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(E) Croatia: THE NEW TUSCANY?
By Nenad N. Bach | Published  03/12/2002 | Tourism | Unrated
(E) Croatia: THE NEW TUSCANY?
 
Weekend: space: property: THE NEW TUSCANY?: Like it or loathe it, British homebuyers have a hunger to discover uncharted territory. Faith Glasgow talks to two women blazing a trail in Dubrovnik 
 
The Guardian - United Kingdom; Mar 9, 2002 
BY FAITH GLASGOW 
 
 
Maria Bennett reckons on a door-to-door journey of about four hours to her holiday home. She nips off for long weekends or the occasional week-long break. Last year, she made the trip six times. But this is no cottage in Dorset, no Normandy gite or Algarve villa; it's an 11th-century convent in Dubrovnik, Croatia. To be more precise, Bennett owns a small flat within the convent walls, in the heart of the medieval Old Town. "When communism came to Yugoslavia, a lot of church property was confiscated and used for housing," she explains. That's part of the charm if you're an enterprising romantic, as Bennett, a 34-year-old financial controller, undoubtedly is. She stumbled upon Dubrovnik while visiting friends in Split, the Croatian port - and fell in love with it. "It's like living in a castle," she says. "I wanted to be in the Old Town because I love the atmosphere - the smell of clean laundry, the kids playing on the steps." Her two-bedroom flat is about 50 sq m, and cost pounds 25,000 three years ago. Most properties are sold through newspaper adverts, but she bought through an estate agent - a new and so far unregulated breed that has sprung up since the break-up of Yugoslavia. "To begin with, he tried to sell me his aunt's property and pay the money into a foreign bank account, but once I had a lawyer on board he was fine and showed me genuine properties." Most of the places he took her to see were in the new area by the beach. He found it hard to understand why she wanted to look in the Old Town, where Dubrovnik's older and poorer inhabitants tend to live, and most of the buildings are pretty run down. The flat she finally bought needed pounds 5,000 worth of refurbishment. When Bennett came to look for reliable builders to renovate it, however, she was almost defeated by the inflationary effects of the language barrier. "Workmen would multiply the price by two or three times," she recalls. "I spent 18 months looking for workmen - and that was with Croatian friends to help me. I nearly gave up and sold the flat again, but in the end I found someone through a new local friend I made - a very good man who ran a little team and managed the project in my absence." Language hurdles are shrinking, says Bennett, as many younger Croatians now speak English and might also know some German or Italian. "I always had a friend to help with translation in business meetings, which made things simpler; but it would be easy enough to find a translator." She is now learning Croatian. Is she concerned about a resurgence of political instability? Of course it's a risk, she replies, but Croatia is moving towards EU membership and an element of insecurity is built into property prices. "I only bought what I could afford to lose," she says. "There's no crime here - you pass people in the street at 2am and they just say good evening. I've never lived anywhere else where there wasn't some level of fear. And as a single woman, I have had no hassle from men compared with places like Turkey. The socialist heritage has ensured that women are generally respected as equals." For Bennett, Dubrovnik's culture and historical wealth is another major attraction, but the cramped confines of the Old Town certainly won't suit everyone. Most foreign holiday home buyers - mainly Germans and East Europeans so far - head for the coast. Even in its socialist years, the former Yugoslavian coastline was a popular tourist destination, with up to 10 million holidaymakers a year descending on its beaches and sailing around the myriad little islands sprinkled across the Adriatic. The ethnic conflict of the 1990s put paid to all that, but foreign buyers are creeping back. Frances Gard, a business adviser and keen sailor living in Bristol, intends to be among them in the coming months. "I don't want to buy anywhere that's full of Brits," she says. "I have been to Croatia and enjoyed it, and I made several friends there who said they'll help me when I do buy." Gard is planning to release equity on her UK mortgage to pay for a property, and hopes to cover the additional mortgage costs by renting out her holiday home through her sailing friends. She expects to pay somewhere between pounds 10,000 and pounds 50,000 for a coastal property: "I don't know yet how much I'll have to spend, so I'll get whatever I can afford." For information on buying in Croatia, contact the Croatian Embassy on 020-7387 1790. A list of recommended property lawyers can be obtained from the Consular Department in Zagreb. British Airways flights to Dubrovnik cost pounds 180. 
 
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