Sun 13th June
Iím now in Zagreb, coming to the end of my stint here, anticipating the highlight of the summer, the start of Euro 2004. The past week has not been as exciting or different as Bosnia and Montenegro so this will likely be a short report.
I got here having travelled up the coast from Dubrovnik, spending a night in Split and Zadar. Luckily for me, Dragan, who I stayed with in Dubrovnik, was also in Split when I got there, so we met up and he showed me around. The town is actually a lot nicer than people give it credit for. There is an impressive old town near the harbour, based around the Diocletian palace and there are always a lot of yachtsmen in town, so the place has quite a cosmopolitan feel to it. It is also home to Hajduk, the current football champions, and an icon all along the Dalmatian coast. The city is big enough to have all the amenities you need but small enough to be easily manageable. I intend to go back at some point for a longer visit. (2 days!)
After Split, the coastline becomes less mountainous, or rather, the mountains are further inland leaving a wider coastal plain. I passed through Trogir and Sibenik, 2 old Venetian towns with fortified centres, looking unsuccessfully for estate agents. I asked around but nobody knew of any, or at least of any that still existed...! It's actually quite a refreshing change from Chiswick, where every other shop front seems to house an estate agent, but it can be a trifle difficult locating them. By now the weather had improved again and by the time I got to Zadar, it was very hot. Zadar was badly bombed during the second world war by the allies and as a consequence, it doesn't have the same architectural charm as other towns along the coast. Like them though it does have an extensive pedestrian precinct, allowing you to wander the narrow streets at leisure. I will be doing a course there in July so wanted to check out the local estate agents before I spend much time there and give them an indication of what I am looking for. Not that I managed to do this very successfully unfortunately as they were all either shut or didn't have anything old on their books.
I almost made the same mistake as I had in Montenegro of leaving it too late to look for accommodation, but this time it worked out well. I turned off at the first village outside the town and stopped at the first sign for accommodation I came across. The room was fine and the woman offered me dinner as well. I sat down to eat and she chattered away in Croatian. I would say that she was fairly typical of a lot of Croatians on the coast. She lost her job when the state-run enterprises were privatised and now she gets about £100 per month in benefits. Her husband doesn't have a job either and they basically live off what they can make during the peak tourist season of July and August and the odd guest around June and September. They have the downstairs to themselves and let out the upstairs. They have a third floor but not sufficient income to renovate it to rent out and maximise their summer income. I imagine that being unemployed they would find it hard to get credit. I also get the impression that a lot of people, not just the older ones that grew up and lived under the socialist state, seem to lack initiative and drive. I really don't think people like the idea of hard work that much. There is high unemployment, even though they have a lot of highly educated people. It is not uncommon for young people to spend all day in cafes, chatting to friends and conserving what little money they have. I really don't know how people actually manage as salaries are a lot lower than in Western Europe, but prices for a lot of things are comparable. I have even met some French people who claim it is cheaper to eat out in Lyon than in Dubrovnik (but that might just be Dubrovnik for you!). Because I liked the family and because I have a course in Zadar in July I asked them if they would let me stay for 2 weeks in July, but unfortunately, from my perspective at least, that is their high season and they felt, reasonably enough that they could earn more from tourists. So I'm back to plan A, staying in a student dorm for the duration of the course. Doubtless they'll put me in a room with a German who will want to practise his English...
On the drive out of Zadar I passed the airport - it's a fairly small affair at the moment, but there are rumours that Ryanair are due to fly here in the future. It is literally over the road from the air force base. I don't know if the air force base existed during the war or not. I'm inclined to think not, as Serbian forces overran most of the hinterland and I can't imagine that they would have been able to do so if there were sufficient Croat air cover. After about 10 miles or so the new motorway starts. There were signs for Zagreb, 253km. Great, I thought, I'll be there in just over 2 hours. The road was pretty much empty and I was confident of making good progress. Occasionally the road would narrow down to a single lane as we went through a tunnel where only one of the tunnel lanes had been opened, but the road surface is good and smooth and best of all, fast. Of course, it being Croatia, it didn't last long. After about 50km or so, the motorway ends and we were back on single lane country roads. One of the most frustrating things about driving here is that the country roads nearly always have a single white stripe down them, so no overtaking, even on roads where there is good visibility; and the overtaking bits are ridiculously short. Plus there was a lot traffic on the road so it would have meant constant overtaking. And there was a lot of traffic going the other way as well (if anything going even slower - doesn't bode well for when I have to travel back down to Zadar!)
