Friday, September 29, 2006

Let's buy it! - May 2006

Barn in a sea of grass So our decision was made, it was the Greenhouse. But first thngs first. There is quite some confusion and difference of opinion over what foreigners can and can't buy in Slovakia, so this you need to check out quite thoroughly. Basically you can own;

  • a house / apartment + garden
  • 'meadows' adjoining your house
  • land designated for building - 'stavebny pozemok'

However, land designated for agriculture is a no-no, unless you have rented it and farmed it for at least 3 years already, or unless you can apply to the local authorities to have the designation changed - but of course you can't make this application until you own the land itself, so risky.

Forestry is also a bit tricky and there are strict requirements for a university trained land manager etc that will probably make this unnattractive for most people. One last type of ownership to be aware of; it is possible that you will find a house for sale, but that it is only the building -and not the land under the building- that you are buying.
definitely need to cut that grass

So get yourself a good lawyer who can check this out for you ... I did talk to a couple of the so-called 'real-estate advisors' on this issue, but was no clearer afterwards on what you can and can't own.
Normally property sales (very often from individual to individual) is overseen by a Slovak notary, and in this case we were told that the seller already had one to propose. Notaries are considerably cheaper than lawyers, but I wasn't too comfortable about having just 1 person handling the sale seeing as I'm a foreigner and would have to take a lot on trust. Whatever the cost difference, having lived in Belgium for many years, I know just how tempted people can be to take advantage. So, I sourced my lawyer in the nearby town of Trencin, and after signing a power of attorney and having confirmed an estimate of fees, she set about the background checks on ownership that in this country have to be very thoroughly gone into.
The local brand!
Basically, when the communists came to power after the chaos of WWII, much private property was confiscated, and in the years that followed ownership became increasingly confused and opaque. While there has been a recent period for original owners or their heirs to reclaim this property, many claims are outstanding so be sure that the ownership is very clearly identified in the local cadaster. Even if you're sure that the owners are the 'real' owners, there will probably be several of them if the property (as is usually the case) is an inheritance. In this case, all the owners have to give their legal consent to the sale which can take some time if -as in our case- one of them lives abroad. View
But all in all it was a pretty smooth process, and negotiation is well worthwhile. The seller initially said that none of the tools in the barn would be staying. However, I replied through my lawyer that the tools were essential to maintaining the land, and so should be included in the asking price. At that the seller merely shrugged and agreed, saving us quite a bit of time and money amassing all the various bits and pieces needed to try to control the surrounding nature.
We handled the final purchase without actually going to Slovakia. Our lawyer mailed us the originals which we signed and DHL'd back, and she took care of the rest - very smooth.
So apart from registering with the mayor for taxes, changing the electricity to our names and getting some insurance on the place, there now just remained the daunting task of renovating the place...
How many tons of apples..? This is proving rather interesting - even at the early stage of finding materials, which in this part of Slovakia are limited to a rather narrow choice. And while some things can be reasonable, others -even stones like Indian granite- are much dearer than in the west ... probably because of the land transport from whichever port they arrive in. But hey, that's another story.


Monday, September 25, 2006

Slovakia ? What's that..?

About time for a bit of orientation for those (like GW Bush) new to the country. I've been busy reeling off names of places that you need to be able to pinpoint. Of course for the sterile facts you can visit the ubiquitous CIA Fact Book although what use they think it is to anyone outside of New Hampshire to state that Slovakia is comparatively roughly twice the size of New Hampshire is anybody's guess. There are of course lots of other resources which you'll discover with Google, but personally I find sites with some interactivity (forums etc) to be the best, and Slovensko.com is one of the good ones. For Slovak news in English check out the Slovak Spectator.

