Over the past few years there has been a steady flow of people moving to Croatia to set up home. Whilst a lot have Croatian roots, who after years abroad have decided to opt for a more relaxed way of life in the ‘motherland’, there are many with no connection to the country at all doing the same thing, like Frank Valenta and his wife Natalie Daviault.
The Canadian couple, in their 50s and with no previous links to Croatia, decided to make Croatia their forever home. We caught up with them to find out more about them and their decision
Frank, can you tells us a bit about yourselves and your background?
My wife, Natalie Daviault, and I are both from Montreal, Quebec, Canada. We have been together for 33 years. Natalie is a genuine “Quebecoise” and grew up speaking French. When she was little, her whole family would pile into the car every weekend and holiday to explore the natural wonders of Canada. Natalie is extremely curious and became a lover of travel, wilderness landscapes, plants and animals. Natalie financed her studies in fashion design by tending bar in Montreal’s most famous punk night-club.
My Austrian parents emigrated to Canada after the war, started a manufacturing business from nothing and became successful. They insisted that we speak German at home so I spoke English, French and German by age six. I studied engineering and joined the family business, only to find out that it was not a good fit. I was recruited by a global consulting firm and became a manufacturing operations efficiency expert. My consulting career took me from Canada to Geneva (Switzerland), Manila (Philippines) and Singapore. I worked all across Asia and the World on high-tech industry supply chains. On two occasions I quit consulting to join multinational clients, and I also bought, managed and sold a manufacturing company. My last job was Vice-President of Operations Strategy at a USD 250 million manufacturer of hard disk drive components.
Although I lived in Singapore, where the company was publicly listed, our 4.000 employees were spread across six factories in China and Thailand, which is where I spent most of my time.
Natalie and I work well as a team. I am the systematic engineer; she is the creative artist and compassionate soul. I remember where we parked the car and she can exactly match the colour of the towels to the curtains without having any samples to hand. I debug the problems with our electrical and plumbing installations, Natalie nurtures the garden through the dry season and cures all of its various ills.
When did you decided to make Croatia your forever home?
Four or five years ago we sat down and asked ourselves where we wanted to spend the rest of our lives. We have moved a lot and have great friends scattered all around the World, so really felt we could go anywhere.
We believe that the key to staying fit and healthy into old age is to remain active. Natalie hates going to the gym, but if you put her at the bottom of a mountain, point to the top and tell her to go there, she will, so one of the determining criteria was finding a place where we could engage in all the outdoor adventure sports we love, directly from our doorstep, for as much of the year as possible.
We excluded Canada because of the winters and Asia because it is simply too hot. We love Europe because of the history, art and culture, so we put all the southern European countries in a big Excel spreadsheet and Croatia came out on top.
Where in Croatia have you settled?
On our first trip to Croatia, we spent a month exploring and fell in love with Kvarner Bay and Istria. The natural landscapes are green and magnificent, the sea is unbelievably clear, the weather is just right, and much of Europe is within an easy day’s drive. Most importantly, the opportunity for practicing outdoor sports is virtually unlimited.
We built Casa Famiglia in Istria because it is such a great tourist destination, and we purchased a second property on the Kvarner coast where we intend to build our home. The objective is to eat breakfast on the terrace every morning while overlooking the Adriatic.
How was the move logistically, regarding residency?
Moving to Croatia has been quite a challenge legally because we are not Europeans. We have invested millions of Kuna and created a successful business that will employ Croatians and contribute to the economy for years. Many countries have special programs to attract people like us, but Croatia makes it really hard. Luckily, we found great law and accounting firms in Zagreb that help us with everything.
Can you tells us about the villa, the philosophy of the design and the experience of building it in Croatia?
Our initial objective was to buy two houses, one to live in and one to rent to tourists. We looked at over 100 houses during our two-year search, but it proved very difficult to find serious sellers. Some people would raise the price just because you asked to see the house a second time. On two occasions sellers tried to add crazy conditions before signing previously agreed purchase contracts, so we ended up just buying land.
During our search, we understood that the demand was evolving from picturesque but perhaps less comfortable traditional stone houses to contemporary design, so that defined our direction.
We created detailed specifications and asked multiple architects to bid on the project. I think the process was unusual in Croatia, but it worked: we got a stunning design for a reasonable price.
Obtaining the building permit was a nightmare: it took more than six months to battle through all the red tape. Then, much to our surprise, the architect shook our hand, wished us luck and waved goodbye: the messy business of actually building things was beyond his scope of activity.
Finding a builder was also very difficult. Most companies we approached had a two-year waiting list! We were extremely lucky to eventually find a Project Manager/ nadzor and a builder who have done great work and become personal friends. Realizing this project has developed in us a great appreciation for the frank communication style and propensity for problem solving of Croatian people.
Natalie took on the challenge of interior design and decoration. She began by teaching herself Sketchup and then created a virtual 3D model of the house.
As veteran travellers, we have experienced incredible luxury and leading-edge design. We had a really clear idea of what contributes to a great vacation experience. We have rented many apartments in Croatia and it seems that sometimes people include things just so they can tick a box on a list, without really understanding how guests should benefit.
