April 21, 2019

Enjoying Coast of Croatia - My Time in Split

Enjoying Coast of Croatia - My Time in Split

February 8 - February 14, 2019

After having a great time in Cologne, I had some time to spare before the next conference. I decided to visit one of my favourite countries - Croatia. This country has a fantastic coast and magnificent nature, so I bought a ticket to Split and was on my way.

To be fully transparent, I chose Croatia not only because of my liking but also because of residency restriction many travellers from outside Europe have. Let’s start this post by actually talking about stuff we all love to talk about - laws.

Traveling between Schengen and non-Schengen Countries

When visiting Europe, one has to be cautious of rules around somethings called Schengen zone. Do not confuse it with the European Union - some countries like Switzerland can be a part of the Schengen zone but not of the EU.

The general idea behind the Schengen agreement is to make travel, trade and work much easier within this zone. The problem arises if you are not a citizen of one of these member states. The implications for someone like myself is that I can only spend 90 days within Schengen zone every half a year (I will call it 90/180 limit going forward).  It doesn't have to be a consecutive 90 days stay - it can be a sum of all days you spend in the Schengen zone within one 180 days limit. For example, if I were to visit Germany for 7 days, go back to Canada for a week, and then go Austria for 83 days, I would have reached the allowed limit of my stay for that half of the year.

Fortunately, there are workarounds for this 90/180 days limit. First, you can apply for a long-term visa in one of the member countries. Rules for different countries' visas vary, but if you expect to spend a lot of time in a specific country and do not mind paperwork, this approach might be right for you.

Personally, I have been doing too many visas in the past, so now I try to avoid any bureaucracy whenever possible. Luckily, there is another option available for frequent travellers. This option is to split your time between Schengen and non-Schengen countries. To illustrate, let's say I had stayed in Austria and Germany for a total of 90 days. Then, I can actually go to Croatia or Bulgaria and to spend another 90 days in one of these countries. With a total of 180 days, the clock on Schengen stay gets reset, and I can go back to Schengen countries.

Note: There can be some tax implications if you spend more than 180 days in one country within a year, so consulate with your accountant if you are planning on doing this.

Time in Split

As soon as I landed in Split, I knew I made the right choice for my destination - with mountains around the landing lane and coast around the corner, it could have been better.

Landing in Split

Split Airport

The airport was very clean even though there was heavy construction going on the next door. Apparently, Split’s airport is undergoing a significant extension so it can accept even more tourists in the future.

Construction of Split's airport extension 

As with any airport, there was only one thing to avoid - taxi drivers. Anyone who frequently travels enough knows that there is nothing more expensive than a trip from the airport to your hotel.
Fortunately, there was a bus service going to the city center - thanks to websites like getbybus.com, I knew about this transit option ahead of time. It only cost about $3 to get to the city while nearby taxis were asking about $40.

One thing you need to prepare yourself is that drivers could be somewhat reckless - our bus driver got a speeding ticket when I was going to the airport at the end of my trip.

Airbnb

The trip to Split was incredibly cheap. Apart from my flight from Cologne being very inexpensive, my Airbnb was just $9 per night for the entire apartment. I got a place near the coast and a large park - just how I like it.

View from my Airbnb

One of the things I really liked in the neighbourhood I was staying in was a number of cuddly kittens running around - most of them were stray cats, but you can tell that people build shelters and bring food for them.

Kitten near my Airbnb
I was spotted

One time I got way too emotional seeing how local people taking care of these stray cats - when I was running early morning on the beach, I saw an older man driving his car up the coast, and then climbing through rocks to a small cave with a bag of cat food. A few seconds later, a well-fed cat was running for the treats that this man had brought.

Sights of Split

I really love coastal cities. It is no surprise I Split quickly became one of my favourite cities. It has both access to the sea, and mountains surrounding the city.

Coast of Split
Coast and Mountains of Split

One of the most memorable (and challenging) adventures was going up to Solin, a nearby town. When I first arrived to Split, I noticed extensive mountain range and decided that I definitely should go up there (and I did).

From Solin, I saw a fortress up the mountains and figured it would be an excellent place to visit. And since the fortress was on top of one of the hills, I would have achieved my initial goal of getting to the top.

Fortress of Klis up the mountain

Let's just say going up was not as easy as I thought it would be. The main challenge was a lack of infrastructure - these were no trails to go up the mountain, and roads were clearly built with cars in mind (i.e. no pedestrian paths).

Narrow roads of Solin

I used to worry about walking on the roads like these, but after seeing a courageous, blind man who was walking on the same exact way with just a help of his white cane, I stopped worrying about my safety just keep walking up the hill.

But back to Solin and my trip to the fortress. As I was approaching the top of the mountain, I realized that wearing a cap might not have been the best idea. While it was excellent protection from the sun, the wind was brutal. At some point, I thought I would be blown away by the ferocious wind. Fortunately, I successfully got to the top and took a photo of the fortress.

Fortress of Klis

Although the experience of going up to the fortress was fun, I didn't want to go through the same on the way back. So I decided to take Uber. Fortunately for me, I knew a trick that helped me to get a very cheap ride back to the city.