Map of Slovakia
The capital Bratislava sits on the Danube only +/- 40km from Vienna, so I think it's time we called this country 'Central Europe' rather than Eastern. Southern Slovakia below and east of Bratislava towards Hungary is rather flat and fertile, and is famous for the production of Tokay wine (commonly known as Hungarian, but Slovaks also have production). However, most of the rest of Slovakia is a country of hills, mountains, castles, lakes and forests with all the outdoor activities you can think of. This, along with the ever-warm welcome, is what draws me back to the the country and inspired me to buy my holiday home there. Orava Castle - Oravsky Hrad

Western Slovakia - Trnava, Piestany, Nitra and Trencin areas may already be known to you for their famous spas. The Germans (no pun intended) and also arabs from the middle east have been coming here for years and may well not have shared their secret with the west. The coutryside here is typically rolling (but high) hills and valleys and the climate is typically continental - hard winters and hot summers. High Tatras seen from hotel room

Heading further north the hills become mountains and the climate changes accordingly. The Mala Fatra and Tatra National Parks and the Orava region are stunning for their natural scenery and also offer some of the best skiing in this part of Europe. Unfortunately during the communist era from 1946 to 1989, all this was largely closed to westerners, but Slovakia's neighbours - Czechs, Poles and Hungarians are all too aware of what is here and still represent the majority of foreign visitors. Basically, the mountains 'cap' the country running along the Polish border in the North.

High Tatras at the top - bring a jumper! The East of the country is full of contrasts. It boasts some of the most spectacular castles in the
country and some of the biggest and most beautiful lakes. This region is also home to some very well preserved city centres, namely in Kosice, Bardejov and Kezmarok. However, it also hosts a big US Steel plant and other heavy industries, and the Roma gypsy population is
higher here than in western Slovakia. This end of Slovakia is less well known to foreign tourists mainly because of the distance and lack of direct highway, but with EU money starting to flow for infrastructure projects this is all set to change.

A quick note on the communist architectural (?) legacy and what to expect. First impressions of most towns and cities look something like this only smaller - Petrzalka in Bratislava.Petrzalka -a suburb of Bratislava- in all its splendour In the 1950s and 60s, in an effort to provide housing for all without breaking the bank, the communists erected thousands of these prefabricated appartment blocks all over the country. So while they might look rough, don't make the error of associating them with the crime and deprivation that exists in western cities in similar housing projects. Normal families live in these monsters and the surrounding areas are normally totally safe and secure. My guess is that they also won't survive another 20 years as personal wealth and aspirations grow and people start to want more privacy and space. The bright side though is that once past them and into the old centre of most towns, the original flavour of the country reappears.Rafting in the Tatras
And finally, just to put things in perspective for people, a quick look at accessibility. The best way to see this beautiful country is by car if possible, so that means either fly to Bratislava (plenty of links with Sky Europe, Ryanair or even Slovak Airlines for those of us unlucky enough not to have a low-cost carrier service) and hire a car, or for a proper summer holiday - drive.
As an example for those who already drive to France, Brussels to Nice is 1,200km whereas Brussels to Myjava is 1,190. And for UK readers, Calais to Myjava is 1,385km while Calais to Nice is 1,230 - so not far off, and no French highway tolls (a vignette in 'requested' in Slovakia for highways).

