21st Apr 2021

Tracing Orson Welles: The darker side of Split

  • Mr Welles, a Split alumnus, has poor visibility among the parasols (Photo: Dan Alexe)

On the third leg of an incognito tourist trip on behalf of the Croatian daily Jutarnji List, told to sample everything and, most of all, to be ruthless if I find Dalmatia's reputation for high quality tourism is overdone or unmerited, I arrived in the glamorous city of Split.

This journey allowed me to discover the hidden side of many of the most famous local tourist destinations. Aside from the usual Diocletian-palace-medieval-antiquity cliché, there is another side to the Adriatic city of Split. It is one of the most glamorous tourist destinations in the Mediterranean, but Split also has a darker aspect. It can convey a different mythology to the expected, it has the "Casablanca-style thriller romanticism."

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No matter how hard other cities might try to emulate it, this is a trait that does not come naturally. It is something organic, the spy atmosphere, the dark alleys, the sombre cafes, or even the simple existence of a hotel like the Bellevue, in which I have been staying. Indeed the absence of air-conditioning can be viewed as part of this hotel's charm.

I will even go so far as to say that for those who are not traveling on too tight a budget, and who are looking for a bit of exoticism, Bellevue is the place to stay. A 19th-century palace built on the "Riva," in front on the harbour, it has huge rooms with very high ceilings, and a series of apartments with large windows opening onto the sea. Installing an air-condition system would imply tearing the whole thing down.

Of course, at night it can be an ordeal. One has the choice between sleeping with the window open, exposed to the noise and the music from the Riva, or closing the window and practicing pre-sleep yoga in order to be able to ignore the irregular gurgling of the stand-up electric fan.

But is it not part of the charm of travelling? When this hotel was built, there was even no electricity. How did travellers get some sleep during summer nights back then? They drank, perhaps, until they stumbled into bed and collapsed in a slumber ... And, for the dark atmosphere, Split has also a restaurant called Nostromo, right in front of the fish market. The name Nostromo carries dark connotations, being the title of a famous Joseph Conrad spy novel, and, yes, the name of the doomed starship in the movie Alien.

Such generous space as in the Bellevue is unusual, even in a 19th-century hotel. "What's this? 'Tito slep here, or what?'" I ask at the hotel. "No, but Orson Welles did." Oh, Orson Welles! The great seducer ... The filmmaker with 1,000 lovers who wrecked the lives of so many women, including here, in Split, where I am told that he used to have a house, a villa. And he even acted in the Communist kitsch film epic the "Battle of Neretva." His long-time companion Oja Kodar, a Croation actress and sculptress, created his statue here; I have to find it.

This is not so easy, because nobody knows where it is, although in the end I am told that it is in front of the cinema "Broadway," part of the shopping mall "Joker," way beyond the city centre. Even there, it takes a long time to find the piece because it is totally covered by the parasols of a sidewalk cafeteria. Poor Welles, what a difference from the treatment the writer James Joyce got in Pula, also on the coast, up to the North. There, Joyce's statue (Joyce spent six months in the Austro-Hungarian Pula, in 1904, in an unheated room, with his pregnant wife, teaching English at the local Berlitz school) is exposed in plain view on a terrace for everybody to see and caress. In contrast to this, Welles in Split is totally covered, hidden, humiliated. Nobody seems to care about his presence.

I do a quick test, asking nearby vendors and clerks, including - given that Welles made "The Lady From Shanghai" - the young Chinese owner of a cheap clothes shop situated nearby. "Oh, Welles, he made Hamlet, right?" Well, not really, it was rather Macbeth, but that is not far from the right answer. Anyway, deeply sunken in dark cultural mythology, Split can offer more than what the tourist travel books say, even to the casual traveler.

This is the third and penultimate installment of Dan Alexe's Croatian travelogue. The first two appeared on this website on 29 July and August 6.

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