Win some, lose some – a week of compromises

Week sixteen of our restoration project in Istria

In lovely Spring weather, attention shifts onto the garden and I see a lot of progress. But it’s an anxious week for me with various niggles and debates – some of which I even win!  


Garden compromises

Wednesday after May Day, I arrive in Kovaci to mountains of earth: top-soil has been delivered. I’m surprised to see it. We’ve had various discussions about the garden and I didn’t think anything had been finalised. Fortunately, it hadn’t. “This is just a starter load,” explains Toni. “We need it to cover the septic tank and level the ground. Once we’ve spread this, you can decide how you want everything finished.” 

Supa hidden by piles of earth at Kovaci, IstriaThe main issue is how high to raise the ground level. Miro favours lifting it all the way to the height of the pool terrace, the simpler option but requiring more soil. I favour having a step from the lawn to the terrace, it being the cheaper option. The way things stand, it seems I’m heading towards another defeat.

But that’s the future. For now, I stand and survey today’s mounds of earth: one thing’s clear, when it’s spread, the ground level in front of šupa is going to rise, at least a little. It’s obviously too late to change (some battles are lost before they even begin), but I wonder how they plan to prevent damp seeping from the soil into the walls?

Builders love things to be neat and tidy and Miro’s been trying to persuade me to let him clean up the outside of the šupa, to make it look sparkling new and match the new wall. But I’m womanfully resisting as I don’t want it to lose any historic charm – it has lichen and wonderful miniature ferns growing in the grouting, and has a characterful weathered look. Never one to give up, Toni tries another tack, suggesting we re-point the whole front to keep out the damp. I’m not convinced and counter by suggesting we simply plaster the bottom of the wall, where the soil will be. Looking doubtful and a bit disappointed, he agrees. Let’s see what actually happens!

My next concern is access. “If the ground level’s raised, how will we get into the šupa?” I ask. “We’ll build a step down using some of the spare stone,” is the reply. Still not sure if this is the right approach, I reluctantly agree. I just hope it looks OK.

We then have a similar discussion about the old water trough built against the barn. I want to use it as a planter, but I’m meeting a lot of resistance: the guys are worried water will leach from it into the walls. After much pleading on my part, Toni agrees it will be OK, so long as they plaster the wall to keep the damp out.

You win some, you lose some and the score at the end of this session is 2:1 to me!

Then came a decision I lost, without even being consulted.


Bad bars

One of the requirements for a Croatian tourist rental classification is that windows must be 80 cm or higher from the ground. If less, they must have bars to stop children falling out. This means at just 50 cm from the floor, the attic windows need bars and today I arrive to find them in place.

Bars covering attic window, Kovaci, IstriaWhen I discussed this with Miro, I’d envisaged a single metal bar stretched across each window. Instead I find grills. While they look very smart and extremely traditional, it’s now impossible to reach through the grill to close the shutters. It’s obviously too late to change things, so I resign myself to putting in heavy-duty curtains, as I doubt anyone will be willing or able to use the shutters.

More seriously, the bars block the windows as potential fire exits (an issue in many old houses and something the Croatian authorities don’t seem to have taken into account). “What’ll guests to do if there is a fire (heaven forbid)?” I ask. “Climb out the velux window in the bathroom onto the roof,” suggests Toni. Actually, that’s not a bad suggestion, but I really wish they’d consulted me rather than once again presenting yet another fait accompli.

Supa shower, Kovaci, IstriaDespite all this, today wasn’t totally frustrating. I finally got a look inside the šupa shower-room, which has been locked for the past few weeks. It’s coming along well. The shower cubicle is now tiled: it just awaits fittings and a final coat of paint.

Amir has also finished re-pointing the outside of the barn and is back inside, removing the old grouting. It might only be sand, but brushing it out is a big job. He’s been working on it for ages, but says today – finally – he should be finished. He’s then got the joy of replacing it all!


Piles, pergolas and more questions

Thursday morning and yet more piles have arrived: this time sand and gravel, and Toni is again mixing concrete. Everything looks dramatically different today. Garden and paving are now demarcated by a string line, Toni has spread most of the soil and built up a hard core for the path. When I arrive, he’s started laying a concrete strip along the path edge. At last, it’s beginning to look more like a garden than a building site.

Garden works at Kovaci, IstriaOne of the things I meant to discuss with Toni all last week was pergolas, but each time I went, I forgot. Today I’ve come prepared, with ‘pergola’ written on my hand! We agree a 1.5 m wide pergola will go on the front of both house and barn. Climbers (passion flower and campsis) will be planted at each corner to grow up and provide shade, but in the meantime, they’ll be covered with green netting.

I’ll be able to plant two of the climbers at the edge of the lawn, but will need a planting pocket in the terrace for a third. “Can I also have another growing area next to the house front door?” I ask, planning a small herb garden. But this is a big no-no. “We must have concrete next to the house to keep out the damp,” says Toni (I should have known). “We’ll build you a small planting area for the pergola, but not one next to the house.” Oh well, at least I’ll have somewhere for the passion flower.

Stonemason creating entry to supa in Kovaci, IstriaSali has finished most of the tiling in the house. With only the grouting left to go, he wants to know what colour I would like. What I suggest is promptly over-ruled. Why, I wonder, do they ask my opinion, just to ignore it? But unless you want arguments every day, you have to pick your battles and I decide to let this one go.

We then all move into the barn bathroom to confirm the tiling pattern. When I stand where the bath will go – it has arrived and is currently sitting in the dining room – Sali notices the bathroom light is positioned only slightly above the future showerhead. I realise this happened because, after we decided where the lights would go, we had to change the position of the bath (another long story … don’t ask). A long discussion ensues about where it should be moved to and, while I’m glad he’s spotted it, why do these discussions always have to take so long?

Keeping cool - Toni in a turban, Kovaci, IstriaAlso in the barn, Amir has started re-pointing and I’m concerned. Stone grouting comes in two varieties: light and dark. I thought we’d agreed light, but this is looking worryingly dark. “It’ll fade,” Toni reassures me. I hope he’s right – you need a lot of faith sometimes … it’s that or go completely insane!

By the end of the week, temperatures have really heated up and the guys are into shorts and have started wearing their T-shirts as turbans. Sali has started tiling the barn bathroom, the stonemason is building an entrance to the šupa and the downstairs loo has been installed. The pointing still looks worryingly dark, but at least things are moving on fast!

Next week we finally seem to be entering the end game – or have I spoken to soon?


Also see

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