The final interior design reflects Natalie’s extremely cosmopolitan experience and refined taste. It contrasts greatly from what people find in most vacation rentals here. Natalie had a friendly argument with the builder and painters who insisted that proper houses should be just white.
Every detail in our villa has been carefully planned, from the USB wall-plugs above the night tables, night lights, hotel quality king size mattresses and abundance of pillows to the comfortable mega-sofa in the living room, and the feedback from our guests indicates that we got it right.
Casa Famiglia offers guests a luxurious haven where they are free to either just relax or explore fantastic Istria. Our guests tell us they really feel comfortable in the villa and that they perceive the love that was lavished on its interior design. In our reviews they say we have thought of everything.
We bought the property in September 2018, broke ground in September 2019 and received our first guests on July 31 2021. The pandemic coupled with some supplier issues delayed our project by a year.
Do you rent it only over the summer?
Casa Famiglia was designed and built as a year-round vacation rental property. Although administrative muddles delayed the permit, we are planning to add a gas fireplace in the living room and a firepit in the outside lounge to keep things cozy in cooler weather. Istria offers fantastic hiking and cycling, so makes a great destination for those four-day weekends.
We currently live in a rented apartment in Pula, which is really great, and convenient, as we are close to the villa during start-up operations.
How has the summer been and who typically rents it?
After many delays, we finally listed Casa Famiglia online in early July. We were amazed and overjoyed to be almost completely booked to the end of October within a week.
Perhaps the pandemic has made “secluded” the new “beachfront”? Being located in a tiny village in the heart of rural Istria makes Casa Famiglia an ideal relaxation escape from city life, be it from Zagreb over a long weekend or Munich for a week.
To our great satisfaction, our guests have corresponded exactly to the various target segments for whom Casa Famiglia was designed: three-generation families vacationing together, including a wheelchair-bound grandparent; groups of Millennial friends; even twin sisters from Pula celebrating a special birthday with a weekend getaway.
Are you happy with the move to Croatia?
Absolutely, although much remains undiscovered potential. We have been so busy getting the house built, and now setting up the software and business processes to enable direct booking online, that we have had very little time to explore and experience. But every time I sit on the beach at Lungomare or drive along the spectacular Kvarner coast I say to myself: we have succeeded.
How are you both getting on with the language?
Due to the pandemic, Rijeka University’s Croatist School offered their language courses online last year, which enabled Natalie and myself to participate from Pula, while keeping an eye on construction progress. The basic course was really fun and very useful in building vocabulary and understanding just how complex the grammar is. Our Croatian is terrible and the subject of much hilarity with our Croatian friends, who patiently correct us. We can understand and make ourselves understood when required, and improving our Croatian will definitely become a priority after the tourist season has ended.
What are your favorite things about Istria and Croatia?
Our favourite thing about Croatia is the Croatians themselves. The overwhelming majority willingly come to the aid of confused foreigners, and some of the people that we have worked with closely have become good friends.
As for the country itself, we have a long list of places to visit and things to try in Istria and beyond, many from articles that have appeared in Croatia Week; we cannot wait to begin exploring.
Is there anything you miss or would change?
Singapore’s hawker stalls offer a cornucopia of delicious Asian foods at unbelievably low prices: Malay, Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese, Korean and all manner of Chinese. The one thing we miss is the culinary variety and intense spices and flavours of the Orient. Natalie is trying to convince various Asian friends to move here and open restaurants.
What local foods and wines have you been happy to discover?
After living in Asia for ten years, where bread is a bit of an afterthought, we are overjoyed to find ourselves in the land of the pekara! We savour every fresh pecivo and loaf of bread.
We also recently discovered a family farm (OPG) at the end of our street in Pula: they have really beautiful fruits and vegetables, as well as a seasonal variety of homemade products. We buy there not only for ourselves but also the fruit baskets with which we welcome our guests.
I am not a drinker of hard spirits, so I find rakija a bit rough, but I have become a big fan of orahovac and am using my search for a favourite brand as an excuse to indulge whenever an opportunity presents itself. Živjeli!
What advice would you give to people who are thinking about doing the same and making a permanent move to Croatia?
The first tip would be “try before you buy”: I am always amazed by people who have never left their hometown that suddenly formulate a plan to relocate to a place they know nothing about. Natalie and I have moved many times and have a good understanding of what will work for us and what will not, and even we visited Croatia every year for three years and rented many places before getting sorted.
The second and most important advice is to focus on people: establishing relationships with expert professionals who can help you navigate the unfamiliar waters and bring you safely to port. We are deeply grateful to all of our Croatian friends who have helped us realise our dream.
Since opening in August 2021, Casa Famiglia has been almost completely booked. Extraordinary design and hospitality combine to result in a guest satisfaction rating of 9.7 on Booking.com.
To keep things cosy for their many guests from Zagreb, who mostly visit over holidays and long weekends during the off-season, they have just installed a gas fireplace and two outdoor fire-pits.