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The charms of Eastern Europe, which once enticed such literary icons as James Joyce and Lord Byron, are exerting a growing pull on the residents of the West of the continent.
A certain amount of curiosity is natural: ravaged by the great wars of the past century, then hidden behind the thick iron curtain of communism, these relatively new countries are only now coming into their own, as many of them take their first steps into the expanded European Union. Indeed, visiting some of them is like going back in time, as the ubiquitous presence of big brand chains is less obvious in the East, particularly outside the capital cities. Even better, much of Eastern Europe’s natural beauty, which lends itself to hiking in summer and skiing in winter, is still unspoilt?a breath of fresh air after the overdevelopment of many Western resorts.
Property in Dubrovnik
Among the most established destinations is Dubrovnik, which has long been popular with travellers who love history and culture. After surviving intense bombing and a seven-month siege in the early 1990s, when Croatia fought for its independence, the city has been recovering?and attracting both tourism and investment?since 2000.
Dubrovnik is a gateway to the Dalmatian Coast, a stunning stretch of rocky, ragged coastline peppered with more than 1,000 tiny islands. But the city itself is, as the Michelin green guide would put it, worth a journey.
The Old Town?a jewel of mellow stone buildings surrounded by imposing walls?exudes an ancient charm reminiscent of Edinburgh, except that it is built with sunkissed stone rather than austere Scottish rock.
Set at the crossroads between East and West, Dubrovnik became important in the late Middle Ages because it was a safe refuge for those travelling East, the last protected point before open sea along the sailing route from Venice. This strategic position gave Dubrovnik its shape and most intriguing buildings, the beautiful Stradun?the main street where much of the city life happens?and the steep walls, lookout points and fortifications. The city has a monastery, many churches ranging from Gothic to Baroque style, and one of the oldest synagogues in Europe.
But there is more to it than architecture. Theatre and music are popular and there are many venues in the Old Town. Performing arts peak in July, when the Summer Music Festival draws classical music fans from around the world.
However, property in Dubrovnik is more expensive than nearly anywhere else in Eastern Europe, mainly because good houses are in such short supply.
‘A four- to five-bedroom townhouse in or near the Old Town will cost you between ?500,000 (£340,916) and ?800,000 (£545,466), depending on the condition and the situation of the property,’ says Andrea Marston from Dream Property Croatia (01753 831 182; www.dreamcroatia.com).
Property in Bucharest
Bucharest, capital of Romania and fast-growing bohemian cultural centre, is more affordable than Dubrovnik, but has few houses available for sale. Property here mainly comes under the guise of apartments. Standard ones are cheap, but post-communist money has created a new appetite for opulence. ‘A luxury penthouse apartment will cost you ?500,000 (£340,916),’ says George Shaw from Westhill Investments (020-7079 1704; www.westhilluk.com).
Some of these houses are new, because a fifth of this city?once known as ‘little Paris’?was bulldozed, thanks to former President Nicolae Ceausescu’s vision of urban development. However, a part survived and creates a fascinating contrast with the grand, decaying communist architecture.
Because Bucharest offers mostly apartment living, buyers who are after a bigger summer retreat should look at the so-called Saxon Houses, scattered across Transylvania and the Carpathian Mountains, a couple of hours’ drive North of the capital. These properties, mostly dating from the late Middle Ages through to the 16th century and built by Romania’s German communities, can be found in villages which were deserted when Ceausescu was overthrown. They are spacious homes with large gardens, which, depending on the condition and amenities, can be bought for as little as ?10,000 (£6,818).
Larger period properties in need of renovation can be bought for about ?70,000 (£47,728) in the countryside surrounding Bucharest, which has been likened to Northern Italy in the 1950s.However, when considering a purchase, buyers should always ensure the deeds are in the possession of the vendor.
Property in Ljubljana
If Bucharest was dubbed ‘little Paris’, Slovenia, on the very border between Eastern and Western Europe, has earned the nickname ‘little Switzerland’. The immediate past has been relatively kind to Slovenia?which only had a brief war before gaining independence in 1992?and Ljubljana makes an ideal starting point for everything from a tour of monasteries and churches to a day shooting wolves in the forest.
Although it looks straight out of a thousand chocolate boxes, the city feels very modern. The streets are alive with classical musicians, academics and rock bands, all rubbing shoulders in the shadows of fine Baroque buildings. There are eight main theatres, and many small jazz bars to stumble across.
Lake Bled is a must see
The city has an even wider appeal as it is surrounded by breathtaking scenery, which makes driving, riding or skiing in the countryside an unparalleled pleasure. North-west of Ljubljana, the Triglav National Park has most of the country’s share of the Julian Alps, and the karst landscape of deep gorges, azure lakelets, and forests thick with beeches, spruces and brown bears. Just outside the park, Lake Bled is a must-see, with its fairytale villas, cafés and pretty island church. The one drawback is that property prices are far higher than in Bucharest: a three-bedroom house on the outskirts of the city will cost about ?250,000 (£170,458), and a modern penthouse flat in the Old Town is ?500,000 (£340,916).
? Dubrovnik: BA, Croatian airlines and Lufthansa all fly to Dubrovnik in two hours. Stay at the Dubrovnik Palace (00 38 520 430 000; www.dubrovnikpalace.hr) for views of the Adriatic sea.
? Bucharest: BAand Wizzair both fly to Bucharest airport regularly in three hours. Stay at the Hilton (00 40 213 033 777; www.hilton.com), which is one of the best in the world.
? Ljubljana: Adria Airways’ two-hour flights from London Gatwick go to Ljubljana once a day. Stay at the early-20th-century Grand Hotel Union, (00 38 613 081 270; www.gh-union.si).