I decided to settle in for the long haul. I wish I could say that I was able to admire the view but unfortunately it was now chucking it down again. Of the 4 weeks I have been here I would say at least 2 have been wet - and when it rains here it really does rain, torrential stuff for hours at a time, none of the all-day drizzle we get back home. This was evident in the scenery - it was beginning to get a lot greener and the road was taking me past the Plitvice National Park, a series of lakes and waterfalls renowned for their green waters. I stopped somewhere (to be honest I had pretty much no idea where I was - I couldn't work out if I was on the main road or had been diverted off down Farmer Giles' back yard) and bought some sweets and was pleasantly surprised to be greeted on the street by a small boy - on the whole people tend not to talk to strangers in my experience. Even the shop assistant was smiley! Maybe I should head back there again for some social interaction..!
In Zagreb I am staying with the family of my Croatian teacher in London. They have a flat just off the main street, Ilica, in the centre, very close to where we stayed in Zagreb before. They have been extremely kind, refusing to accept any rent and generally being very hospitable and generous. This is definitely a characteristic of people here. People frequently refuse to let me pay for drinks or meals and have gone out of their way to help. Friends of friends have offered to take me out and show me around and they are very good hosts. My only regret is that my Croatian is so limited I can't have a proper conversation so we end up reverting to English. Practically everyone speaks good English in Zagreb and for visitors it is easy to get to meet people - they are definitely pro-English from a social perspective and seem to like us. On a political level, though, they think our government favours Serbia. Unfortunately they do seem to have an unhealthy obsession with English football hooligans and on some perverse level actually seem to admire them. I've met several people who expressed admiration for our "top lads" (they even know the terminology and know who the worst "firms" are). Mention that I support Millwall and they think I'm a hooli myself - maybe the shaved head has something to do with it! Even the women seem to be pretty clued up about football and generally interested in it. The local fans, Bad Blue Boys (awful name I know - sounds like some gay strip troupe), actually wielded some political clout in the 90s when they boycotted games in protest at a name change (Tudjman, the ex-President, decided to change the name from Dinamo Zagreb to Croatia Zagreb, saying that Dinamo was too redolent of the communist past). After Tudjman's death the name was changed back to Croatia and the fans started coming back.
The town is very similar to other Central European cities that I've been to. The centre has an old town, perched on a hill, which overlooks a 19th century lower town and in the distance an ugly 50's socialist satellite town, full of badly maintained tower blocks. From the centre of the town you can see the hills in the background which are covered in forest. On the outskirts is a man-made lake and rowing course, Jarun, which serves as a beach. The locals say they don't swim in it, but I had no qualms about diving in on one of the few hot days we've had here. The upper town is very quaint and there are whole streets where every single house seems to be a bar or cafe. There is a small square with a church which has the coloured tiled roofs redolent of Vienna or Budapest, incorporating the Croatian chess board coat of arms, as seen on their football shirts. There are several very grand fin-de-siecle municipal buildings in the lower town, including a host of galleries and museums - I read somewhere that they have more museums per head of population than any other city in the world, but to my shame I haven't actually visited any of them yet. There are plenty of squares lined with cafes and of course this is a major part of the social scene here. The place does close early though - most bars seem to shut about 11 and by about 11.30 the streets are pretty much deserted. I've actually been going out a lot here - in fact most nights, meeting up with friends of friends. But it isn't eating into my budget as I say because more often than not people insist on treating me. Maybe when they come to London it will be pay-back time. Elvis took me to a friend's birthday party and the guy, who didn't even know me, insisted on picking up the bar tab. One of the presenters from Nova tv was there and spent the whole evening telling me how London was the greatest place on earth. It was a strange, but fun, evening; lots of Croatian/Serbian/Bosnian folk pop - if you've ever seen any of Emir Kusturica's films you'll know what I mean. That's one of the funny things about the place. Despite the war people still listen to the same kinds of music, eat the same foods, dance the same dances all over the region. Nearly everybody tells me that they have friends in Serbia and I get the impression that people go to Belgrade or wherever to visit relatives and friends.
