Zipping through the personal summer playground of a dictator, down tiny paved lanes past once splendid and palatial remnants slowly falling into disrepair, a glimpse into a different time. Cruising with cartoonish map in hand, we visit the expansive roman ruins of a seaside village, a crumbling church that serviced later communities that lived there, the enormous remains of a Venetian palace that once circled an emerald bay, now a collection of lonely pillars pointing to the grey sky and stone outlines of bath houses and hearths. And it was not lost on me how the modern decay was just one more layer of history on an old old place. Waiting for the next chapter. And we had a blast cruising the soviet era nostalgia like ghosts on a mission. Making friends with the zebras and ostriches and snapping pics of the dinosaur footprints made in days long before the Romans or people had stepped foot here. We seem to be alone in this fantasy of a place. Like ghosts. Like memories making new memories.
Brijuni Island was one of those pleasant surprises you get when your planning is loose. We might have missed it had it not been for Katy’s National Park obsession. But I got interested when I learned it was the personal summer residence of Josip Tito (Yugoslavia’s president for life up until the 80s) for the last 30 years of his life complete with his personal wildlife safari. We had thought to work it into our Pula day trip but after some research we booked a hotel on the island for the night after we left Rovinj to have more time. And I am so glad that we did.
There’s a small ferry about a 20 minute cab ride out of Pula. We raced from the bus to the cab to the ferry to arrive at the Hotel Neptune, built in 1912, bombed by allied forces, but still standing, if but tired and in less glory than it once had. The season is closed so most of the hotels and amenities have also closed. We get a free upgrade to a seaside view room with a private balcony and rent a golf car for the day and spend our time crisscrossing the island. It takes about 5 hours to really see everything.
Many hotels here have a halfboard and fullboard option that for a small price you can get all of your meals included in the price. The full menu has better food, you get a much cheaper version, here a buffet, with basic options but decent enough and it’s much cheaper. The hotel restaurant is the only game in town at this time of year. And we settle into our once swank digs.
Josip Broz Tito was a complicated guy. Born a poor Croat with only four years of education he began as a labor rabble-rouser, taught himself four languages, became a champion fencer, got conscripted into the Austro-Hungarian army and promoted as the youngest sergeant major at 22 before being wounded and captured, escaped prison multiple times, became a political communist, lead the guerrilla resistance against the Nazi invasion so successfully that he was allowed to form and lead the new nation of Yugoslavia, then became the only person to successfully leave the communist Cominform playing the US and USSR against each other, and founded the Non-alignment Movement banding together countries that did not want to be bound to either of the two superpowers. He also was responsible for the brutal repression and mass murder of any political opposition and declared himself president for life. So . . . not a good guy. But interesting, and he had balls the size of Chicago.
I really enjoy this quote from a letter he wrote Stalin, “Stop sending people to kill me. We’ve already captured five of them, one of them with a bomb and another with a rifle. […] If you don’t stop sending killers, I’ll send one to Moscow, and I won’t have to send a second.”
He took Brijuni Island as his summer residence for the last 30 years of his life where he entertained over 100 heads of state and stars such as Elizabeth Taylor, Sophia Loren, and Gina Lollobrigida. The island has several sites of Roman and Venetian ruins and a full safari with what’s left of Tito’s sizable animal collection. Croatia has turned the whole island into a National Park.
Tito built his own safari on the island with an expansive animal collection. Apparently it was popular for heads of state to send him exotic animals as gifts. Mostly now it’s zebras and elephants and things like that. We didn’t run into any large predators. Unless you count the dinosaur. But there were herds of all sorts of animals running around the island.
You already get the Jurassic Park vibe when you set off into the woods on a golf cart but the vibe really cranks up when you arrive at a large gate, press a button, and the loud whir of motors opens up into a field of animals. There’s no one around so we cruise on into the safari alone. Hey look, a zebra!
So clearly someone else was picking up on the Jurassic Park vibe because at the far end of the safari down a jostling dirt road we run into this gate surrounded by a large fence into dense dark woods.
After an amble to the coast you run into this guy standing about 15 feet high. At first glance it seems a little cheesy but then we realize that the shore is pocked with giant dinosaur footprints! These were fossiled in the mud when these bad boys were king of the island once upon a time. Now I’m actually imagining tooling up in a dinghy to see this bastard out for a quick snack. No thank you.
Taking a walk
We find a nature walk on the northern tip of the island so we head into the woods again and take a look around. There are info plaques about lime kilns and tree types and that sort of thing. Very educational.
After we were forced to return our golf cart (this was very sad to me, loved driving that cart), we hoofed it over to the Tito museum that we were quite excited about. Outside they have his big shiny car. Cool. But once we got inside the whole thing was just display after display of bad taxidermy of all the animals that had died on the island. Kind of creepy really. An endless hall of corpses that probably all had names at one point. They said they all died of natural causes. I wander if those include a rifle?
After a baffling bit of searching Katy discovers the second floor houses a collection of Tito photos that was pretty interesting and informative if but a bit glowing and sanitized history of his time on the island. I didn’t know much about the Non-aligned Movement which was primarily worked out here on the island.