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The Brijuni National Park (sometimes called Brioni) covers the Brijuni Islands of Croatia's Istrian peninsula. It's a gloriously beautiful part of the country and, though we only explored one of the islands, by means of a boat trip from Pula, I know it's somewhere we'll go back to.
When seen in photographs taken from above, the islands, sitting in a shimmering turquoise sea, look to be encircled with almost white sand but as you get close to them in a boat you see that what looks like a beach is actually the rocky shore.
There's a cluster of islands (fourteen in all) accessible by boat from either Pula or Fazana (Fazana is nearer and Veli Brijuni can be reached in just fifteen minutes). Only one, Veli Brijuni has any kind of development and even that is minimal. Marshall Tito had two summer houses on the Brijuni Islands and spent several months there each year, often inviting royalty from other nations as well as glamorous film stars and other celebrities. There's a golf course, a hotel and a safari park, the latter coming about as a result of the many exotic animals gifted to Tito while he was leader of Yugoslavia. If you visit this island you can have your photograph taken sitting in Tito's Cadillac and visit the exhibition of photographs that open the door on Tito's private life.
The Brijuni Islands became a popular tourist destination in the late nineteenth century thanks to the efforts of Paul Kupelwieser, an Austrian industrialist who bought the then malaria ridden main island and oversaw its development with the building of a hotel complex along with a swimming pool which used heated seawater. The island became a fashionable spa resort for wealthy people from cities such as Vienna; it was a place where business was done and the most important intellectuals of the time met while enjoying the beautiful setting.
Two other men played an important part in Kupelwieser's grand plan. The forestry expert Alojz Zuffar organised the clearing of areas of macchia and the removal of large stones that would be used in the construction of footpaths and roads on the islands. He also arranged for the meadows to be turned into vineyards and the islands prospered as Brijuni wine was sent for sale in Vienna. Robert Koch was a doctor who did important work in bacteriology. Kuperlwieser heard that Koch had been involved in some research into malaria in Italy and he wrote to him about the specific problems in Brijuni. Koch sent some of his collaborators and used their reports to look into the issue. It was Koch who later identified that the cause of the malaria was the anopheles mosquito. There are monuments to all three men on Veli Brijuni.
Our boat excursion stopped on a small island where the only concession to tourism was a bar serving drinks and snack meals. We'd booked a trip that included lunch which was served on board as the boat sailed so we didn't eat here but we did enjoy a cold beer before heading back to Pula.
There are lots of boat trips available: some stop so you can go ashore, others just weave among the islands. If you go down to the harbour-side at Pula you can find out what each trip includes and make a decision. The one we booked allowed you to go ashore and gave the option of returning on either of two sailings later on. We thought we'd stay a couple of hours but when we got there and saw how small the island was, we decided to return on the earlier sailing. One of the crew members showed us an album of photographs that showed what we'd see on the trip and when I saw Tito's house come up I knew that was the tour we had to do; alas you only get to see these places from a distance so don't be fooled into thinking you actually see them.
Refreshments were provided on board for you to help yourselves to - water, wine and soft fizzy drinks (the latter were garishly coloured and full of sugar so take your own drinks if that's a problem to you). Lunch was served on board while sailing (we'd earlier been given a choice of fish, meat or vegetarian); this isn't great if you suffer from sea-sickness but for once I didn't, in fact the sea air had the opposite effect, making me ravenous. The food is very simple - the fish plate comprised a whole mackerel (head on), a pile of pickled cabbage and a hunk of crusty bread while the meat plate was the same but with pork instead of fish. Perhaps because the majority of the other passengers were Austrian, German or Russian, I didn't see anyone with the vegetarian meal. As we ate the boat was pursued by screaming seagulls who obviously knew what was coming and swooped down to snatch the remains of fish thrown overboard.
Most people on the trip had come with swimming gear and refreshments and a lot of them were content to find a spot on the pebbly beach beside the dock. We had brought a beach towel thinking we might stick our feet in the water to cool down, but expecting to do more sightseeing than bathing.
I thought it was a shame that most people got no further than the beach; it didn't take us long to do a once around of the little island we'd been dropped at but it was worth it. The landscape is not dissimilar to that of Corsica; what is known in French as 'maquis' is called 'macchia' by the Croatians. It's a type of forestation found in the Mediterranean by the sea and is a mix of trees such as the myrtle, the ash and the terebinth; the latter is also known as the 'turpentine tree' and is common all the way down Croatia's Adriatic coastline. I'd hoped to see more birds but I later found out that the best place to see them is on Veli Brijuni at the Saline bird reserve. We did see plenty of lizards, however, as they darted across the paths in front of us and into the most impossible looking slivers of space in the rocks.
After one circuit we headed back to a very quiet spot from where we'd decided it was possible to swim. Without swimming gear we had two options and decided on the more modest one, later taking turns to wrap the towel round us while waiting for our underwear to dry on the rocks - fortunately it was a very hot day. The water remains shallow for a few metres then deepens quite quickly and it is quite slippery underfoot where it is shallow so care should be taken. The water was very warm, even in mid-September and was nowhere near as salty as I've found it further down the coast in Split, meaning that we didn't feel desperate to shower in fresh water as soon as we came out of the water.
If you don't want to bathe and prefer to do more 'sightseeing', you really need to make sure you are taking a trip that is stopping specifically in Veli Brijuni. As well as the safari park with its exotic animals (among them an elephant, zebras, antelope and Somalian sheep) there's what is know in this part of the world as an 'Etno Park' where you can see animals native (particular breeds of sheep and oxen) to Istria in the setting of a traditional Istrian farm.
Elsewhere on Veli Brijuni you can see traces of more than 200 dinosaurs at four different locations. The quality of these dinosaur footprints from the Cretaceous period is so good that experts have visited Brijuni to carry out extensive research into exactly how these beasts moved around, not just their physical gait, but whether they roamed in herds or alone. A little more recently the Romans left their mark on Brijuni and there are remains at a number of locations on the islands, most notably a villa which was built in the first century BC but thrived into the first century AD. Excavations of a vast villa at Kastrum have unearthed a huge number of finds which are on display in the archaeological museum in the citadel building.
Although you can book to stay at one of the handful of hotels and villas on Veli Brijuni, you do have to join an official 'tour' to get to the islands but boat operators have obviously realised that not everyone wants the group experience. In the past you could charter a private boat from Fazana and explore independently free of charge but this has been halted, partly to protect the islands because of their national park designation. While we enjoyed our trip, we did feel like we should have taken greater pains to ascertain where we would stop. Nonetheless, we loved the fact that we could find a quiet spot in spite of there being several boat loads of tourists on the tiny island we did stop at and we loved our walk, albeit brief, around the island.
We paid about Â£20 each for our trip which may seem expensive for what we got but it was by no means the most expensive of the tours available. Next time we're at the southern tip of Istria we'll try to go back but we'll definitely head for Veli Brijuni.
For family groups I'd suggest that Veli Brijuni has more activities that will interest children although I acknowledge that many will be happy enough to explore the smaller islands and have some time to swim; it is more the fact that there is so much more to see on the largest island, that makes me recommend it.