The Brijuni archipelago lies off Istria’s west coast, a 15-minute boat journey from Fažana, just north of Pula. Most of the 14 islands are off-limits to the public. Luckily, there is so much to see on the other two you’re unlikely to feel hard done by. Brijuni records 5,000 years of human history and 150 million years of prehistory when dinosaurs patrolled the islands – you can even follow in their petrified footsteps.
Veliki Brijuni is the largest of the islands and contains most of its treasures. Beautiful and vaguely surreal – English country estate meets ‘Jurassic Park’ – it consists of parkland surrounded by the sea and lined with avenues of pines. There is a golf course, a bird sanctuary, botanical gardens, a zoo and safari park, three museums and the main archaeological sites. A map is posted at its harbour – including where to find the dinosaur footprints that dot the shoreline.
The oldest remains of human habitation date from 3,000 BC. After 177 BC the Romans built villas along with facilities for processing olive oil and the manufacture of amphorae. The last of their olive trees, dating from AD 400, still flourish on the main island. The largest Roman complex is in the bay of Verige. This development includes a summerhouse built over three terraces, a series of temples, thermal baths and even a freshwater fish pond. It also included a working harbour that remained in use well into the sixth century.
After the Romans, Byzantium added fortified walls, breached in 788 by Frankish King Carlo the Great. In 1312 plague wiped out the population, so when the Venetians claimed the islands in 1331 there was no one to resist. Brijuni was used for its quarries, the stone transported to Venice. The area became marshy and a haven for mosquitoes. When Napoleon arrived, he ordered a full survey with a view to draining and developing the area. After he fell, and Austria took charge, Brijuni had to wait until 1893 before it was rescued from its malaria-infested stupor. Austrian steel magnate, Paul Kupelwieser bought Brijuni as real estate for 75,000 gold florins. His dream was to create an English-style country park – today’s Brijuni is Kupelwieser’s legacy.
How do you create paradise for the rich and famous in the middle of a malaria-ridden swamp? Renowned microbiologist Robert Koch was Kupelwieser’s saviour. In 1900 Koch was about to begin experiments into the eradication of malaria in Tuscany. The Austrian read about this in the newspapers and immediately contacted Koch, suggesting he carry out preliminary research on Brijuni. It was a stroke of genius – and an unqualified success. In 1905 Koch was awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine. He had also succeeded in isolating cholera and tuberculosis bacteria. His monument stands by the harbour in Veliki Brijuni.
Kupelwieser excavated the archaeological treasures. He built villas. He planted trees. He landscaped gardens. He built Europe’s first 18-hole golf course. He established a zoo. He created his own Xanadu but didn’t live long enough to see it. After he died in 1918, the Great Depression hit and bankruptcy caused his son to commit suicide. In 1933 Brijuni passed into the hands of another state: Mussolini’s Italy.
After the war, Brijuni, and the rest of Istria, became part of Tito’s Yugoslavia. He used Brijuni as his base, setting up the Non-Aligned Movement with India and Egypt here in 1956 and inviting the rich and famous to his idyllic playground.
As you step onto Veliki Brijuni’s quayside you are following in the footsteps of Queen Elizabeth II, her sister Margaret, JFK and Sophia Loren, all documented in the ‘Josip Broz Tito on Brijuni’ exhibition housed in the main museum. Tito was regularly presented with exotic animals; you can still see many of them, including Lanka, one of two elephants presented by Indira Gandhi – the other died in 2010. Those who died were stuffed and placed in Brijuni’s Natural History Museum, part of a three-museum complex near the harbour.
Boats go from Fažana, 7km north-west of Pula by bus No.21 every hour. The Brijuni offices are on the quayside at Fažana. The tour (210kn for adults in the summer) passes Veliki Brijuni’s sights on a little train with a guide. It takes about four hours including the crossing. You book rooms in Fažana. Recommended is the Neptun, whose 87 rooms set on the harbour exude charm in an updated Yugo-elegant kind of way.