My bike has taken a bit of a battering here - the roads are in a pretty poor state and there are tram lines in a lot of the main roads, which I know from past experience can be dangerous, especially when one of your wheels gets caught in the line itself - have come to a juddering halt a couple of times. I am now also aware that when parking you need to allow plenty of space so that the trams can get past! Fortunately I'd only just parked, but I can just imagine the scene if I'd gone off and left it for an hour. I can well imagine coming back to where I'd left it and wondering where the hell it was! I have visions of the dawning sense of realisation that yes, it had been this street and no, I didn't come by bike - the panic of thinking it was stolen, then the cold sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach. Not only are the roads in a poor condition some of them are incredibly steep as well, so that by the time I get back up the hill to the flat I'm absolutely drenched. Good for my circulation maybe, but not good for my laundry bills...
I've been looking at a few flats in Zagreb. They seem to be about the same sort of price level as Dubrovnik - i.e. not cheap. Recently Croatians have been able to get access to cheaper credit - they can now get loans for about 5%, as opposed to 10 or higher. This has fuelled interest in property and consequently prices have risen, although apparently it has never been cheap here. I've seen some very nice places - one was architect designed and very well done, beautifully furnished. It was a converted loft, set back from the main road in a smaller courtyard. It was, however, ridiculously expensive and the rental income wouldn't even have stretched to cover the financing costs. The flats tend to be quite big - about 100m2 or more and quite often they have interconnecting rooms. A typical flat will be in a four or five storey building with stone inner staircase, a small courtyard at the back, which may be a garden or may be used for parking, high ceilings (sometimes as high as 3.5m), and somewhat scruffy from the outside. A lot of the buildings have shabby communal areas, which are in need of refurbishment - it is not uncommon to see render falling off walls and badly weathered architectural features. Most privately owned buildings look scruffy and there is a lot of pollution damage and weathering. But that is exactly how Prague was 15 years ago and they haven't been through a war. So I try to look beyond the immediate appearance of the building and see it in the context of what the development potential is.
There are two principal areas of interest. Flats in the centre of town, within walking distance of all the shops, bars and nightlife, aimed at young, probably foreign, professionals, singles or couples who want the convenience of having everything on their doorstop. The other alternative is houses, aimed at older professionals with families - probably with a garden. These tend to be located in the North of the city, up in the hills, a prime location and hence even more expensive. I've only seen a few that I have thought would be of interest and have only put details of one place on the site so far, but may add more if I find anything.
I've had meetings with some of the banks here about financing and it appears that they will lend against real estate. However they will only lend to a company incorporated in Croatia, so if I want to go ahead with the investments I will need to set up a company here. Not an overly arduous or complex procedure in theory... Although a lot of people have warned me that the bureaucracy can be very frustrating. It also has major tax implications so needs to be given careful consideration. Certainly the cheapest route is to buy outright with cash, although of course this restricts the number of properties that we can finance. Buying as a company has the advantage that you do not need to apply for consent to purchase from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. There are some useful links on the main links page about the conditions that need to be fulfilled to buy here.
Just time for me to have a quick comment about the football - why did Sven have to bring on that clod-hopping lump of meat, Heskey and what was Gerrard thinking of! The locals commiserated and guess what, bought me a drink to drown my sorrows. Having watched the Croatia-Switzerland game, neither team inspires dread, but surely neither can play as badly again? Whereas England may have had their best game already. I have visions of Euro 2000 - let's just hope he doesn't have to pick both the Neville sisters at any point!
Off to Istria later this week, to what I think is likely to be our most rewarding area. Hope that the weather improves and that I can put lots of photos of clear blue skies, green rolling hills and turquoise waters on the site to entice you all over.
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