Uber in Partner Countries

Car sharing is a fascinating business, and it is exciting to see how it transforms our perception (and expectation) of the transit in cities. I especially love discovering some of the unique services Uber provides in certain parts of the world. For example in India, you can book an auto rickshaw, and in some cities in Croatia you can book a small boat right in your app.

Apart from the extra services you can get using these car-sharing services, it is the power of the market, aka competition, that interests me even more. While countries like the US have Uber and Lyft, many European cities have their own alternatives (ex. Taxify). Usually, these services are much cheaper than your everyday taxis because these car-sharing companies subsidy rides to get a larger share of the local market.

However, not all countries have these alternative services. Many cities like Kiev in Ukraine, or Split in Croatia, rely on Uber as the primary player for on-demand taxi rides. While it makes sense from the business perspective to rely on the existing mobile infrastructure built by developers at Uber, this service doesn't earn much money for the drivers, especially in the cities I mentioned.

Unfortunately, if the company does not make money, it usually means even less money for the drivers. I believe Uber, in general, takes a cut of about 20% of the total fare - this is a rule that applies to all Uber drivers regardless of their location. But in countries like Croatia, Uber is not actually Uber. It is a local partner that represents Uber in a country or a city of interest. Think about it just how Apple has official partners selling their devices, or how car dealership works with big automakers.

Although these partnerships between Uber and local representatives are great because they allow local drivers to work Uber in-person, these partnerships have to earn money too. As a result, in addition to a 20% cut of the fare taken by Uber, the local partners have to take their own cut as well. I was told that it could be as high as 15%. To sum it up, the local Uber drivers often end up with only 65% of the already low fare (100% Total - 20% Uber - 15% Partners). Personally, I do not know how it can be profitable for the drivers since even in the US studies have shown that depreciation of the car and other driving costs often cancel out the fare. Bonuses from Uber are quite common for the drivers in the US, but I have not heard about these incentives in smaller European cities (definitely not outside of the tourist season). That being said, these car-sharing services seem to provide some financial relief to local communities in places where the salaries are low and finding employment can be challenging.

Anyway, with this information in mind (that the driver only gets 65% of the fare), I was able to find an Uber driver nearby and negotiated with him for a much smaller fee to drive me to the city without using the app. It is always a good idea to look up what the price of a trip would be with Uber, and then use that amount as your bar for potential bargaining. Honestly speaking, it can be a risk to just skip an app and have a verbal agreement with someone on the fare, but I felt especially adventurous that day, so I just went with it. To give you a different example, I once had a horrible experience taking a taxi from Austria to Switzerland where after getting to my destination I realized I had to go back to Austria. The driver demanded 200% of the amount we already paid him to drive me back. The moral of this story is always to be cautious when taking a taxi.

Soccer (Football) in Croatia

Although I am happy to be able to call myself Canadian, I will always be Russian. And people definitely know that. When I was in college, I was often asked if hockey is popular in Russia, but I would always answer that soccer is much more mainstream in the country. I think it is because of how accessible it is for anyone to start playing the game. Just like if you wanted to increase the adoption of your product, your first step is to lower the bar for entry and build the community around it. In the case of soccer, that bar is really just a soccer ball. Unfortunately for hockey, it often involves a financial investment of building an ice rink and buying equipment.

To be honest, I am not a huge soccer fan. That being said, I was still incredibly proud of Croatia in the World Cup 2018. I especially enjoyed watching all the celebration in Zagreb after Croatia got second place. People coming together to share joy and pride for their team is the real example of how we should interact with one another. It was especially great to see that people can be happy for their team without destroying their city like it was in Philadelphia after Eagles won Super Bowl.

But the reason why I am writing this section is that I got to see the importance of soccer in Croatia for myself. While I saw graffiti dedicated to the soccer teams around Split, there was an incident that shocked me quite a bit.

Hajduk Split Graffiti in Split

As I was walking around the Old Town, I saw a commotion happening nearby. Two guys were running from a group away from the market. At first, I thought it might have been a burglary or something of that sort. Two guys who were running away, split where one of the guys ran away into the city (one of the people pursuing him had a police baton), and another guy decided to jump into the sea. The weather was alright, but the water was definitely cold. So the guy in the water started shouting at his pursuers, there was a back-and-forth, and it all ended with the guy in the water taking off his jacket and throwing it to his pursuers. With the jacket in hand, the pursuers went on their way (but before that they actually pushed a few bystanders who were filming them), and the guy in the water was able to get out of the water.

Soccer Fan Brawl Gone Wrong

Obviously, I was interested in what happened. I approached a couple of people to find out why those guys were chasing after one another since I could not understand the confrontation (they were speaking Croatian). I was told that the two guys running away were fans of the opposing soccer team, and apparently, a major soccer match was just around the corner. I was dumb enough to exclaim "just because of soccer?!", but fortunately, people were nice enough corrected me that "it is not JUST soccer."

Leaving Split

As always, I had a great time in Croatia. People were friendly, food and drinks were really cheap, and I could speak English almost everywhere I went. I especially enjoyed my time in Split because there were no tourists - not that many people decide to visit the coast in mid-February. The lack of crowds allowed me to explore the city and the nature surrounding it all on my own.

After getting to the airport to fly back to Germany, I had some time to spare, so I took this opportunity to take one more look at the breathtaking Croatian coast.

Coast of Split

P.S. You can see more photos from my trip to Cologne in this album.