Vivian Grisogono


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 Winter is the time when all major building projects are done. On Hvar Island, as everywhere on the Dalmatian coast, builders, tilers, stonemasons, iron workers, carpenters, plumbers and electricians work flat out through the winter, give or take the respite of the various religious holidays.

 Heavily laden lorries, bigger every year, totter and splutter up the hills, then clatter their way briskly downwards on the empty leg. Enormous diggers crawl along, taking up the whole road with their uncontrollable weaving. It's not a happy experience to get behind any of them, even less so to meet them on the many narrow stretches where two cars have a tight squeeze passing each other.
The main reason for this concentrated effort is that any work which creates noise and dust is banned during the tourist season. The actual date from which the ban starts varies from place to place. Hvar town, the busiest resort, is the first to stop outside works, and generally one has to accept that major construction or renovation works can’t happen anywhere on the island from mid-June to September. With agreement from the neighbours, it can be possible to do outside works in the villages away from the sea. If someone tries to do such works despite the neighbours, they have the right to call the police, who will soon put a stop to it.

 All good workmen are in constant demand. There are never enough to meet everyone’s needs, even though there are increasing numbers of local highly skilled, keen young workers and craftsmen, as well as teams from the mainland, some from as far away as Zagreb and even Slavonia (the northeastern part of Croatia). As every householder knows, there’s always work to do, no matter whether your house is old or new. 

Householders with repairs, renovations or building works are in competition with the local council and utilities companies for the limited supply of workmen.  In Jelsa, for instance, two major projects over the last two winters have been to restore the old council building which was gutted by fire, and to renovate the upper floor of an adjoining building as a new home for the library which had occupied part of the council building. The company carrying out the project, MGA, has done meticulous work, and posts regular updates on its website ( The texts are in Croatian, but the series of pictures under “Opcinski dom Jelsa” are still worth looking at. MGA is a nationwide building firm, with major projects for schools, hospitals, social centres and even the historical museum site at Narona near Split in its portfolio.

Another major project is the renewal of the sewage system in Jelsa. Digging up the waterfront has curtailed the normal winter traffic of buzzy mopeds and smoky two-stroke tractors. Although the project was delayed starting, the progress made so far fills everyone with hope that it will be completed before the tourist season. You never know.

Urgent work is being done on the Pitve church bell-tower: the bells, mounted in the last century, were fixed in to the stone by a metal framework. As the metal inevitably rusted, it corroded the stone, causing dangerous cracks. So the whole structure had to be dismantled, in order to repair the stone and re-fix the bells in new housing, not driven into the stone. As it is well known that metal corrodes stone, it is surprising how many metal fixings were done,  in buildings big and small. In private houses, poorer people used to fix their shutters on metal brackets, whereas the wealthier had metal strips attached between the wooden frames of the windows and the shutters. The longer term result of the former is that the stone window surrounds split. Replacing them is a difficult and relatively expensive exercise, which usually makes it necessary to change the shutters as well, sometimes even the windows too.

Stonework is very specialized, and good stonemasons are in the highest demand now. It wasn’t always so. Twenty years ago, towards the end of communism, the rush was to build new houses with apartments for tourists, as close to the sea as possible.  Old stone family houses were considered unsellable. Then former exiles began to come back to Croatia, keener to buy stone houses than concrete, for many good reasons. When foreigners were granted permission to buy properties in independent Croatia just a few years ago, the demand for old stone houses burgeoned, and even the most pathetic ruin became a valuable saleable asset.

Standards in the construction industry are generally higher than they were twenty years ago. Work teams are more professionally organized, often smartly turned out in uniform overalls.  They are prepared to work extremely hard over long hours, without incessant breaks for coffee, beer, food and cigarettes. The best take pride in cleaning up any mess they make, and disposing of waste materials properly at the tip. This is very different from twenty years ago, when very few workers considered it their responsibility to clear up. In the course of any renovation or building works, huge piles of debris would accumulate, challenging the homeowner's ingenuity in finding ways of disposing of it while remaining sane. Patience could be sorely tested. I once arrived after a phase of works, to find the entrance to my property completely blocked by a sheer pile of rubble  covering the stone staircase and forming a solid mass against the gate. 
Timing is all in building works. Most builders and workmen take on unrealistic commitments. They may or may not take a payment in advance, but even if they do it’s no guarantee that your work will rise to the top of the pile. They prioritize, and you have to exert pressure. You may be able to get them to your project through some or all of the following strategies: shout loudly; ring them up every day, preferably more than once; say your guests (ie paying tourists) are arriving imminently; claim your ageing mother is likely to die because the house is cold, there’s no hot water, it’s draughty where the windows have fallen out or whatever the risk for the situation and time of year might be; build up a dripping tap into a major flood risk. Most important of all is to be present. Track your builder, building contractor or workmen down to the cafe, restaurant, home, other job, wherever they might be lurking away from your urgent works. With luck, you may even be able to persuade or shame a work detail into coming and dealing with yours at once.

These pressures of course depend on several factors. You need to know the language. You need to be physically present. You need to have time to spend chasing your workers. And you need to be firm, patient and persistent. It goes without saying that the foreigner who is trying to do construction or renovation work independently is at a severe disadvantage. You need a good, honest and committed project manager, or at least a close friend who has good friends among the various workforces. And you need to programme visits to your property at very frequent intervals. One can always tell when an owner’s visit is imminent, as there is fervent activity round the building site or property. It’s not as bad as it used to be, when workmen often used to wait until past the eleventh hour, and then try to lay tiles or connect up pipes in the dark to be “ready”, after a fashion, for the owner. Now there’s much more professionalism among the workers, but still the old habits tend to lurk, and die hard.

Anyone tempted to buy a property in Croatia, especially on the coast, should be sure it’s really what you want. If you want a nice place for holidays, you can save a lot of money and nervous energy by renting a good seaside apartment year after year, instead of wasting precious time chasing permits and workmen, to finish up with a property you might use only two or three months a year. Don’t forget, any property needs upkeep, cleaning, and looking after, not to mention tending the garden, if any. And the days of quick profits in property dealing are probably over, at least for the moment, as prices have been pushed up beyond anyone’s imagination.

But if you want a place to use longer term, for longer periods, perhaps as a retirement home, Dalmatia has a lot to offer. Try to learn the language, at least enough to pass the time of day with people. it makes the whole experience infinitely more enjoyable. Although increasing numbers of young people now speak English, everyone appreciates it when a foreigner tries to express greetings in Croatian, even if imperfectly.

© Vivian Grisogono 2007

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