Set-backs, mistakes, confusion … and forward progress

Week five of our restoration project in Istria

A string of problems, inside and out, test my resolve, and mistakes test my temper this week. Do we find solutions and, most importantly, do I finally lose my cool?


Now the pool won’t fit…

I started this week with a visit to the house to discuss the garden with my gardener, Davor. I knew what I wanted, but what I thought would be a short, simple meeting turned into a major session … which is par for the course in Croatia!

Pool area covered in rubbleThing began to unravel when we discovered the area available for the pool was not as wide as I thought. Legally, I need to allow 3 m either side of the pool and can go to a maximum of 24 m² without planning permission. So the initial plan was for a 3.3 m x 7 m pool, with an additional set of concrete steps (for those who don’t like ladders and for small children to play in). Friends elsewhere have this set-up and it works very well. Last week, Miro and Toni paced the space as 10 m x 10 m – exactly the right size!

Unfortunately, Miro and Toni clearly have non-regulation builder’s paces: when Davor and I measured the space, it was only 9 m wide, so the pool’s maximum width can only be 3 m. It also appears concrete steps down into pools are dangerous (so say the Powers That Be) and I’d need to get guests to sign a disclaimer in case of injury. This seemed crazy to me – I was only putting them in as I thought they’d be safer than a ladder! However, I learned long ago that questioning such things here is the quick route to madness and, as they would cost me an additional €500, the decision to leave them out was easy. The pool will now be longer and thinner – 8 m x 3 m, exactly 24 m², with no steps (sorry kids). It might not be the shape I’d wanted, but at least it’ll fit in the space available (just …).

Davor & Miro debate the hard landscapingNext, Davor was concerned about the neighbour’s balcony, which looks towards the pool. It’s partially screened by a tree, but Davor wanted more screening and proposed planting tall bamboo against the wall. I was sure my neighbour, Fiore, wouldn’t go for this, as it would throw a lot of shade across his garden. No sooner had I thought of him than Fiore’s head appeared over the wall. “No,” he said, we couldn’t plant bamboo. But he wouldn’t mind a palm tree. I agreed that would look nice, but it was way outside my budget. Back and forth the discussion went until, after an eternity (well it seemed like that to me), I called a halt. We’d leave things as they were: keeping my neighbour happy was far more important than a bit of additional screening. I just hope I don’t live to regret that decision.

While we talked, Toni started work digging the pool with his JCB. It’s hard trying to speak with a rock-breaker hammering behind you. I just hoped he knew exactly where he was hammering – at this point, we still hadn’t finalised the pool’s location!

JCB starting pool excavation in Kovaci, IstriaAs we walked around the garden, discussing the hard landscaping, it became clear far more needed doing than I’d envisaged – ground levels needed lifting, drainage needed installing and yet more rocks needed breaking.

Not wanting to leave things to chance, Miro sensibly wanted a diagram showing exactly what should go where – paving, pool, walls and lighting. “Where’s your plot survey?” he wanted to know. “We can use that.” Unfortunately I didn’t have a survey. When we bought the place, things had moved so quickly we’d never got round to having one done. I also thought I knew exactly what should go where and decided we had more important things to spend our money on – oops!

Davor and I set-to, making an impromptu survey the old-fashioned way – with a long tape measure! It would be a bit rough, but the resulting plan would be good enough … I hope.


… but the kitchen will

Miro putting finishing touches to ground floor plasteringAs Davor left, Teuta from Hiža arrived to discuss the kitchen. Now Miro had the ground floor plastering well under way, the back wall was looking a lot smoother, but would it be even enough for them to install a fitted kitchen? A quick look round and she said it would be fine. Relief, at least something will fit!

Spent the rest of the day visiting tile shops (as you do). Miro had suggested one, but I diligently traipsed round the other tile shops I knew, to see if I could find a better deal. I couldn’t, of course, but at least I now knew I wouldn’t be paying over the odds. The challenge was deciding which tiles I wanted. Nothing affordable jumped out screaming “buy me!” (except the priciest, of course – lovely tiles, but well outside my budget. Why do I always have to like the most expensive stuff in the shop?) Decided to leave decision making until P got back from his ‘good son duties’ in the UK: maybe he’ll have some inspiration. Went home feeling rather dispirited.


Cold water dampens my enthusiasm (literally!)

Next morning, my spirits plummeted further as it seemed we might have a major problem in the house. Miro had finished plastering downstairs and yesterday it had looked lovely. This morning, a large damp patch had appeared. Where had it come from?

Damp patch on ground floor wall in Kovaci, IstriaA couple of weeks of deep freeze had just ended with a heavy fall of snow and then a thaw. ‘Please, just let it be a burst pipe next door,’ I thought, ‘and nothing more serious’. Toni went to investigate and it seemed next-door’s pipes were fine. The problem was higher up. When Miro installed our new roof, the guttering had not joined properly with next door’s and, when the snow had melted, instead of draining away down the drainpipe, it had drained into the wall. No, I was not impressed!

As can often happen here, I never did really get to the bottom of what the problem was and why Miro hadn’t installed sufficient guttering in the first place. It was something to do with a chimney and next door’s guttering being old … or something. In the end Fiore, decided to replace his roof – something of an overkill in my opinion (although I suspect he’d been planning to do it and this was the final incentive to get things done). After a big discussion (they always are) when I wasn’t there, they agreed we’d join our guttering together and drain everything out onto our land. Inevitably it’ll cost us more money – somehow the bills always seem to end in our hands – but at least it happened before everything was painted and the kitchen cupboards were in place!


The bar’s too high…

Too high kitchen bar in Kovaci, IstriaWith P now back from his week in the UK, I was keen to show him how things were progressing in Kovaci – and was soon wondering if he should take over project management.

