Holiday homes – Yugoslav style

Today Croatia is a popular destination for foreign, second-home buyers looking for a place in the sun. Holiday homes are a new relatively idea to many of us coming from northern Europe, but not to most Croatians. For many Yugoslavians, under a communist government, a second home by the sea or in the countryside was the norm. As Snježana – who grew up in Zagreb in the 70s – explains, being able to escape the city in the summer wasn’t a luxury, it was a necessity.

When I was a child, Zagreb pretty much emptied of women and children in the summer. Everyone had somewhere to go. If you didn’t have your own holiday house you’d go and stay with relatives – Croatia has a long coastline, so nearly everyone had relatives living close to the sea. Even if you didn’t, most companies had their own holiday accommodation and camp sites, so there was somewhere for everyone.

Until I was asked about this recently, I’d never given it much thought and I didn’t realise how exotic it might have seemed – it was just what happened, part of life. Thinking about it now, I guess it was mainly because most people lived in state-owned apartments – ‘units’. Every government department and company had their own block of units: HEP (the electricity company) had one, Gorenje (electrical equipment factory) another, and so on. No-one ‘owned’ their unit, they just came with the job, with no rent or mortgage – in fact we didn’t have a word for ‘mortgage’ then.

As a result, much of Zagreb was a mass of apartment blocks, with no gardens or outside space, so people needed somewhere to go to escape the city in the summer heat. And as they didn’t own their city home, people often bought country or seaside homes for holidays and their retirement.

My father was in the army, so our unit was in an army building. So, like most Zagreb children, my two older sisters and I spent three months every summer at the seaside, with our mother and grandmother. Our place was in a village of holiday houses that filled up with families in the summer. I remember evening barbeques with the adults playing Bela (a traditional Croatian card game) by lamp-light and the children running wild. It was a wonderful time.


DIY holiday home

building-house--sepiaMy family was a fairly typical middle-class, urban family. As an officer in the Yugoslav army, my father earned a reasonable salary. It wasn’t huge, and he had a wife and three daughters to support, but there was enough extra money by the mid-1960s for a house by the sea.

My father bought a plot of land near Zadar in 1967, when I was a very small child. Then, he and my mother, with help from family and friends, built the house. I have vivid memories of my mother mixing cement and getting filthy like us kids. In the evening, we’d all pile into the sea to wash and then have a BBQ – it was a good time.

Ours was a typical Yugoslavian holiday home. In those days there were little or no building regulations and holiday houses were practical buildings, built as cheaply as possible to meet the family’s needs. They were nothing like the luxury stone houses being built as holiday homes today. It wasn’t a big house: it had three bedrooms, kitchen and bathroom, everything we needed. And, best of all, from a kid’s point of view, it was less than 150m from the sea. To help finance it, my father sold a room to a friend and we all shared the bathroom.

At first we didn’t have either running water or electricity. Evenings were lit by paraffin lamps and candles, and cooking was usually on a BBQ. I remember my grandmother doing the washing by hand and, when she’d washed the sheets, she would line us three girls up in a row to wring them dry. My father had a well drilled in the garden and another of my clearest memories is pulling endless buckets of water from the well. It was an aluminium bucket on a rope and with a heavy stone. You had to put the stone in the bucket before you lowered it, or it wouldn’t sink! Then you pulled the rope up by hand. We didn’t have a fancy lifting mechanism with a handle or anything. Just a rope and muscle-power. So the early days were very simple – it was only later my father installed a generator, so we had proper electricity, and later still before we had running water.

Like many Yugoslavian holiday places along the Croatian coast, ours was part of an unplanned holiday village that grew up organically. People told their family and friends about the location; the farmer who owned the land, gradually sold off more and more plots; the settlement evolved into a village and then a small town. For example, when my father bought his land, he told several close friends and they bought the adjacent plots. They helped him build our house and my parents helped them build theirs. We always spent our holidays together and, because they lived elsewhere in Yugoslavia, it was often the only time we saw them in the year.

Today’s holiday homes often have attractive, irrigated gardens – not ours. No-one had a proper garden. My mother tried: she planted things whenever she came to the house and we had a lovely yellow vine growing over the front of the house. My grandmother often lived at the house from March to October and she grew the vegetables. But we certainly didn’t have a formal garden with lawns and the such-like.

Neither my mother or grandmother could drive and to start with there wasn’t a shop in the village. Instead a van came round every morning selling fresh bread and basic essentials. However, people were always coming and going at the house, so there was usually someone there who had a car when extra supplies were needed. Later, as the village grew into a small town, there was a shop and we even had an ice-cream parlour.


House in the hills

Zagreb-house-sWhen I was in my teens, my father decided he also wanted a house in the hills outside Zagreb. He had some extra money and I guess he fancied a change from the sea. It’s a beautiful area and is full of holiday homes for people living in Zagreb. The hillsides and vineyards are dotted with them. Again, he built the house himself and this time I was old enough to help. I remember that all too well! It was a nice house, nothing special, but it was great for weekends. In fact, looking back now, it seems that everyone I knew had at least one holiday home, many of them in those hills around Zagreb. 


Times change

When the war broke out, my father sold the house in Zadar. I was married and living in Australia at the time, and neither of my sisters were interested in it. I don’t know when he sold the house outside Zagreb. He certainly doesn’t own it today.

Things changed a lot when Yugoslavia broke up. At that point the government and companies stopped providing free accommodation, so many people had to sell their holiday homes. They needed the money simply to buy a permanent place to live and didn’t have the disposable income to buy a second home. Having said that, some families still have their holiday homes. My cousin, for example, inherited two holiday homes from his father: one near Zadar and one in Brsec, in Istria. It’s not that far from us, about an hour’s drive. When we have time in the summer, it’s great to be able to go to Brsec and relax by the sea. When my cousin’s there, we chat on the beach, have BBQs and play Bela – just like our parents before us!

As to our house near Zadar. I drove through the area about five years ago. There have been some changes to the town, but our old house is still there and, like the other houses, it’s looking good. Who owns them now? I don’t know? Not us, that’s for sure.

First posted September 2011

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