Posts on Jul 2015


Retire To Istria, Croatia, For The Best Of The Old World

“But haven’t we done this already? Haven’t we already bought an old stone house surrounded by mud? Isn’t that what we did in Ireland? Why do you guys want to do this again?”

In 2004, my husband Lief, our two children, and I spent a week touring around Istria, Croatia, with a focused agenda. We were in the market for one of the old white stone houses you find across this peninsula. To that end, Kaitlin, 15, Jackson, 5, Lief, and I, in one car, followed our property agent, in her own car, from one stone farmhouse to another, up and down the narrow winding roads of these mountainsides, through the medieval villages, and past the ever-present fields of olive trees, grape vines, and sunflowers.

Standing in a muddy Istrian farmyard one morning of that trip, Kaitlin made the observation I share above. Probably she wasn’t the only one wondering what in the world we were doing. Why had we gotten it into our heads that we wanted to buy an old stone house on the side of a mountain in Croatia?

Because we like it there and we wanted to establish a connection to this beautiful and historic part of Europe that, during previous visits, in previous years, had captured our hearts and our imaginations. We believed in the future of Croatia, a country with an extraordinarily complicated past and an extremely open-minded, forward-looking population. We recognized, at the time, that Croatia was at another turning point in its long history, and we wanted to be part of it.


Plus, the Istrian Peninsula, we’d observed for some time, serves up some of the most delightful scenery on this planet. The land seems to rise up to embrace you. Everywhere you look, something nice is growing–olives, grapes, figs, tomatoes, pumpkins, blackberries, wildflowers… Even the buildings seem to be of the earth, built of its white stone and red clay. In some parts of the world, Nature outdoes herself. In others, that which man has built is impressive. In Istria, Nature and mankind have worked together over centuries, starting with the Romans, to create a land of delights you have to see to appreciate.

So, that rainy morning in that muddy farmyard, with Kaitlin (and I’m sure others, too) questioning our sense, Lief and I decided that we’d found the old white stone house that fit our bill, made an offer to the Istrian owner, and agreed the terms with a handshake. The seller sealed the deal by making a gift to us of lavender oil his wife had bottled.

Then we returned to our lives and got distracted. Finally, recently, nearly a decade later, we got back to Istria, to check in on our little stone farmhouse and to see how things have changed on this peninsula in the intervening years.

And we were happy to find that we’re as enamored of this region now as we were back then. This sun-soaked peninsula continues to offer an appealing Old World lifestyle amidst one of Europe’s most impressive landscapes and at a more affordable cost than across the way in Italy.

Before you’re ready to retire, you’re likely to notice places around the world where you’d like to be able to spend time. Not just once every several years or so in a hotel, but more regularly, as often as possible, in the company of your family and friends, and in a place of your own. That’s the realization we made years ago in Istria, Croatia.

When you identify a destination that meets this description, I recommend you take stock of it bigger-picture, considering, first, whether that destination is also a place where you think you might like to spend time in retirement and, second, if the real estate market there presents potential for capital appreciation or cash flow. If the answer to either of those questions is yes (and certainly if the answer to both of those questions is yes), then you’ve found your ideal second home overseas.

In our case, with Istria, the answer to both those taking-stock questions was enthusiastically positive, and, so, we proceeded to stake our small claim. We invested in a little farmhouse because Lief and I agreed that this is a place where we can see ourselves coming back to long term, a place we’d like to make part of our eventual retirement plan.

When it comes time to flip the switch to retirement, Lief and I hope to have organized our lives so that we’re able to move around during that phase of life among a handful of destinations where we most enjoy spending time, with established infrastructure in each so that we can come and go as residents, not tourists, with friends and connections, social circles and, important to us, homes of our own. When making your own plan for retirement overseas, the starting point, key to the success of the adventure, is to be honest with yourself as to what kind of lifestyle you’re after.

When Lief and I ask ourselves what kind of lifestyle we want in retirement, the answer is: Varied. City and coastal, Caribbean and highland, spring and summer, fall and winter, developed and emerging, sophisticated and raw, refined and gritty, we appreciate it all. So we’ve conceived a retirement plan, that we’ve been working for some years to engineer, that will allow us to enjoy it all, perpetually, in turns.

Whatever your plan, I encourage you to start developing it as soon as possible. An easy first step can be the purchase of a piece of property in a locale where you want to be able to spend time now and that you think eventually could become part of your retirement plan. Meantime, whenever you’re not using the property yourself, it could be generating cash flow from rental, and, over time, it could be increasing in value, too. Your future retirement residence could be a nicely appreciating asset on your balance sheet.