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Heading North - April 2006

View from a room near Cadca - the big melt This post is a bit of a red herring actually, as it takes us away from Myjava and the Greenhouse to Northwest and Central Slovakia. But, it touches on 2 other areas of the country, one of which is well worth mentioning, so I shall.
We followed the highway north from Nove Mesto nad Vahom (New Town on the Vah rver) through Zilina towards Cadca which is nestled in a corner near both the Czech and Polish borders. I'd liked the idea of a place near 2 frontiers like this, and the area is well known for skiing and hiking. However, there is still quite a bit of industry in this area, and although there are some stunning drives, you really have to get off the main roads to find your forest idyll. It was here that I made a fundamental decision on where we would buy. We'd come from the Southwest which was basking in 20 degrees of beautiful spring sunshine, to the North with low mountains and maybe 5 degrees if you're lucky. Low clouds obscured the views, snow was still banked at the sides of the roads and the rivers were in full flood.
Having previously holidayed in the Tatras in high summer - 26 degrees to the 40 degrees down in Bratislava- I'd loved the cooler contrast. However, shivering at Easter was definitely not part of my plans. A cute wooden cottage hidden in the forest on a mountainside is wonderful if you're a ski-buff or hiking fanatic and don't mind wearing a woolly hat in May, but this mountain climate is just not for me. For a short visit fine, we'll rent. But to buy, no thanks; I want a summer holiday with sun. A walk in DemanovkaSo having had my eureka moment, we didn't bother visiting any properties in the area, and as time was short we packed up after one night and headed East to the Lipto region; famous for excellent skiing and Liptovska Mara, the largest body of water in the country.
We stopped in the Demanovka Dolina (valley), partly because of it's natural beauty and partly because of the Demanovske Jaskyne (caves) which are world famous and a stunning place to visit. This area is designated a National Park (Nizke Tatry) and at the top of the valley is the ski resort of Jasna at just over 2,000m altitude. During our stay there was a ski competition being held in Jasna, but with a rear-wheel drive car and no winter tyres or chains we decided to stay a little further down the hill ! View from the Tri Studnicky HotelAgain, I'll get into this area in detail later on, but it was a wonderful mountain break - bracing walks (only 1
degree celcius here!) in beautiful scenery and all creature comforts at the excellent Tri Studnicky hotel. And FYI that means '3 wells'. The story goes that, once upon a time a good burgher was so disappointed with his (3) daughters' lewd behaviour that in desparation he threw them each into a well . No this story hasn't been researched in depth -but elaborations are very welcome- and how considerate is that..? giving them each their own well ... new man.
View from the village of Vlkolinec
After an excellent visit to the caves (just up the road) and to the Unesco heritage 'living museum' village of Vlkolinec (website only in Slovak, but the fotogaleria is excellent), we again moved on - south this time, towards Banska Bystrica.Bansksa Bystrica main square Now this is a must-see town in central Slovakia. Dating from the 13th century, BB is a small (population +/- 90,000) but buzzing university town surrounded by the Low Tatras, and with a charming main square. More info in English at BBK.sk.
While many historical town centres in Slovakia fell victim to the communist-era 'functional' tendency, BB has come out very well, as has Banska Stiavnica - yet another UNESCO Heritage site, and rather special. The whole area around BB and BS profited from the mining of precious metals in the 14th (gold and silver) and 15th (copper, lead etc) centuries and obviously the wealth that came with it.Banska Stiavnica Banska Stiavnica is currently (2006) still undergoing a serious facelift, with many terribly neglected historical buildings
under renovation. But this visitor has never visited anywhere quite like it. You can see the architectural heritage in various stages of decay / reconstruction / glory, but there is (or was at Easter) hardly any tourism. You will find guest houses (Penzion) and hotels in the heart of the old town, but there are no queues, parking problems, or rip-off restaurants. Many atmospheric and hidden bars and cafes, but no souvenir shops that I could see. The locals (this goes generally for Slovakia, but was remarkable here) were very welcoming - to the extent of buying me more than 1 Slivovice ~ na zdravie!Another view - Banska Stiavnica

The impression I left with was of a former tiger of the Hungarian empire slowly re-awakening to the new reality of 21st century tourism and the new future that can bring. Still very small-town and bohemian in flavour and atmosphere -so get there quick- but destined no doubt to change. BS was one of the great finds on this trip. The surrounding countryside was equally impressive, and more rural than other areas - deer shying in the woods along the road and not another car for miles. The drive down from BB was also a joy. Good roads snaking through low mountains and valleys, with lakes (maybe quarries previously?) dotted around; a pleasure to drive and heaven for Spitfires, MGs and anyone with a bike!
We had 2 places to see in the area. The first one I won't bother mentioning as it was 'sprung' on us by the estate agent and didn't qualify. The 2nd though was something else I'd found on the web, an old mill by a stream - and very charming.New Mill Not only charming but also huge. On the ground the building area was 200m2, so 400m2 with the 1st floor. It would mean strengthening
the walls though as Slovaks (and most of the rest of us probably) only live/d in the ground floor, and upstairs was storage. The stream formed a natural barrier between the property and the very unfrequented road, and was fringed with willows - so total privacy in summer. The living room boasted the waterwheel which was complete and very impressive, high ceilings with huge beams, and plenty of light despite the small windows.Living room with mill wheel The place came with 1,600m2 of land and the option to buy more (as usual), and one of my 1st thoughts was 'Liberty's would buy the waterwheel for the price of the whole place!' ... 12,000 Euros. Very tempting indeed, and if we were living in Bratislava I'd probably have gone for it, but 2 renovations at a distance...? Forget it.
That's enough househunting for now ... time for decisions.



