On an afternoon in Split, Croatia in the spring, we decided to take a walk. We started at the ferry port—that teeming hallmark of so many Mediterranean cities—and moved southeast along the shore without a map or an agenda. It was warm for April, one of those days where you’re not sure how to dress out of fear that the weather will make a soggy or a sweltering fool of you. On this day, it was more swelter than anything else, the sky incomprehensibly blue.
To walk that shore is to see Croatia at her prettiest and her ugliest, all at once. The ragged white cliffs along the coast plunge dramatically into the sea. The water is, as promised, that sublime Mediterranean blue. But really, it was the people that made this strip of coastline so lovely and alive. Families crammed into the seaside restaurants. Children giggled madly as they bounded into the water. Twentysomethings walked their dogs. We saw the Dalmatian coast on parade, the same way Central Park in summer is both a place to relax and a place to watch the city happen before your eyes. It was urban theater at its finest.
By the time we sat in one of those tangling little seaside cafes, about an hour’s walk from the ferry port, we felt as though we’d passed through the belly of Croatian coastal life. And maybe we hadn’t. It’s so easy to make pronouncements about discovering an “authentic” place, when in reality, as travelers, we usually just don’t know. But this felt good, whatever it was, this swarm of people in sunglasses enjoying the day.
Still, though, there was something that we couldn’t ignore. Amidst so much natural beauty—at one point, the hills that drop into the sea are covered in swaths of pink wildflowers—were hints of things distinctly man-made. The walking path along the water has been paved over, giving it the air of a town swimming pool. At the edge, the concrete is shattered, crumbling inevitably into the sea. The hotels that dot this stretch are lumbering and plain and painted in industrial yellows and blues. A seaside playground is full of hard metal slides and seesaws. There is no picturesque boardwalk in Split, no made-for-tourists vista to take photos or a luxury hotel with an Italian name. Not in this part, anyway. Instead it was just us in a cafe, watching people gossip and pat their impeccable little dogs, and smoke, and drink their coffee, and do everything else that an easy afternoon on the coast affords.
To reach the strip of coastline just southeast of Split, take a left at the ferry port and keep walking for about an hour. A drink in a cafe will set you back about 8 kuna. It’s worth it.