That’s the ideal situation — when the holiday home-cum-retirement plan you buy also qualifies as an investment. This was what tipped the scales for us with the farmhouse purchase in Istria. The old farmhouse we bought came with a bit of land. On that land, we’d daydream, we could cultivate olives, figs, even grapes. Maybe we could try making our own wine! We could go for long hikes in the hills, exploring the medieval villages nearby, by day, then read by firelight come evening.

Croatia’s Istrian peninsula is a wonderland of vineyards and olive groves. If you’ve any romance in your soul, I defy you not to fall in love with this region that the ancient Romans called Terra Magica, the Magic Land. Perhaps the best part is that, unlike Tuscany, the region of Italy Istria is most often compared with (with good reason, as the geography and the history of these two regions have much in common), the average person can afford Istria, where you can buy a small, renovated cottage with lookouts over a valley and vineyards, perfect for regular visits, for rental, and for retirement, for as little as $100,000.


Retiring to Croatia, you’d be in good company. Diocletian, the only Roman emperor to abdicate his position (that is, to retire) was also the first person to retire overseas. Diocletian built a palace on the Dalmatian coast (his birthplace was Dalmatia), the location of current-day Split, and it is here, with the glorious Adriatic Sea spread out before him, that he chose to live out his days.

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Croatia’s Dalmatian coast is spot on for a holiday with something for everyone

You’ll need more than one trip to discover the 101 delights of Dalmatia – the rugged central coastline of Croatia, protected by a gorgeous Adriatic archipelago and backed by the dramatic Velebit mountain range.

Head out from the beautiful and vibrant 3,000-year-old town of Zadar and you’ll find a destination that has plenty to Cro about.

Relatively undiscovered by Brits, expect spectacular scenery, a fascinating heritage and an unrivalled array of ­activities that will suit both the sporty and the sedate.

We stayed at the lovely four-star boutique Hotel Bastion at the head of the small peninsula on which the old walled town stands.

GettyMystery hut for competitionIdyllic: Sunset in Zadar
It’s ideally placed overlooking the busy harbour and, behind it are the narrow streets and alleys running down to the ancient town gates, which were laid out by the Romans.

The Roman forum is well preserved as are the medieval and Renaissance buildings. The church of St Donatus dates from the 9th century, while St Anastasia’s Cathedral goes back to the 12th. The Franciscan monastery is still inhabited and it has a superb 16th century cloister.

Zadar has a excellent restaurants to suit all pockets and some lively bars. And your money really does go a long way in Croatia – beer costs just £2 for half a litre and we had excellent freshly-made pizzas and wine for £15.

GettyKolovare Beach in Zadar, CroatiaSun worship: Kolovare Beach in Zadar
Oh, and none other than movie legend Alfred Hitchcock proclaimed the sunset at Zadar to be the best he’d ever seen.

If you just want a typical beach holiday you can find superb family accommodation such as the Zaton Holiday Resort, near Nin, or the Solaris resort in Sibenik, but the area is really geared up for independently minded travellers who want to explore. And, boy, is there plenty to see.

Nin is the perfect place to start. The first capital of the Croats, it has an unexpected link with Tenby in South Wales through the European Walled Towns Association.

It has the largest area of sandy beaches in Croatia including the rather special Queen’s Beach, hailed by some as one of the most beautiful in the world.

Robert Harding World ImageryZadar, Dalmatia region, CroatiaMarina: The harbour in Zadar
Next to it you’ll find an area of medicinal mud where all manner of health treatments are available. And across the lagoon are the salt works at Nin. Started by the Romans, they are still harvesting one of the world’s finest salts purely from sun, sea and wind.

The area is also a haven for birdwatchers and there are the remains of Croatia’s largest 1st century temple, a lovely museum and several excellent restaurants.

Across the sea from Nin is the island of Pag, which since 1980 has been accessible over a magnificent bridge thanks to the late Yugoslav President Tito, who ordered its construction after it took him more than 10 hours to get there by boat.

Sailing in DamatiaWind pwer: Sailing in Dalmatia
Driving across the bridge is a real wow moment.

Pag is well known to the young festival crowd for its summer beach bashes and is popular with cyclists and tourers too.But go in June or September and you will have more than 30 beaches almost to yourself.

Pag town is a historical gem and the island – which gets covered in salt when the winter Bora wind blows – is famous for both its lamb and sheep’s cheese.

It’s an insult in the region not to provide your guests with a Pag lamb at a celebration or to forget a gift of Paski Sir, the most popular sheep’s cheese.

At the Na Tale restaurant I tucked into a plateful of Pag lamb, followed by Paski Strukli Od Skute – a sweet and savoury dessert made from Pag’s own type of cottage cheese.

Turn away from the coast and you’ll find even more spectacular sights at the Paklenica National Park and in the Zrmanja canyon.

