Croatia has one of the most spectacular coastlines in Europe, with mountains plunging into the sea, countless islands, and Dubrovnik: the ancient port city that features in the epic TV series Game of Thrones.
If you’re mega rich, or connected to Croatia’s government, your visit to the Adriatic islands will involve helicopters, luxury cars and private boats – creating the impression that this country is far better organised than the other former Yugoslav republics.
But if you’re an ordinary tourist and you arrive in Split, Croatia’s second city and its biggest ferry port, you’ll be unable to avoid the bus station.
Welcome to Hell
One thing that communism did rather well was public transport and the old bus stations of the former Yugoslavia are scruffy but spacious. I know this because currently I’m living in Bosnia which, like Croatia, was one of the former republics of Yugoslavia.
The bus station in Split has lost the vast space the former regime endowed it with. Now it’s clogged up with steaming junk food stalls and sprawling kiosks selling flip flops, sun hats, sun cream, rubber rings, postcards, beach mats, towels, travel insurance, car rental, day trips, private boat hire, money exchange and left luggage offices.
When I arrived at Split bus station at the tail end of summer, I thought I’d arrived in hell. Until that moment I’d been enjoying the heat but as I tried to make my way through the narrow space left by the merchants of junk, the temperature became oppressive. And there’s no easy way out — you have to walk for about half a kilometre and squeeze past endless tourists, most of whom seem lost, and overweight, immobile, angry-looking taxi drivers.
How can Croatia, which prides itself on its Austro-Hungarian heritage (it was a part of that empire for centuries) allow its second biggest city to have a bus station that is more like what you might find in the Indian subcontinent? At least in India you know to expect swarms of hustlers every time you get to a bus station, and there is always a good natured banter to the proceedings, but Croatia likes to differentiate itself from the disreputable Balkans by making sure everything’s pukka and ship-shape.
The following day in Split I went to get ferry tickets to the beautiful island of Vis and this involved navigating the same hellish route past the bus station. At this point I realised how bad the situation is in terms of public transport in this major Croatian city: all forms of transport converge in this crowded market of junk. Not only does the airport bus arrive here, but the train station is hidden behind a fast food stand and you can’t get to the ferry terminal without stumbling through all this chaos. To make matters worse there are no signs that say Bus Station, Ferry Terminal, Railway Station or City Centre.
I got chatting with an English-speaking local who told me that Croatia used to have a really good bus service which served all the outlying communities with several buses a day. Now, he said, the whole thing has been privatised and the number of services has been drastically reduced. Getting a ticket is also more confusing now as each bus company has its own ticket office, offering competing routes. He was particularly annoyed with Flixbus, a multinational bus company, for “destroying our public bus system.”
As I came out of the ferry terminal I saw the bus station from afar and started to make sense of it, at least in my own mind. Imagine a long road facing the sea; at one end is the city centre and at the other is the ferry terminal. The bus and railway stations are located along this road and both the pavement and the road itself are rather broad. I crossed the road, measured the width of the pavement and was able to take 7 large strides, in other words 7 metres — more than enough space for crowds of people to pass each other in comfort. But the kiosks of junk, many of which have fridges and stands pushing further into the available space, reduce the room for pedestrians to less than two metres. And the road itself is equally jammed up — with old taxis which never seem to move, not surprising considering their scalping tactics. Most people seem to use Uber or arrange a minibus.
Considering the number of tourists who come to Croatia — almost 20 million in 2019 — surely this valuable piece of real estate should be turned into a modern, spacious bus, train and ferry terminal, with airport-style signs everywhere and a strictly limited number of high class shops. If the design team who turned Zagreb Airport into a triumph of modern design were let loose on this location they could do something brilliant.
Although Split has an incredible old town, with a Roman palace as its centrepiece, it seems to me that the City Council of Split has succumbed to the petty bribery of the local taxi mafia, quick-buck opportunists who have an excess of plastic beach gear and every peddler of junk food in the area. And the local advertising agencies have been allowed to plaster crass ads over every available space, adding to the confusion felt by every hapless tourist who is trying to find a bus, a train, or the city centre. Maybe there are still some lost tourists wandering about there now.
Photo caption: this article has a photo which you can only see on my home page (don’t ask me why). It’s a photo of my son Luca and his girlfriend Lydia on the Croatian island of Vis, taken in September 2021. They kindly invited me to join them on their holiday and we ended up wandering around the hills on the island of Vis which, like all Croatian islands, is stunning. In this photo we were about to start playing cards on a disused helipad.