simultaneously. And now? There are nightclubs, markets, banks, book shops, bars … all built into the palace walls.

This is all what I have learned about the place. I have had vivid pictures of it in my mind.

For some reason, though, I had it in my mind that it was on the cliffs. Wrong. I have refused to even Google pictures of this palace. For two decades! How did I manage it? I’ve been so poor, people. I knew I’d never get to see Diocletian’s Palace, come on, I can’t even buy new sneakers. This is what “operating from scarcity” looks like. I’m not complaining. I’m in the same boat as many others, I’m just explaining my own personal experience of constant nagging scarcity. But as long as I DIDN’T look up pictures of Diocletian’s Palace, I held out hope that I’d actually get to see it with my own eyes. If this makes sense. If I “caved” and perused photo albums of the palace, it was like admitting: “Okay, I’m never gonna get there myself.” I actually have never put this into words until now, but that’s what was going on.

I had no fear that the experience would be a disappointment after so many years of wanting to go there. Not possible.

Diocletian’s Palace has always been “the substance of things hoped for” and now I was about to see it.

Finally, Split came into view. I stood at the railing, surrounded by bikers, staring at the city as we approached from the sea. A white city on the waterfront, coming into view. It was a very emotional moment for me. People have been living there for thousands of years.

The long-deferred moment was finally here.

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