GettyKrka Falls National Park, Dalmatia, CroatiaSpectacular: Krka Falls
The amazing gorge at Paklenica attracts climbers, mountain bikers and people who just want to walk beside the tumbling river.

Over lunch at the Rajna Hotel in Starigrad, our host Marin Marasovic explained how the national park and the canyon were used in the 1960s as the location for a series of 11 Western movies based on German language novels about a hero called Winnetou.

So while we had the Sergio Leone Spaghetti Westerns with Lee Van Cleef, these were what I’ll call the Sauerkraut Westerns and they are an institution in Germany.

Marin took us on his Velebit Foto Safari to see the wonderful locations. The most spectacular is the Zrmanja Gorge – it’s like a mini Grand Canyon and it can only be seen from above by taking a trip in an off-road 4×4.

GettyCroatia, Northern Dalmatia, Adriatic Sea, Nin fortified town, 9th century statue of BranimirHeritage: The statue of Branimir in the fortified city of Nin
Our tour then climbed high up into the mountains, where we encountered a crew preparing to film scenes for the next Game of Thrones series (they were training horses for filming the next day).

Next we drove to the small town of Obrovac for another wow moment on a delightful boat ride before travelling further up the Zrmanja river, famous for its waterfalls, kayaking and whitewater rafting.

No stay in Zadar would be complete without venturing out to sea to discover some of the islands that make up the Telascica nature reserve.

We joined a Sailing Croatia yacht just a couple of minutes’ walk from the Hotel Bastion and skipper Petr Ivanov soon had us helping out at the helm as we threaded our way between the jewels of the Adriatic.

GettyZadar’s Stari Grad, CroatiaView: Zadar’s Stari Grad, Croatia
The return trip was made under full sail with the wind pushing us along nicely back towards Zadar.

For our final night, we drove an hour south – all the roads are fantastic – to the lovely town of Sibenik to stay at the Solaris Resort’s Hotel Ivan, a stylish property on a large family complex a few minutes from the town.

Sibenik, dominated by four huge fortresses, is in a bay where the River Krka meets the Adriatic. The stone-built Cathedral of St James, in both Gothic and Renaissance styles, is on a Unesco world heritage list.

Overall, there’s both a familiar feeling of Italy in much of the region, coupled with an unfamiliar feeling of Eastern Europe in the language and in some of the more modern architecture which is reminder of its Eastern Bloc era.

The people are friendly and proud of their own locality and traditions. And though there are not so many English-speaking visitors, the language is spoken everywhere.

The food is excellent with an emphasis on fresh fish and simply grilled meats, pasta and pizza.

Dalmatia was a real eye-opener – in fact it knocks spots off everywhere else I’ve been.

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Kvarner Bay: Croatia’s best-kept secret

Perfumed gardens, uninhabited islands, champagne from the sea and dolphins – Captain Branko’s introductory talk mentioned them all.
“Welcome to the Kvarner Bay,” beamed Capt Branko. “Trust me, it’s Croatia’s best kept secret.”
Croatia itself is no longer a secret – according to the tourist board nearly 400,000 visitors from the UK holidayed there last year, a figure almost on a par with pre-independence levels (the coast of the former Yugoslavia attracted around 500,000 Brits in 1989).
The majority flock to Dubrovnik and the island of Hvar in the Dalmatia region, whose perennial popularity ensures crowds and higher prices. In search of a quieter spot, I was drawn to the northern coastline, so found myself on this seven-night cruise, which cast off from Opatija on a gloriously sunny day in late June.
In the north of Croatia, at the other end of the coast from Dubrovnik, Opatija is an elegant place, replete with grand villas that were built during the Austro-Hungarian era. The resort doubled as Nice in the film Diana, about the late Princess of Wales, and it didn’t lose anything in comparison.

