Brijuni are islands and the national park on the tips of Istria. It is the unique blend of the natural and cultivated, modern and ancient, exclusive and open to everyone. Once prized by ancient Romans who built luxury villas rusticas, Brijuni were abandoned in medieval times, until discovered by Austrian industrialist Kupelwieser. He transformed it into a classy health resort and sanatorium for the aristocracy and other reach people. After the Second World War, it becomes the residency of then-president Tito who received there many presidents and royalty. Today, it is a national park that protects the natural legacy, but also opens the gate to tourism. Today, the guests can enjoy long walks in the pines, admiring both wildlife and tame game animals, play golf, drive an electric car or sunbathe on beautiful beaches far from the crowd.
Brijuni is one of our list of TOP 10 islands in Croatia.
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Tourists are sitting in the shade of trees at the Školjka Cafe on the Island of Veliki Brijun, in a courtyard hiding behind doors and old buildings from the hustle and bustle of groups visiting the island. They’re sipping at their coffees, whose sugar sachets read the following:
What were Brijuni once? An island desert… From this desert paradise was created.
Karl von Thaler, 1911
Then, something flies in and immediately out of a house wall. This mysterious flyer came out of a hole on the edge of wooden blinds. A few minutes later, a Eurasian hoopoe flutters past, whose great feather crown stands out against its brown and black body. At an incredible speed, beating its wings almost only once, it flies back to the hole. Its chick pokes its head out and opens its beak, which the parent hoopoe stuffs with delicious worms. Three seconds later, the parent disappears, and the chick retreats into the nest’s safety in the wall of an old villa. The Brijuni Islands are perhaps today a paradise, but they were never an ordinary desert. The Brijuni desert has increasingly been rated as something authentic and outstanding.
Millenia of history
The Brijuni National Park doesn’t just have a safari park with ostriches, giraffes, and elephants, but is also an archipelago whose nature is authentically Mediterranean. To get to these new-found, authentically Mediterranean treasures, you should first get past the obvious ones. Riding in an electric car on the winding roads of Veliki Brijun is like traveling through different periods of history, which has lasted for millennia, ever since the Illyrians decided to inhabit the island. With the Romans’ arrival, the island started thriving and soon became famous across the Adriatic and throughout the entire Roman Empire. Verige Bay’s villa with three terraces, a complex of temples, space allocated for sports and recreation, and the reception of guests must have been a wonderful place to live in.
The vicinity of the mainland, beautiful beaches, and a moderate climate were ideal living conditions. Leaping closer in time, you’ll find the foundations of a Byzantine castrum on the opposite side of the island. Its many rooms testify to the fact that, from the 2nd century BC to the 16th century AD, the Romans, the Goths, the Byzantines, the Franks and finally, the Venetians ruled here. The island had already started to lose importance when in 1331, it fell under the rule of Venice, and in the next 466 years, the situation worsened. Its residents emigrated because of outbreaks of the plague and malaria, wars, pillage and exploitation, and so by the end of the 17th century, the Brijuni Islands were almost uninhabited, all until the end of the 19th century when the Austrian industrialist Paul Kupelwieser turned the abandoned island into an elite hotel and spa complex with golf courses.
Names such as Thomas Mann and James Joyce, Francis Ferdinand, and the German Emperor Wilhelm II are only a tiny part of the time’s glamour. In 1945 with Yugoslavia, the island entered a new chapter of fame by becoming the residence of Tito, president of then Yugoslavia. Besides world aristocracy, Brijuni were also visited by actors, such as Sofia Loren, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, etc.
Nature still thrives
Today, these remains are mainly incorporated into Brijuni’s greenery, a balanced mosaic of spacious meadows, some of which are part of a golf course. Here, you have rabbits hopping around, fallow and spotted deer grazing, and peacocks strutting about. A significant portion of Brijuni is covered by forests, and − unlike most of Croatia’s coast dominated by airy and fragrant Aleppo pine − the Brijuni are dominated by the holly oak tree. In the entire forest, there’re almost no bushes at all, and the treetops are snipped off like in well-kept parks, which is the work of the deer’s hungry teeth. But, in places that are fenced off a real lush jungle flourishes.
Entering the forest is not at all romantic − wriggling through the trees will feel more like an adventure. This is made even more difficult by climbing plants which are wrapped around the trees like heavy-duty barbed wire. A machete would come in handy, but naturally, it’s not to be used either here in the park or anywhere on Brijuni. But most of the islands are still covered by undergrowth − degraded forms of the holly oak tree, even more impassable than the forest. Somewhere from the thicket, a nightingale’s beautiful song is heard, a real little symphony coming from the beak of a bird. Meanwhile, a fearless squirrel is chewing on a pinecone that fell from a nearby pine tree. Along the southern cove of Veliki Brijun, around Cape Gromače, lies the locality of Saline, a bird reserve.
During the 1960s, this former saltworks, surrounded by holly oak trees and conifers, were transformed into two lakelets. There’s a small thatched cottage by one of the lakes. This is where Tito used to seek some peace and quiet and enjoy the twitter of birds. Today, it’s used for bird watching. Green frogs are croaking in the background, males attracting females. A European pond turtle is resting comfortably on a dry tree, absorbing the sun, listening to the faintest of sounds, ready to dive into the safety of the water. A heron marches slowly through shallow waters, ducks, Eurasian coots, and common moorhens sail along the shore, while old world flycatchers and other singing birds flutter around tree branches.
