the story of the little stone house
When we bought our house in Istria six years ago, this little tumble down cottage sat to the rear of it.There are lots of properties like this scattered across Istria and Croatia. There are many reasons for the properties being abandoned – wars and conflicts which displaced people, emigration, people dying and properties passing to multiple descendants, often scattered across the world, complicated boundary issues which can make buying such a property very, very problematic. In our village alone, there are more than a handful of these properties, overgrown with vines and greenery, the stone underneath crumbling and often falling. Thankfully, a lot of these properties are being salvaged and renovated and in the vicinity we have some amazing hotels which have grown out of an abandoned house. One hotel – San Canzian, in nearby Buje – is actually a renovated village, which we think is just wonderful.
So, back to our little house. We were totally naive in hindsight, as apart from knowing it belonged to a neighbour – who we were yet to get to know – we didn’t even consider where the boundaries between the two properties might be or what would happen if someone else became interested in it and purchased it, and the land around it. Luckily, we avoided a tricky situation when the neighbour agreed to sell it to us, once we had considered the implications of another property being so close to ours. It wasn’t a swift process and all told, took nearly two years to complete on – considering we bought the main house in about three months, this seems such a long time, but looking back, once we’d signed the pre-contract, there was no massive urgency as we’d secured it and it wasn’t our main dwelling. And, our solicitor had to navigate the new waters of Brexit, as half way through the process, we found ourselves as “third country nationals” (although luckily, with Croatian residency) and this muddied the situation for a while.
Over the past couple of years we’ve tinkered around the edges of this house, our main focus being on the renovation of the big house. We did ensure that we had a surveyor to establish the exact boundaries of the property and the land, and we did set about clearing it as much as we could ourselves and tidying it up. We seriously considered having it renovated – inside, a mezzanine level could definitely have been created as there is the height and it could have become a very beautiful self contained annexe. But, all of that comes at a cost and even though family and friends would definitely have got use out of it, for much of the year it would probably have stood empty, so we shelved renovation plans, opting instead to create a makeshift garden.
So, for the past year, we’ve had quite a nice outlook to the rear of the house – a natural boundary of conifer trees, in terracotta pots, white stones, a big new olive tree and a little table and chairs. But, it still hasn’t solved what to do with the house, which as the months have passed, has become more and more unstable. It also hasn’t resolved the issue that the rear of the house feels disconnected from the rest of the house. A bit of an add on. So the decision was made – demolition…
arranging the demolition
Not as easy as you’d think. Back in the UK, we’d have had contacts or been able to google easily enough, to find builders who could do it. Here, we do have contacts, but they all have the same contacts and builders here are currently in very short supply. Post pandemic, there’s a lot of construction/renovation work going on in Istria, which is great, but it does mean that reliable workers are very, very thin on the ground. We were really struggling to find anyone, but finally had a stroke of luck. Work has been going on the village recently and our neighbour introduced us to two guys who were doing some other demolition work, and after a site visit, they agreed to take on our work. Another stroke of luck was that a contractor who was working with the local water company, who are also currently digging up the village to lay new pipes, knew our neighbour and so helped with the discussions re the work and was able to translate a lot for us. A price was agreed and a schedule of works discussed. Our understanding was that we needed to clear out the house and work would begin the following week, and would take approximately a week, followed by the site clearance.
Not everything happens as you expect though, and the day after we agreed everything, the two guys arrived – on a Saturday morning – and set about clearing out the house, with wheelbarrows full of rubbish being trundled away. This was a bit of an unexpected result, as we’d assumed we had to do the clearance. A bay tree has been growing outside the house – we think it was a tree we brought over from Manchester and which wasn’t faring too well, so it was left to its own devices, and having taken root in the thick, rich, red Istrian soil, has flourished. So, we asked that this be dug out so we could relocate it, prior to any demolition work beginning. Within half an hour, it was sitting in its new home. There’s still lots of planting and landscaping to be done, but we think our bay tree will thrive much more in its new position.
Almost as soon as the tree had been removed, the digger was swinging into action – quite literally – as the stones started to be removed from the house. We had initially had wild thoughts that we could actually take the house down ourselves. Surely all we needed to do was hire a cherry picker and swing a lump hammer and it would come down. And then the fairies would take away the stones and clear and level the site. We are now quite thankful that we didn’t actually pursue this ridiculous idea, because whatever we are paying these guys, they are professionals and worth every cent.
We’re now a week on, and the house has all but been taken down, stone by stone, and they are currently being taken away. We could have used these stones to construct the new wall, but to be honest, we’re a bit over Istrian stone, as the main house is constructed of it, we still have exposed stone (albeit painted white) internally, and we are surrounded by it outside. The stone is also of differing sizes and quality so it would have taken a long time to sift through and sort and store, so we’re just letting the guys get rid and if they make a few euros out of it, good for them. We’re a few weeks away we think, from us being able to even begin thinking about the new wall, but we are just very delighted that, finally, the little house is no longer standing and our vision for our secret garden, is a little nearer. Meanwhile, chaos reigns…
The guys are back on it currently, and the digger is hoisting huge slabs of stone onto the back of a lorry to be taken away. Although the view from our rear living window is horrendous at the moment, we have to go through this, to achieve what we want to achieve. The stones will be cleared. The ground will be levelled. A beautiful white, rendered wall will be constructed, with big chunky wooden struts to hold climbers which will form a natural sunshade. And our hideaway will be an oasis of calm and peace and solitude. Just maybe not yet…