Known as the ‘lungs of Split’, the 178 metre high hill of Marjan just west of Diocletian’s Palace and the Riva, rises next to the Croatian city’s harbour like a slightly bent knee from a leg in repose (for want of another body-part-themed description). The lush forest surrounding the hill covers six square kilometres of the Marjan peninsula. Entered from the north gate, the forest opens up offering long, leisurely walking and cycling trails that lead to secluded beach coves along the tip of the peninsula. Entered from the south by the harbour and the steady climb up the well maintained steps to the peak of the hill offers breath-taking views and until recently, a few dubious distractions.
Once at the top of Marjan Hill, one can return down the steps or go further afield into the forest. Not far from the peak was – until last year – the city zoo.
I tend not to visit zoos on my travels for various reasons, and so I can’t be sure whether it is common practice nowadays to let the more placated species mix and mingle within each other’s pens. I saw goats and ostriches together in one caged area, sheep and lamas in another. It certainly gave the impression that the animals had a certain level of freedom within the zoo (apart from the monkey, wolves, tiger and bear), but I wondered whether there was a more sinister reason behind this semi-freedom of movement. Were the animals being mixed up deliberately to encourage some strange cross-breeding programme by the zoo?
Joking aside, I have to admit I wasn’t particularly happy with the condition of the animals at Split Zoo. Although most of the animals appeared to have adequate space to move around in and appeared well fed and looked after, the resident bear was pacing quite disturbingly in a cage that was clearly too small for such a large, wild creature. I did ask about his welfare but was told he was well taken care of. There have been a deluge of complaints about the zoo over the years and it was announced last year (2015) that the zoo was to close with the animals being sent to other zoos within Croatia and worldwide. I do hope that bear is much happier where he is now.
Aptly next to the zoo was – and presumably still is – a children’s playground with the usual playing apparatus, although there was one piece that left me a little confused as to its purpose. It looked like a climbing frame but it was covered in biker-style chains. Was it a piece of art, a unique Croatian health and safety regulation to help harness climbing children onto the piece to prevent them from falling off it, or was it something for adults only to enjoy?
It turns out that the piece was in fact an interactive sculpture called “Ana the Butterfly” by local artist Efra Avila. Although I am sure intentions were totally wholesome and innocent, the appearance of the piece doesn’t exactly exude the feeling of family fun. The instructions on how to play on the piece could well have been written by E.L. James.
Marjan is a short walk from the Old Town and is well sign posted. There is no public transport to or through Marjan although I did see one of those garish tourist ‘trains’ driving up to the peak of the hill where it allowed passengers to explore the lookout area for ten minutes before descending the hill again.
Entrance to the hill and surrounding forest is free. Pathways are reasonably well signposted. The climb up the steps to the peak is moderate but long with over one thousand steps involved. The steps begin at Marjanske Skale along the harbour, behind the Church of Sveti Frane.
To enter the forest from the north, walk west along Plinarska Street past the National Theatre.
If you have the stamina and the patience to find it, walk to the chapel of St Jere (Saint Jerome) in the heart of the forest. It is built into the rock and looks absolutely stunning both inside and out. Sadly, much as I tried I was unable to find it during my trip to Marjan in 2014.
Diocletian’s Palace, Split: Croatia’s answer to Pompeii
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