Wimbledon champion Goran Ivanišević and local football club Hajduk are the poster boys for Split's sporting prowess, and a huge source of local pride. Every other bar and brick wall seems to feature Hajduk's signature badge, and sports clubs take full advantage of the city's Adriatic location.
Goran leads the way
According to the inaugural speech at the launch in town of a Sports Hall of Fame, as a city Split has the highest number of internationally successful sportsmen and women per capita in the world. The most successful of all, Goran Ivanišević, has gone down in history as the first player to win a Grand Slam title on a wild card entry. That was Wimbledon 2001 when his home club at the Zenta Marina complex in Firule was in the process of printing a book to celebrate its 50th birthday. They took it off the printing presses and watched in anticipation, and no little disbelief, as their hero powered his way right though the tournament to win a memorable Wimbledon final. Every local remembers Goran's arrival in Bernie Ecclestone's private jet Formula 1, the huge flotilla of boats in the bay, 150,000 fans waiting on the waterfront Riva, parachutists, fireworks, parties and a striptease from the champion himself.
Goran Ivanišević is only the (tall) tip of the iceberg. The Firule centre, where a young Goran first swung his racket, produces world-class tennis stars, partly thanks to the pioneering player and coach Nikola Pilić, born in 1939. Along with another local, Željko Franulović, Pilić made tennis a national sport and put Firule on the international tennis map. Firule has also nurtured Mario Ančić, Jelena Kostanić and the next generation of tennis stars currently being groomed at the centre just the other side of Bacvice beach. Marin Čilić, a Croat from Mostar, has already won the Junior French Open.
Croatia's Davis Cup win in 2005 saw money invested back into sports development, although the Croatian Tennis Federation has to fight its corner with many others vying for sponsorship. Some funds are available from the National Olympic Committee and a small grant is provided by central government. CTF executive director Marina Mihelić suggests that part of Croatia's secret is that courts are accessible to all kids, regardless of means, and the early emphasis is on having fun rather than being too competitive. Mihelić also emphasises the importance of professionally qualified and trained home-grown coaches.
The knock-on effect is a network of high-standard tennis camps across Croatia. Coupled with courts and courses provided by a handful of activity-friendly hotels, visitors can combine their holiday with a chance to practise and improve their game. Some organise coaching and tennis programmes.
Diving and sailing
To discover the real beauty of the Adriatic, dive in it. Instead of taking a diving course in a municipal pool with chlorinated water, here you can glide in crystal blue waters. The number of professional diving centres has grown in recent years. You can safely enjoy the hidden world underwater while under professional supervision and with all the necessary safety measures in place. A diving centre provides all the cumbersome equipment so that you don't have to and instructors know the best locations. They can also help you obtain the annual permit (100kn) required to dive here.
Dalmatia offers plenty of crevices, caves, sink holes and channels. Colourful locations also include underwater cliff faces and reefs where you can see all kinds of sea life. In summer, the Adriatic Sea reaches a clement 26 or 27 degrees, and light can penetrate to a depth of 50 metres, offering maximum visibility.
In the case of any mishap, Croatia is equipped with two bar chambers, one of them at Split. Altogether, there are more than 100 diving centres on the Croatian coast — see www.diving.hr for details and nearby locations.
The Croatian Adriatic is also ideal to nurture sailors of all levels and within all budgets. For beginners, flat calm seas, and sheltered bays and harbours, are never far away; for experienced sailors there are challenging channels and a variety of wind conditions; and for those that want to sail in style, on the largest of superyachts, there are plenty of deep-water harbours and anchorages, and an increasing choice of exclusive venues.
You can also hire a skipper to enlighten and guide you safely around the very best of what Croatia has to offer. If you'd like to learn to sail more seriously, there's an increasing choice of sailing schools. Sailing School Croatia (www.sailingschoolcroatia.com) and the Adriatic Nautical Academy (www.anasailing.com) run courses in Dalmatia.
Central Dalmatia meets most holidaymakers' requirements, starting with the number of marinas and charter bases within easy reach of Split airport. The increasingly cosmopolitan islands of Brač and Hvar are an easy sail away from Split. Scores of picturesque anchorages and village harbours lie peacefully between the more discovered and bustling towns. For a longer sail there's the more remote but gentle island of Vis, and for a Dalmatian time warp try Šolta. High rollers should head to Trogir and Hvar town. After partying in Hvar, relax at the neighbouring Pakleni islands, the perfect anchorage to soothe the spirits.
Maracana in miniature
Hajduk Split are the flagship football club of Dalmatia. A familiar name on the European circuit, Hajduk play at the once gleaming Poljud stadium, overlooking the Adriatic. On its night, the Poljud can provide the kind of colourful football night reminiscent of Rome or Rio.
The Brazilian comparison is pertinent, for Rio was the role model used by Hajduk fans to introduce South American football culture — torch flames, bright banners, co-ordinated chants — to European terraces from 1950 on. Fiery celebrations were copied from grainy cinema newsreel footage of the World Cup in Brazil that year. Christening themselves the Torcida after their Brazilian counterparts, Hajduk fans created a storm for the visit of Red Star Belgrade, and have hardly let up since.
Before match day, fans still gather at the bar beside the old ground, now used for rugby matches, a short walk from the National Theatre. Between the Bili AS and the Pivnica Rugby, a tatty, light-blue door could easily be missed. Inside, one floor up, is an authentic fans' bar, illustrating the history of Hajduk in careful detail. You'll find it at 17 Zrinjsko-Frankopanska. The Poljud stadium itself is a 15-minute walk uphill from here, or take bus No.17 (direction Spinut). For ticket details, see www.hajduk.hr.