Could any stadium in Europe have a better setting? Backdropped by the clear blue of the Adriatic a stone’s throw away – you could see the stone drop through the water, in fact – the Poljud occupies a natural bowl in the area of the same name just north of the centre of this sport-mad city.
The de facto capital of Dalmatia, Split (and the Poljud) are home to one of the most passionate and colourful fan cultures in Europe. The recently sorry fortunes of local club Hajduk (invariably mispronounced in Britain as ‘Had-zhook’ rather than ‘Hay-dook’) are followed across southern Croatia, islands included. Every other bar, boat and taxi driver’s window features the white, red and blue of the oldest club in former Yugoslavia.
A venue worthy of such a legacy was built under Tito for the Mediterranean Games of 1979. Eight months later, just before half-time of a clash between Hajduk and Red Star Belgrade, the news came over that Tito had died. Players, officials and crowd stopped as one, and many began to weep. The game was abandoned.
At the time, Hajduk were one quarter of the Yugoslav Big Four – Dinamo Zagreb being Croatia’s other representatives, plus Partizan and Red Star from Belgrade. Following the break-up of Yugoslavia, the fractured sporting scene was patched up for basketball – but not for football. A weak Croatian League, is now dominated by Dinamo – Hajduk last won the title in 2005.
If anything, Split’s other club, RNK, have recently shown almost equally good form, only missing out on a European place in 2013 on goal difference to their city rivals. Their Park Mladezi stadium lies close to the Poljud.
Hajduk had moved up there from their home of 70 years, the nearby Stari Plac, where fans, the Torcida, still gather in the club house bar today. They brought with them a fan culture of almost equal longevity. Fiery celebrations – torch flames, banners and co-ordinated chants – had been copied from grainy cinema newsreel footage of the 1950 World Cup in Brazil. With Rio as their role model, the Torcida had been practising South American football customs on the terraces of Europe for three decades.
The Dalmatian diaspora following the Hajduk flag fly in from Australia, North America or whichever shore-leave port their ship happened to have docked at. Match day at its best is a tribal gathering of Dalmatians. The city’s waterfront Riva reverberates all afternoon with fireworks and parades, another tradition. But the patriotic, populist Torcida, have had to suffer perennial mismanagement of their beloved club.
Just as Hajduk have declined, mired in financial gloom, so the Poljud is in urgent need of renovation. Plans for a revamped stadium were put on ice when Croatia failed to win the hosting rights for Euro 2012.
Split Airport is at Kastela, 20km (14 miles) north-west of town, near Trogir. Pleso Prijevoz buses shuttle between the airport and the Riva (30kn, journey time 30mins). A taxi +385 21 895 237 to town should cost around 250kn depending on destination. Many hotels arrange transfers.
Walking is the only practical way to get around the town centre, centrepieced by a gutted Roman palace and fringed by the Adriatic waterfront.
To reach panoramic Marjan or the Poljud stadium, a city bus (11kn on board) run from Zagrebacka by the market or the top of pedestrianised Marmontova.
The tourist information office at Peristil has accommodation details.
Convenient for the Poljud, the Hotel Globo is an eminently affordable four-star. Cheaper yet is the Split Guesthouse & Hostel, a friendly lodging with two-, four- and six-bed rooms on the corner of the main road leading up to the stadium. You’ll find it on most hostel booking sites.
In the Roman palace itself, the Hotel Slavija is a converted Yugo-era hostel, comfortable but often full in high season. The nearby B&B Kastel 1700 is cheaper. The Dioklecijan (Obrov 10, +385 98 969 7129) is a superior example of the contemporary hostel.
Over at Bacvice, the Hotel Park is perfectly situated for a weekend of beachside relaxation.
Split has two bar hubs: the Roman palace and the Bacvice leisure complex at the city beach, a short walk over the railway bridge.
The best palace option used to be the excellent Pivnica Mali Flek, tragically closed. In the run-down square of Carrarina poljana outside, sport-focused bar Get and DJ spot Red Room are now other options.
Staying in the palace, nearer the Adriatic, arty Academia Ghetto Club (Dosud 10), close to the Hotel Slavija, has dedicated a whole wall to RNK Split. Turning left out of the hotel, then left again past the AGC, follow the yellow arrows marked ‘bar grill’ for the no-frills terrace bar with a sea view, the legendary Dioklecija, known by all as ‘Tre Volte’.
At Bacvice, opened by an ex-player, Stellon is half restaurant, half lounge bar with TV sport. Just below, at sea level, Bili AS is a real football spot, decked out in Hajduk murals. On the city side of the beach, savvy Zbirac attracts an urban crowd. There’s TV football inside once the sun sinks over the horizon.
Further along from Bacvice, near the tennis courts of Firule where Goran Ivanisevic started out, Egoist is a sport-centric lounge bar near a stretch of beaches.