Dozen of small islands
With its preserved and shallow coves and ideal rocky and pebble beaches, the rugged coastline of Brijuni is a real gem. The waves splash against the rocks where dinosaurs once walked, leaving their footprints behind, now hardened into solid rock as witnesses from millions of years ago. A few dolphins are swimming along the coast, jumping out of the water now and then. They’re hunting. The fishermen, on the other hand, aren’t pleased about the competition, but these marine mammals have the right to undisturbed hunting here in the national park. A nearby islet has been occupied and turned into a nesting colony by seagulls. Be careful while walking around the undergrowth and bushes, and watch out for swooping birds, making sure you don’t step onto one of the many nests. While seagull nests are mostly in the open, the nests of European shags are deep in the undergrowth. These black birds are a relative of the great black cormorant but are tied to the sea. What they have in common is a successful fishing technique. They are deep divers and dry themselves by spreading their wings wide on the rocks along the coast.
Under the sea surface
For many, however, the most significant value of the Brijuni Islands is the sea and the life in it. As a national park, it’s an oasis of peace, where the fish are left undisturbed, to breed and grow. Most of the national park is surrounded by shallows; the water is the deepest around the Islet of Peneda − 50 meters. European bass, gilt-head bream, flathead grey mullet, salema porgy and other species of fish are all left undisturbed here, all larger in size. Despite the fact that color loses on intensity underwater, the sea bottom is indeed very colorful thanks to the many algae, sponges, starfish, sea snails, and other slow-moving tenants of the sea’s bottom. Surrounded by them, a painted comber is peeking through, showing off its irregular, dark red and brown stripes, and a big blue stain on its stomach.
The bottom soon becomes flatter and more uniform. Here, rock has been replaced by soft sand and mud. A feather duster worm is opening like an elegant parasol on a water-beach. This yellowish bristle worm uses its feather-like crown to filter-feed on tiny organisms, and in case of danger, it pulls itself back into its tube. Soon, the bottom before you starts to darken, as if a forest covers it. These are Posidonia or seagrass meadows. Although these meadows seem unattractive, they’re one of the richest yet most endangered marine ecosystems. Many fish have their hatcheries and nurseries in these meadows, which are also very valuable for a whole community of tenants. They also produce large amounts of oxygen. In the midst of these forests, towers rise − noble pen shells. Large pieces grow and rise throughout. Flowering plants produce many organic substances that noble pen shells feed on, which is why these shells reach such enviable sizes here. The Brijuni Islands are a piece of the Mediterranean as it once was, created by a mosaic of culture, nature and tourism.
The Brijuni are a group of fourteen small islands in the Croatian part of the northern Adriatic Sea, separated from the west coast of the Istrian peninsula by the narrow Fažana Strait. The largest island, Veliki Brijun Island, (5.6 km2), lies two kilometers off the coast. The second-largest island is Mali Brijun with an area of 1.07 km², and twelve much smaller islands. Most of the attractions and activities are on the main island.
At landing, there is a jetty and hotels at the seafront. Most of the organized tours begin here, getting in the small electric train that will transport the guests to other attractions. Much of the island is a safari park in open, where deer and peacock freely roam, mixing wit hares, rabbits, and other wild animals. Then, there is a proper zoo with exotic animals like zebras, elephants, ostriches tec. You can even visit the extinct dinosaurs on the coast, near the zoo. They are replicas, of course, based on the real impressions of the feet, tracks these behemoths left their tracks.
The other side f the main island offers more cultural attractions. There is a remnant of the sumptuous Roman residential villa from the 1st century in Verige bay. You can imagine how people lived there, and a hood guide will explain to you the details even better. Then, you can walk on the foundation of the Byzantine castrum, the most layered and the longest inhabited Brijuni site. Not far is St. Mary’s Basilica, the oldest Christian building on the island. There is also a hill-fort from the Bronze Age, from the first inhabitants of the island. The Istra-facing coast has a string of smaller villas, while much more exclusive villas are on the other side, secluded and with more privacy. There is also a dedicated beach for swimming and sunbath, even though you can stop for a swim at any place.
The Presentation and Education Centre of the Brijuni National Park has been opened at the Boathouse, at the seafront. This new permanent display is presented in an innovative and interactive manner and it is meant for the visitors to independently explore, learn, and find out about the cultural, historic, and natural heritage of the archipelago.
If you like marine life, swimming, and snorkeling, then dive into the educational underwater trail in Verige Bay on the southern side of Veli Brijun. This interesting underwater exhibition offers a unique experience of visiting natural and archaeological sites of the exceptionally rich and well preserved marine world of Brijuni National Park. The approximately 500 meters long trail is not particularly demanding
Beware of a short guided tours. Some people have a complaint that they literally flew over the attractions in an hour or two and were back on the boat. Take your time, at least half a day. The prices on the island are spicy, so take anything necessary with you or wait until the arrival. But, take at least a coffee and enjoy the seafront 🙂