The boat trip from the Croatian coastal village of Fažana to Veliki – the central hub of the Brijuni archipelago – is a glorious journey; one often made by vacationing locals, to whom the small postcard group of islands are well known and loved, but rarely by tourists from further afield.
The long, lush green mass in the distance gradually reveals celestial coves along the coast as the air becomes fresher and the waters dazzle with a myriad of shades of turquoise. Then, as you get closer, you can glimpse a bewildering melange of architectural styles – and it is immediately clear that, to fully understand Brijuni’s identity, one must first delve into his evolution.
The 14 islands are located in western Istria, encompassing a fascinating potted history across their total 33.9 square kilometers. Celebrated for their natural beauty, they were declared a national park in 1983, a few years after more than 200 dinosaur footprints were found there, some of which are still clearly visible in the Veliki dinosaur park. There is also evidence of Bronze Age craftsmanship, on display in a fortified settlement where the remains of a 1st-century BC Roman villa and a medieval basilica are worth the visit alone.
The history of the islands
In fact, it was none other than the Romans who started the summer tradition in the archipelago. After them came centuries of exchange of sovereigns, until Brijuni was conquered by the Venetians in 1331, who controlled the islands for almost 500 years, then the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which made the islands a base for its naval fleet in the 1815.
Abandoned and neglected in the years following the departure of the navy, it was then that the archipelago attracted the attention of the Viennese steel magnate, Paul Kupelweiser. Looking for a suitable place to spend his last years, he bought Brijuni in 1894, like the Romans, recognizing his potential as a tourist resort. Under the careful direction of the forester and estate manager Alojz Cufar, the destroyed quarries and desolate landscape have been transformed into delightful walks, thriving vineyards and abundant fields.
Serious progress had been made, but the islands were riddled with malaria, making them uninhabitable. Undaunted, Kupelweiser called esteemed microbiologist Robert Koch, who successfully defeated the epidemic from the area through his groundbreaking research with quinine, leading to the development of malaria medicine still used today. These important key figures in Brijuni history are honored in the new permanent exhibition in the charming old boathouse.
Eventually, Kupelweiser’s vision came true and the resort was populated with hotels, restaurants, a casino and Croatia’s first 18-hole golf course. After World War I, Brioni returned to Italian ownership following bankruptcy, eventually joining Yugoslavia in 1945. Communist leader Josip Broz Tito, then prime minister, found it so charming that he made it his summer residence in 1949. , hosting numerous world leaders, royalty and first-rate celebrities for the next two decades. Today it is his legacy that dominates.
Discovering Brijuni today
How could anyone not be intrigued by this mottled story? I had to visit. Hastily, I booked a flight to nearby Pula, flew to Fažana and was soon aboard a ferry, which cut the waves to the islands. The approach – and the glorious architectural mix – was all I hoped for, and when docked in Veliki without a car, I was more eager than ever to explore. I hired a golf cart (electric mopeds and bicycles are also available) and set off on my maiden voyage of discovery.
On the Brijuni Islands, all paths lead to fascinating places and, among the incredible variety of plants and trees, the flourishing 1,600-year-old olive tree that still bears fruit is perhaps the most impressive. Then there are, of course, all those ancient places, which I stopped to admire as I passed, finally ending up in the safari park. There I spied ostriches, llamas, zebras, goats and sacred cows, but I was actually there to see Lanka, the magnificent elephant given to Tito by Indira Gandhi, who happily celebrated her 50th birthday during my visit.
Next, a point of culture. At the Brijuni museum – which unsurprisingly honors Tito – is the immaculate dark green Cadillac, glistening behind Perspex, who ferried the man himself around the island. Beyond is the museum itself – its interiors best exemplify mid-century retro (as I hope this never changes) – and a photography exhibit that’s an unrepentant glorification of the controversial leader. The images show the numerous dignitaries and famous faces who have passed through here, such as Sophia Loren, President Nasser of Egypt, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, the latter eager to scrutinize Tito’s manners in preparation to play him in the film The Battle. by Sutjeska.
Also immortalized is Her Majesty the Queen, who visited it in 1972, giving two Shetland ponies to Tito, whose descendants still live on Brijuni. With limited food choices, I booked a table at Galija for dinner, the only alternative to the hotel buffet. I met new chef Damjan Bistricic, who was clearly relishing the challenge of revising dated menus. He spoke passionately during the process of making his he crumbly salt from the island’s waters and agreed to take me out for food the next day.
Foraging with a local chef
Aware of the need to progress while respecting Brijuni’s rich heritage, Damjan showed me the old English bakery he had recently discovered in the park, which he intends to reopen next year. Eager to serve more indigenous products, he perused the list of vegetables he had designated that would thrive in Mediterranean conditions. I nodded carefully as we gathered bay leaves, fragrant sage, rosemary, and lavender, as we nibbled juicy, freshly picked figs.
My last night in Brijuni came too early and I realized – with some surprise – that I would rather enjoy the lack of evening activities. Once the crowds dissipated, a special energy emerged and a silence descended, ideal for leisurely strolls after dinner. Nonetheless, I was determined to make a cultural leap, so I got on a boat to Mali Brijun for a show at Ulysses (ulysses.hr) – the largest Austro-Hungarian fortress, now converted into an open-air theater, whose name was inspired by James Joyce’s love of the islands.
Supervised for more than 20 years by celebrated actor Rade Serbedzija and artistic director Lenka Udovicki, it is an unusual, surprising and slightly disturbing theater venue, but the acoustics are phenomenal and from the moment the boat arrives carrying the audience – perfectly synchronized with Blood Orange Sun Setting: Watching a show here is an experience you won’t soon forget. Even though I didn’t understand a word of the Slovenian production, I spent the evening totally enraptured – in a continuous state of sensory bliss – and completely in awe of my dramatic environment.
Explore the region
Brijuni is within easy reach of some of the most beautiful places in Istria, including Pula, its largest city – worth a visit for its ancient Roman amphitheater. If you prefer gastronomy to ruins, fear not: this is the land of wine and Malvasia is the most popular grape in the region. For some of the best examples, the dream location of the Meneghetti Wine Hotel & Winery (meneghetti.hr) is the perfect backdrop for a tasting session of its critically acclaimed wines and award-winning olive oils.
After taking part, make your way to your destination restaurant, then spend a night in one of the beautiful bedrooms. A tasting at the Kozlovic winery (kozlovic.hr/en/wine-experience) also offers the opportunity to get a close look at a modern architectural masterpiece – carefully designed to showcase one of Croatia’s most beloved wine labels – or do a visit to Karlic Tartufi (karlictartufi.hr), who will rest on a divine truffle cream after a hunt for the prized tuber in the nearby forest, near the pretty town of Motovun.
If you’re looking for beautiful beaches, pastel-toned hillside buildings and fabulous restaurants – and are able to add a few extra days to your trip – you won’t regret your time spent in the beautiful coastal town of Rovinj. Here the extraordinary design of the Grand Hotel Rovinj merges with the forest and is home to Cap Aureo, which specializes in exquisite vegetable creations and Michelin-starred Agli Amici. Down the street, at the flagship restaurant of the Hotel Monte Mulini, the Wine Vault’s selection of the best Croatian wines complements its delicious dishes perfectly.
How to do it
Ryanair (ryanair.com) flies from London Stansted to Pula from £ 19.99 one way. Croatia Ferries (croatiaferries.com) connects Fažana and Brijuni 10 times a day in the high season and four times a day in the low season. Foot passenger tickets cost from £ 14; the journey takes 15 min. For more information on activities and ways to visit, go to np-brijuni.hr and croatia.hr.