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With its azure skies, translucent sunlit seas and natural beauty, Veliki Brijuni is the most magical of Croatia’s islands. Former Yugoslav ruler Marshall Tito thought so too, claiming this largest island (usually just called Brijuni) in the archipelago for his summer residence. From the 1950s up until 1980, he entertained royalty, heads of state and film stars including the Queen, John F Kennedy, Leonid Brezhnev, Muammar Gaddafi, Fidel Castro, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Sophia Loren at his Bijela Vila (White Villa).
It was only after Tito’s death that Brijuni opened up to tourists when it became a National Park in 1983. Although the ferry crossing from the mainland is only fifteen minutes, sailing into Brijuni’s small harbour with its waterside hotels and striking Secession-style Austro-Hungarian boathouse is like entering a bygone era. There’s a faded grandeur and glamour about the hotels that still have many of their original 1950s fittings. Sitting on my balcony at Hotel Karmen overlooking a daisy chain of superyachts in the water below feels like I’ve stepped into one of Sophia Loren’s film sets.
Over the last 20 years, I’ve been a regular visitor for Ulyssess Theatre’s summer season. Set up by Hollywood actor Rade Serbedzija and his wife the internationally acclaimed director Lenka Udovicki, the company’s productions maintain the starry allure of the island. Each year the Balkan’s most celebrated actors plus guests including Vanessa Redgrave and Ralph Fiennes, stay on Brijuni and give performances on the smaller adjacent island.
Mali Brijuni is uninhabited but the remains of the 19th century Austro-Hungarian fortress carved out of the rock makes for a striking theatrical backdrop as does the former submarine base on the island. It was built to protect the nearby naval port of Pula and submarine commander Georg von Trapp was stationed there in the 1910s. His first wife was Agathe Whitehead whose grandfather invented the torpedo. When she died of scarlet fever, he married his governess Maria and the family’s escape from the Nazis in 1938 was immortalised in The Sound of Music.
But Brijuni was a magnet for the rich and famous well before Tito’s time. When Austrian industrialist Paul Kepleweiser bought the archipelago in 1894 he spent 20 years building a harbour, hotels, roads and tracks, beach resorts and even a polo field on Brijuni. But most importantly he moved microbiologist Robert Koch there in 1900 to rid the island of malaria. Koch lived in the boathouse which is now an Interpretation and Education Centre telling the fascinating history of the island. The staircase of the building is lined with copies of Koch’s extensive correspondence with some of the twentieth century’s most famous figures.
Writer Thomas Mann wrote to say that his Brijuni visit had given him new ideas for a novel, Death in Venice, while Marconi joked to the doctor that he might build a short-wave cable to connect Brijuni to Canada. In 1905, James Joyce, took a break from his teaching duties in Pula to celebrate his 23rd birthday on the island and Archduke Franz Ferdinand was a frequent visitor. In 1911 he attended the consecration of the renovated 15th century gothic church, St German.
For an island only seven square kilometres, Brijuni has an abundance of archaeological remains. Built in the 6th century, St Mary’s basilica is the longest-standing Christian building on the island. Nearby, the impressive ruins of the Byzantium Castrum sprawl across a one-hectare site by the sea. Roman ruins include the Temple of Venus and the Roman Villa in Veriga Bay, a favourite swimming spot on the west side of the island. If you swim to any of the buoys anchored in the bay they have information about the Roman ruins in the water beneath you.
When it comes to secluded and deserted swimming spots there is a whole coastline to choose from. Most day trippers to the island are contained in tourist trains that whisk them around the various sites. With no cars allowed on the island the best way to explore it is to hire a golf buggy or a bike. Cycling is my preferred way of getting around and I like heading up to the north shore with its stunning views of the Adriatic. It was here that dinosaurs roamed 115 million years ago and these carnivorous theropods have left many large footprints in the rocks.
This area is next to the nine-hectare Safari Park, home to the exotic beasts Tito collected from all over the world for his island zoo. I’m never sure whether to be sad or happy to see fewer zebras and bison in the enclosures every year, although the bad-tempered ostriches never seem to die. The ice-cream kiosk there, Sonny and Lanka, is named after the two elephants Indira Ghandi gifted to Tito in the 1970s. Sonny died several years ago leaving Lanka on her own to pace an enclosure not even a quarter the size of a football pitch.
Visitors to the kiosk are always greeted by opera blaring out at full volume. It’s always Italian and usually, somewhat ironically, Verdi’s Aida. Marko, who runs the kiosk, tells me he plays opera for the animals rather than the tourists although I’m not sure Lanka appreciates it.
Many of the enclosures, especially the pools, are long empty so what happened to the polar bears, lions, giraffes and wild cats? You can see them stuffed and displayed at the Tito Memorial Museum by the harbour with a sign that points out that these animals and birds are now ‘protected and preserved’. It’s a large collection with more animals in the museum now than those still alive from Tito’s time. However, one of these survivors is Tito’s cockatoo, Koki, although he is harder to find. Suffering from the strain of having so many people ask, ‘Kako se Koki?’ (how are you Koki?), he’s been moved from his cage in a busy tourist spot near the ferry to a quieter part of the island.
On the floor of the museum above the stuffed animals, there’s a fascinating exhibition of black and white photos featuring Tito and his famous guests. And outside his shiny Cadillac waits for those with deep enough pockets to take it for a spin. No doubt the rumour that Tito tried to seduce Gina Lollobrigida in the back seat adds to its allure.
But the best thing about Brijuni is that at the end of the day, once the last boat takes the tourists away, you have the entire island to yourself. On a balmy pine-scented night, there’s nothing better than watching the burnished sunsets and later the stars spilling tantalisingly over the horizon.
Direct flights from Glasgow to Pula with EasyJet from £185, flights from Edinburgh via London airports with British Airways, Ryanair, SAS.
Where to stay
Hotels Neptun, Istra and Karmen are open from Easter to the end of October 2022, double rooms from £99 to £256 a night.