When he walked into the house, all it took was a quick glance for him to point at the bar and say, “It’s too high!” My heart sank, but he was right. A quick check with a tape measure showed that, despite repeated instructions, the low wall separating the kitchen from the living area was 45 cm too high – nearly half as high again as it should be! How had I missed it? “Can we live with it?” I wondered. I tried leaning on it and quickly decided ‘no’, it would have to be lowered. How was I going to tell Miro?


…the electricity’s in the wrong place…

Wiring in bedroom in Kovaci, IstriaMoving to the first floor, once again P quickly spotted that the electricity sockets in both bedrooms were in the wrong places. ‘Oh no,’ I thought, following him in. I’d watched the electrician start the work last week and assumed he’d put them where we needed them – it had seemed obvious to me, as he had diagrams of where the beds would be. Of course he didn’t. P was right, I was going to have to find the courage to tell Miro – he wouldn’t be pleased.


…and the bed won’t fit

We moved up to the top floor. Surely they can’t have got anything wrong here, I thought. They hadn’t … but I had. While discussing electricity sockets – not yet installed in this room – I showed P where the bed would go, against the end wall. “But it won’t fit there,” said P. “The cross beams will get in the way.” 

Cross beams in bedroom at Kovaci, IstriaOut came the tape measure, again. Obviously we chose the busiest day in the attic to do our measuring (two guys were plastering the ceiling, another two were installing airco wiring and Amir was re-pointing the stone outside: it was hive of activity) and we constantly kept getting in everyone’s way. Sure enough, with its sloping ceilings, I had managed to position the bed so that there was no room to walk past the cross beams! My heart continued its downward plunge.

“It’s OK,” said P, looking at my crestfallen face. “There’s plenty of space to tuck the bed under the eaves and if you do that, you can put a proper wardrobe against the end wall and we don’t need to build one in.” Yet again, he was right. It might not look as natural, but at least guests would be able to get in and out of bed without bending in half or banging their heads. Plus it was a real bonus doing away with that built-in wardrobe, as it was eating into my furniture budget. More than that, at least we’d found out BEFORE the electrician had put the sockets in upstairs (and probably in the wrong place)… and best of all, it was something I could resolve rather than having to ask Miro!

Despite finding these few faults, P was very impressed with how much had been done while he was away. “There’s bound to be set-backs and overall, you’re doing a fantastic job,” he said. “It’s going to look great!” Grateful and relieved with the praise, I just hoped he was right.


Can we rent?

If we want to rent, we need a tourist rental classification and I knew in theory we ought to get one. But this is Croatia and rules have a habit of changing when you least expect it, so I’d arranged with Snježana to meet the tourist classification lady to go though all our paperwork. If something needed sorting, I wanted to know as soon as possible.

Rental classification plateWith things not exactly going my way this week, I woke up wondering if today was really the best day for such a crucial visit? The tourist classification lady had the power to completely de-rail my project and, the way my luck was at the moment, that’s what she’d do. But the meeting was already arranged so, telling myself to get a grip, I set forth. I’m very relieved to report, nothing’s changed: all our plans still meet Croatian regulations. Phew!


Buoyed up by this success, I decided to push my luck. Ideally I would like to get the house ready and rented for part of this summer. It’s a very tough challenge with an extremely tight schedule, so I wanted to avoid delays wherever possible. If she could check the house before it was furnished, it would save us a few precious weeks …? As I suspected though, the answer was “No.” Everything needed to be ready before she’d come – oh well, you lose nothing by asking.


I glaze over

The sun was shining and we had a bit of time on our hands, so I finally took Snježana to see inside the house. Of course, she was suitably impressed – or was polite enough to say so.

Old bedroom window at Kovaci, IstriaShowing her round I suddenly had a horrible thought: “Windows – have they ordered the right ones?” The back windows face directly onto the neighbour’s garden and are supposed to be frosted. In return, Fiore will put frosting on his windows which look onto our land. I’d mentioned it to Miro right at the start, but hadn’t written it down: had he remembered?

We asked and Miro immediately looked concerned. He made a short phone call. We waited anxiously. It was not good news: we were too late. The windows had been made and only those for the top floor were frosted. I was not pleased, but took a deep breath and counted towards ten. “OK,” I said, “It looks like we’ll need to use sticky-backed plastic, if I can find it here.”

Snježana was stunned, she had expected me to go ballistic – I usually go off like a fire-cracker over this type of mistake. But this was different: I couldn’t afford to alienate my builder by throwing a temper tantrum over a bit of frosted glass and knew, with a project this size, it was inevitable some things would get missed or misunderstood. I explained this to her as we drove home, but she wasn’t convinced. She seethed on my behalf. “If they knew to frost the top floor windows,” she demanded, “it’s pretty obvious the lower windows should also be frosted. Why didn’t they double check? Builders!!!” While I totally agreed with her, after all the niggles and mistakes I’d addressed so far this week, I wasn’t going to let a little glazing ruin my cool … and in any case, there wasn’t much I could do.


Digging deep

Sand-lined hole for pool & JCB at Kovaci, IstriaPleased to say the week ended on a high note. On Thursday we finalised the exact location of the pool – which was a good thing, because Toni had nearly finished digging the hole by then! Over the course of the week, he’d been hammering away with his rock-breaker at the hard Istrian stone. Each time I visited, the hole had grown and, by Saturday, the excavation was complete. We now had a huge pit lined with white sand … and yet another huge pile of rubble.

While I’d been addressing problems, mistakes and set-backs, things had actually been progressing well in other parts of the house: downstairs was now properly plastered, as was the attic ceiling; clean-up had started on the first-floor ceiling beams and Amir had nearly finished re-pointing outside.  So I guess, despite my frustrations, all-in-all, it was a good week.

Next week


Also see

Restoration diary:



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