Saturday, September 23, 2006

My first visit - April 2006

First impressions Finally at Easter I was to see the Greenhouse. We drove down again, this time through the Czech Republic - a route I far prefer to Germany/Austria, purely because it feels like being abroad to me. There is also a great little motor-rest around 60km from Brno with big rooms at 30 euros and secure parking. This really helps to break the journey and means we arrive mid-morning in Slovakia with time to shop. Down the hill By now the snow had almost all melted - with only a few stubborn drifts resisting the lovely spring sunshine. Our arrival was intriguing as the entrance road led steeply upwards through beech forest with tantalising glimpses of the house through the trees. We soon had to leave the car though as she was really not built for this terrain, and continue on foot. We turned a corner in the track and suddenly the view opened up - stunning! The land drops away in a gentle slope from the level of the house, dotted with fruit trees, until it meets the forest on 3 sides. However, the house is high enough on the hillside to see over the level of the trees below to the hills on the other side of the valley... this is exactly what we've been looking for. The only question that leapt to my mind was, why on earth the sellers didn't include a photo of the view in their ad'..? View from the terrace Madness! Still it meant less competition for us, so I wasn't complaining. Funnily enough we probably spent more time wandering around the land and drinking in the view than actually looking around the house itself. But then in summer at least, that's where we would be spending our time - outside. Immediately I thought how wonderful this would be for kids - forest all around to explore, deer to stalk, huge meadows to run around in and plenty of trees to climb... perfect. And not forgetting a lovely old barn -with owl in residence as we discovered- with all the tools we would need to try to tame the land, and it was basically love at first sight.And again We still had a few more places to see over the next few days in Centra Slovakia, but I think somehow we already knew that this was the place for us.

Firstly though we decided to poke around the area a little, and see a couple of the local attractions. I will go into the area in a lot more detail soon in another posting, but will already mention Cachtice Castle, home to the infamous Elizabeth Bathory better known perhaps as the Blood Countess. View from the castle ruins I won't go into her story here as there are already many many resources on the web, but it is a must visit if you're in the area. The castle is perched on top of a steep hill with commanding and stunning views over the surrounding countryside. It's quite a long walk to the top, and luckily you won't find any souvenir shops or any other tourist facilities for that matter when you get there. But once there it's a wonderful spot for reflection both on the past history of the castle, and on the nature of the woman who once dominated this area, striking fear into the population to rival any Count Dracula. And this is no myth; the official transcripts of her eventual trial in 1610 survived to tell this grisly but compelling tale. Slovakia is full of stunning castles although many are in ruins as a testament to her turbulent past, and while driving through the countryside you will often catch sight of a distant fortress perched on a hillside. For a comprehensive listing and extensive information, take a look at; http://www.slovenskehrady.sk Through a window to the hills beyond - an excellent resource for planning a trip to Slovakia. I'll leave this post here as we head off to Northern and Central Slovakia to visit Lipto, Banska Bystrica and the beautiful Unesco heritage town of Banska Stiavnica.






Friday, September 22, 2006

Househunting 2 - February 2006

Mlyn interior - sexy doorsLater in February, M returned to Slov for her sister's 30th birthday party, and managed to get a meeting to see the 1 other property that had caught my eye on the web.
So with the mlyn still very much in both of our minds (see photo!), M set off on her own to see number 3 on our hotlist.
It's worth mentioning here that while the environment looked nice in the web photos, the house itself was nothing special; however, I could see that the land was sloping, there was a lot of it -3.4 acres/14,000m2- so I figured that there really must be a view, and having enough land to ensure privacy and a feeling of freedom was number 2 on the list of criteria for us.
Greenhouse ad' photoThere were more photos - mostly of the house buried under tons of snow, but still looking great. More online research had also revealed a small family ski centre just over 1km away, and a couple of small lakes in the area. With the Czech border only a couple of KM away and the White Carpathian national park on the doorstep - literally as it turned out, this was looking like a very strong contender. Some light relief from househunting
Thanks again to M's family for dragging themselves over to Myjava the next day to check the place out - especially as the snow made it impossible to get the car anywhere near the house. Instead, an 800m uphill walk through beech forest and then meadows with knee-high snow to reach the house. But hey was it worth it. Stunning view confirmed, M now a convert, and the outlaws also very enthusiastic about both the quality of the building and the environment. My barn... There would definitely be a lot of work to do on the house, but the basics were excellent and the old man who built it had a reputation in the area as a quality builder... good start. So now it just remained for me to see the place, and so we started planning a trip for Easter. The owner meantime confirmed that he wouldn't be showing to anyone else as long as the snow lasted - and thankfully this was turning out to be a very hard winter. View from the terrace
So now we faced the choice between mlyn and greenhouse. Luckily in some ways the choice was made for us. We'd insisted that the estate agent contact the neighbours regarding buying the adjacent land, and they came back with a 'yes' - and at a very affordable price. However, estate agents being what they are -trecherous- they immediately called all other parties with an interest to tell them the news. Within 2 days somebody else had an option in.
Not the end of the world as I said. We had the backup of the Green House as M had now dubbed the place, and the surrounding nature was streets ahead of the mlyn for privacy and charm.
The house


Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Househunting - February 2006

For any advice tips for Slovak websites, real-estate agents, English speaking lawyers, renovations etc just mail me at cmabey@usa.net

Mlyn in late summer
A 30th birthday party in Bratislava, and Saturday free to visit 2 properties in Western Slovakia - actually, Myjava.
The first an old mill (Mlyn) set in a hamlet near the village of Lubina - found (as all of them on the internet) and the second a piece of land quite a bit further north but with an amazing view over a river to mountains.
Not just househunting but quite an adventure as I've never had to drive either a Skoda before (legs too long for this otherwise good Octavia) or in the snow, which is packed solid and topped with ice once we leave the highway - and banked either side of the road in huge piles.

The 1st photo above was posted with the ad' and the place looked wonderfully atmospheric - almost like a castle. What they showed of the interior was also intriguing; large beamed ceilings, stone walls and even a bust of Lenin on the mantlepiece. Our visit only served to confirm 1st impressions, even though it was just a touch colder!
Mlyn in February 2006
Everything looked just perfect - until we reached the upstairs. Obviously when this thing was built, the accumulated effects of malnutrition over many years had meant that the locals were a LOT smaller! In most rooms I had to bend to get around, and while M didn't have the same problem, this was a big disappointment.
My mind played the usual tricks on me; 'it's only a holiday home, so you can handle the discomfort for a couple of weeks a year' etc etc.... The only other downside was the lack of land included in the sale. The estate agent of course said that the neighbours would probably sell, so this, together with the charm of the place then counterbalanced my misgivings about the ceiling height.
Mlyn - interior
This is going to take some serious thinking.... perfect location in beautiful countryside only about 90km from Bratislava, great character, good view to hills on the other side of the valley, a stream bubbling its way down the hill in front... etc etc
But hey, we still have some land to see....

Our 2nd real property that we'd wanted to visit was not on the itinerary however; while only around 20km from the mlyn, the owner was too busy to show it on the only day we had, but the upside was he mentioned that he wouldn't be bothering showing anyone else either before the snow melted - so should be safe for a while.
So, another 100 and something km further north to view 'the view' ...
The view in the ad
So, how could we resist it !?
What looks like a lake is actually a river bending its way through the semi-mountains. A view was one of our major criteria for a holiday place, and with 3,000m2 of land this looked ideal.
Now getting to the land was not so obvious. Basically a long trudge uphill through deep snow - but no pain, no gain. The setting was just as beautiful -if not more- with the snow as in the photo above... with a couple of caveats.
Firstly, the area we'd driven through to get here was rather industrial... and, what's that noise ..? Ah, a railway line running along the banks of the river - transporting the materials for and the products of this industry.
View in February 2006
Shame. But the 2 hour drive from Blava, the industrial nature of the area and the railway down the hill just cancelled out the beauty of the place and it was easy to cross this one off our list.
Househunting is often full of disappointment, especially when you have been building expectations and dreams at a distance for some time. But hey, we have a party to go to so we'll get over it.
Just a last mention here for our estate agent. He was a dedicated man, clambering with us through the snow to show a relatively cheap piece of land on a Saturday afternoon. Thanks to him - even though our drive together (as far as we could go by car) would have been more pleasant had he washed just once the previous week.
Maybe I'm biased because although he prattled away all the time to M, I was left to appraise the land 'visually', and I did check the boot of the car for axes and made sure to stay well behind him as you will understand from this photo.....


End of our 1st day househunting in Slov.