A fishing boat in Rab
On deck, stretched out on my sun lounger, I was struggling with a map of the region when the shouting started. Suddenly it didn’t matter where I was. Dolphins, lots of them, were dancing in front of our boat.
“They aren’t supposed to be here; they live near Lošinj and we usually see them on day six,” boomed Capt Branko over the loudspeaker. “Look now!” Around 20 bottlenose beauties (some with babies) jumped and played around us for a good 15 minutes.
As we settled down for lunch – a delicious Adriatic “blue fish” caught that morning – we travellers bonded over dolphin spotting. Our cruise included breakfast and lunch on board each day, with the evenings left free for us to sample the restaurants ashore.
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We stopped for our first swim not far from the town of Krk on the island of the same name. That evening we explored the island’s cobbled streets, towers and ramparts and sipped local “sea champagne” (fermented in the bottle on the sea bed) in a bar that contained impressive Roman ruins.
Operated by Katarina Line our almost-new vessel, Dalmatia, had 19 spacious, air-conditioned cabins with en-suite bathrooms, plus a sun deck, a bar and a small restaurant. A crew of young Croats worked tirelessly to please our mixed-nationality group (one Spanish couple for example, put in a request for paella for lunch at least once during the sailing).
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The next afternoon brought more excitement when the four spires of Rab town (on the island of the same name) came into view. We moored right in front of the huge square of Saint Kristofor in the old town.
It was here, in an open-air bistro, that I first sampled Kvarner scampi. More like a langoustine, they were served in a delicious tomato and wine sauce. “Use your bread, Madam,” instructed the waiter.
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Rab has several claims to fame: it has 22 sandy bays (a rarity in Croatia, where most beaches are pebbly); on a Royal visit in 1936 King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson dallied there, and every July it holds a three-day festival that involves lavish medieval costumes, witches, musicians, falcons and fireworks.
The days became a blur of regular dips, sunbathing and lazy chat. The historic city of Zadar, also famous for its melodious “sea organ” (a natural instrument built using pipes under the concrete promenade) came and went.

Zadar’s “sea organ” at sunset
The tiny island of Molat has just one shop and it was there that a feeling of melancholy set in as we realised our holiday was already halfway through.
Over cocktails on deck we all agreed that this cruise was ticking all the boxes: hidden coves, islands and a dramatic coastline; fabulous opportunities for swimming; superb restaurants on shore serving everything from pizza to lobster; pretty villages and monuments – and no crowds to spoil any of it. Bliss.
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The scent of pine and rosemary reached us before we docked in Mali Lošinj – this was the “perfumed garden” that the captain had mentioned at the start of the cruise. The island is famous for the heady scents of plants and herbs, as well as the pretty pastel-coloured houses ranged around the horseshoe-shaped harbour.
As we sailed on to the island of Cres (the third island and town with the same name), there was not a dolphin in sight, although I was consoled by the chance to swim among starfish. We enjoyed a dinner of seafood risotto at a waterfront restaurant as a guitarist strummed Beatles songs.
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Next morning Capt Branko was on the tannoy again. “Look up!” Circling overhead, massive birds were griffon vultures, which, although endangered throughout Europe, breed successfully on the remote cliffs of Cres Island, where few humans venture.
“The dolphins have sent them to say goodbye,” quipped Capt Branko. As we gathered speed towards Opatija, I really wanted to believe that was true.

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Outlook is Sunny For Croatian Tourism in 2015

Croatian tourism has had a very successful first half of the year, with figures up by 7 per cent on the same period in 2014 and an especially sharp rise in visitor numbers to Zagreb.


Figures released by the Croatian National Tourist Board, HTZ, in its half-yearly report, show a significant upward trend.

In the first six months of 2015, 4.1 million tourists visited Croatia, which was 7 per cent more than in the same period in 2014.

Over the same period, these tourists spent 16.8 million overnight stays, which was 5 per cent more than in the same period in 2014.

Of the total number of visitors, 3.6 million came from abroad, which is also 7 per cent more than last year.

Foreign tourists in this period spent 14.9 million overnight stays, which is 4.3 per cent more than over the same period in 2014.

Dalmatia, known for its sunny coastline, beaches and numerous islands, attracted 1.7 million people – 5.5 per cent more than 2014 – who spent 7.3 million nights (4.4 per cent more) in hotels, apartments and camps.

The Istrian peninsula on the northern Adriatic coast also did well with 1.1 million tourists in this period, which was 6.6 per cent more than last year. These tourists spent 5.4 million overnight stays, which was 4.2 per cent up.

Both the biggest boost to tourism figure did not come from the seaside but from the Croatian capital, Zagreb, in continental Croatia.

Between January and June, 428,000 tourists visited the capital, which was an impressive 12 per cent up on the same period last year. Tourists spent 753,000 overnight stays in the city, 11 per cent more than last year.

Most tourists who came to the Croatia in this period were taking vacations. Some 22 per cent of all tourists came from Germany, 10 per cent from Austria, 9.6 per cent from Slovenia, 5 per cent from the Czech Republic and 4.7 per cent from Italy.

Tourism Minister Darko Lorencin assessed that tourism could earn Croatia a record-high 8 billion euro this year.

The HTZ told BIRN that the healthy figures reflected good preparations for the tourist season, adding that active preparations for this season began back in last September.

The HTZ said it did not believe the boost was simply the result of tourists diverting to Croatia from unstable Greece and Tunisia.

Tourism generated 7.4 billion euro for Croatia in 2014, which was 17.2 per cent of its annual GDP. Although figures grew by 2.8 per cent in 2014 compared with 2013, they are still below the figures recorded at the pre-recession peak of 2008.

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