I like to think that I can spot potential. In plans. In people. In property. Especially in property. I’m not for a minute suggesting that I know the real estate market and know where to invest to get the best return. I’m clueless in that regard. But when I see an old house, I can see its potential – what it was and what it could be again. Not everyone can do this. Not everyone can see beyond the nightmare that the renovation will entail. Not everyone can imagine the potential of those ruins. Some people are fans of new builds. Others are daydreamers.
I daydream a lot about property. I have a Lotto wish list that includes an old brick factory in Hungary, a former TB sanitorium in Ireland, and an abandoned church in Portugal. It’s a long list, a list that’s grown even longer after a recent trip to Albania where I met another dreamer, Hungarian Péter Iván.
Iván visited Albania for the first time in 2003. Back then, it was virtually unknown, a country not on anyone’s radar. He felt a kinship. He had a sense of coming home, of finding his place. He lived in the capital Tirana and in Durres, but in 2019, Saranda called. And he answered.
His move to Saranda was life-changing.
Before moving to Albania, Iván cut his teeth working in the tourism, hospitality, and property industries in Sweden, Dominica, Greece, and Hungary. Today, he operates We Love Saranda, a property-agency-cum-tour-company. Believing Saranda to be the next big thing in the real estate market in terms of investment and bang for your lek, he is keen to show people the potential of the Albanian Riviera.
Tourism in the area has exploded. And with it the demand for holiday apartments. Iván quickly realised that investors needed to get to know the area, the people, and the way of life before they committed to buying, so he developed what he calls context tours.
We got talking about how important it is to find the right home in a new country. We spoke of buildings telling tales, speaking to us. We shared accounts of empty buildings we’d fallen for. I told him of our village project here in Hungary and how so many visitors thought we were mad to take on a project that is already two years behind schedule and way over budget. But I can see how it will all look in the end. And it’ll be worth it.
I told him about my Lotto list; he has one, too.
The next thing I know, I was on a tour of abandoned villages.
An old schoolhouse with cobwebbed school desks and blackboards. Stone buildings, hundreds of years old, frame what was once the village square. Farmhouses that have withstood the elements with incredible, unspoiled views. Hilltop manor houses with their stone steps and porticos exude style and class.
My Lotto list grew legs.
The potential is huge. I could see it. Iván sees it, too.
Agritourism is where it’s at, he reckons. ‘Tourists are increasingly looking to go green during their holidays; they want to recharge in natural spaces. They are also looking for authentic stays during which they have the opportunity to interact with locals and learn new things.’
He took me to Ulu restaurant by Lake Mursi and The Mussel House in Ksmail by way of example.
It’s a win-win situation. These old villages are given a second lease of life. Creative entrepreneurs have a blank canvas. Tourists get the experience they’re looking for. And locals have new opportunities.
But it needs to be managed right.
Working with local people. Promoting their culture, heritage, and way of life. Respecting their traditions and learning the language is key. ‘Here, without shqipja, it’s very difficult to make close friendships with your neighbours and locals. After signing up for language classes, I got a chance to have real conversations.’ Iván told me.
You can see it in their interactions. There’s a palpable respect born out of a mutual love of the country.
After Covid, life changed for most of us. We’re grappling with hybrid ways of working, higher energy prices, and the rising cost of living. ‘Many are now working two or three days a week from home. When you factor in weekends and holidays, people want to spend more days out of town, say, down at the Balaton, creating a market for a larger country home and a smaller city flat,’ Iván noted, as he explained how he sees Saranda and its surrounds are growing even more.
‘As more tourists discover Saranda and the surrounding area, demand for short-term rentals will increase, in turn driving up prices for apartments, holiday homes, and hotels.’ With tourism stimulating economic growth, more jobs are created and more businesses come into play. The government is also doing its bit by investing heavily in new roads and public transportation.
Iván has an established local network that makes the whole buying process simple and transparent. Whether you’re in the market for a farmhouse in the mountains, a villa by the sea, a house on Lake Butrint, or an apartment in the city, he’ll find it for you. And he’ll manage it for you when you’re not using it.
It was invigorating to be in the company of such unbridled enthusiasm for a home-from-home. It’s clear that he loves what he does, he loves where he lives, and he loves connecting people and places.
While I’m not in the market (sadly) for an apartment by the sea that doubles as a bolt-hole and revenue stream, some of you might be. Get in touch: email@example.com
In the meantime, I’ve still got my head in Palavli, imagining how an old schoolhouse could be rebirthed as an intensive language school, or a café, or a destination restaurant. And I’m thinking of the stone house in Kopaçez that would make a great base for hillwalkers and hikers or perhaps a retreat for writers and photographers.
Weeks after returning to Hungary, I’m still daydreaming about Albania.
If you’ve not yet been, put it on your list.
First published in the Budapest Times 8 July 2023