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Buying in the Balkans

Check out bargains on dozens of idyllic isles. By Jane Slade

GORAN SUSIC slept in the forest or on the beach before he raised enough money to set up his eco-centre on the Croatian island of Cres 10 years ago.

Armed with a knapsack and PhD in ornithology from Zagreb University, he set out to preserve the white-headed Griffon vultures, fierce-looking birds with three-metre wing spans, who live on the cliffs.

Now Goran is considered something of an eco-god on the island, the second largest in the Adriatic, which sprawls beneath the popular holiday-home peninsula of Istria.

Volunteers come to help him with his various nature projects and to preserve the island�s magical folklore and Scottish Highlands-like landscape.

Goran�s Caput Insulae eco-centre is located in a former police HQ built by Mussolini�s fascists during Italy�s wartime occupation, in the ancient hilltop village of Beli.

Goran hates the fact that the descendants of islanders who abandoned Cres after the war are now returning to renovate their stone houses, destroying the original ornate Roman facades and tearing up the ancient flagstones, to flog them for a fortune.

"There are rules to stop them from doing this but no one pays any attention," he protests. "I cannot save Beli but I can try to save the other villages."

There are 11 deserted hamlets on the island. The only way Goran can save them is by finding the owners of the abandoned properties so they can be sold on, or persuade the authorities to repossess them after a period of time.

This is one of the biggest problems � finding owners of tumbledown farms and houses, many of whom fled during the Balkan conflict � so houses can be knocked down or restored.

Visitors to Cres are captivated by the spectacular views, huge variety of plant and animal life, freshwater lakes and forests of oak and sweet chestnuts.

Unlike mainland Istria, which is being conquered by property developers, Cres has no modern villas or apartment blocks � and no prospect of any due to its hilly landscape.

There are 66 inhabited islands in Croatia, many of which are designated national parks, and a further 900 that are uninhabited. But while these islands offer tranquil, undiscovered bays and lush hinterlands, they can be quite hard to reach.

Unlike the island of Brac, which has its own small airport, and Krk � with a bridge to the mainland � most islands rely on access via seasonal ferry crossings, like Cres, which can involve long, hot queues at high season.

But as Hollywood stars Sharon Stone, Clint Eastwood and Robert de Niro have found, the price of island peace does not come easy � or cheap in their case. They each own an island in the Kornati archipelago, costing £1million apiece.

At one time Princess Caroline of Monaco and her husband Ernst of Hanover looked at one of the Brijuni islands, where the late President Tito had a home, as a holiday refuge.

Generally, properties on the islands are much less expensive than on mainland Croatia, with one-bed apartments selling for around £50,000 � roughly half the asking price of equivalent property in the ancient city of Dubrovnik.

It has only been 10 years since the Balkan conflict and 14 since Croatia won independence from Yugoslavia, yet its prosperity has mushroomed. And it is not likely to diminish, even though its EU membership has been postponed until 2009.

University Professor Zdravko Banovic, the owner of Sperun, a delightful trattoria in the magnificent walled city of Split, doesn�t have much time for Europeans anyway � except for those who visit his country and his delightful bistro, of course.

Who can blame him? Croatia is prospering. It has several Unesco World Heritage sites including the Roman-walled city of Split (where a two-bed apartment in the centre of the old town is on sale for £104,165 from Croatia Acquisitions) and its tiny neighbour Trogir � where Microsoft tycoon Bill Gates likes to moor his yacht in the harbour. The people are richer than they have ever been and they have democracy. And they did it without the EU.

As we dine on delicious fresh seafood pasta and local Dalmatian ham, the professor extols the evils of Croatia�s former leader Tito and the complicity of Europe with Serbia. But he admits that he is finally content � at the age of 63 � after living through occupation, communism and war, to see peace and stability.

"Look," he pronounces, "things are much better. People are making money that is not being stolen by the government. I have a good business, a nice apartment and independence."

But Sancia Keogh, spokesman for emerging markets property specialists CR Investment Property, says that EU membership will be good news, adding: "Property prices are already rising by up to 20 per cent a year and will go up even more if Croatia joins the EU. It means there will be more investment, increased capital growth and investors will be protected by a legal framework."

Already there are improved road links, modernised airports and, from March, the budget airline Wizz Air will be offering five flights a week from Luton to the capital Zagreb � from where a new motorway will take you to the coast in just over two hours. The Istrian peninsula is known as a property buyer�s mecca. But in the ancient city of Dubrovnik, you won�t find much for sale under £100,000.

Developers are offering modern, concrete two-bed apartments off-plan with shared swimming pool from £100,000 and four-bed, two-bath villas with private pool from £160,000.

Thankfully the Croatians have not marred their landscape by huge hotel and apartment complexes � no property can exceed three storeys and all have to be built at least 70 metres from the beach.

But to guarantee a slice of paradise you need to look to the islands for magical folklore, authentic charm and value for money.
Buying in the Balkans
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