Why I Love the Brijuni Islands

Are you one of those who likes the bad or the good news first? 

I’ll start with the bad, so I can leave you with the good. 

The sad truth is that the Brijuni islands have been in better shape than they’re in today. When I was here as a child, the pastures were greener,  and there were more freely roaming animals, and that has nothing to do with idealising the past. The pastures were watered so the animals had more to eat. The cigarette butts could not be found anywhere on the island. Nowadays, the tourists who come to bathe here don’t seem to mind leaving trash on the beach, and there are no guards who walk around and remind people to pick it up. The firemen employed on the island seem to think their only job is putting out fires should they appear, and I’ve seen them merrily walk next to trash that somehow appeared on the beach. Personal responsibility is at a low ebb. The respect this place garnered once is preserved only by the cherished few who work hard to maintain this island an oasis or those who visit and treat it as an oasis. It’s a beautiful place, but a place that doesn’t escape the condemnation of its political past. Apart from Goli otok with its infamous political prison after 1948, a few other islands are a cause for such controversy in modern-day Croatia. The fact Tito had his residence here irks much of the current political powers, and it shows. Walk around and scrap beneath the surface, and you’ll find evidence of neglect and shame. Buildings scattered around the island that stand empty and in a bad shape. Fenced army territory overgrown with maquis it makes you think these army officers who stay on the island are doing nothing but watching the telly. Couldn’t they make part of their routine to clean the island? Or to make more food available to animals? 

Brijuni are a place so special that there’s still so much to enjoy despite years of neglect. Brijuni have survived the plague, the malaria, and have risen in its glory again and again. Even today, Brijuni islands continue holding a certain status among locals and those who visit it from far away lands. Whether one visits for the impressive array of historical figures who’ve shaped the islands’ history, replenishing sights of flora and fauna or the fusion of all these elements, the appeal of Brijuni is an axiom that stands the test of time and neglect. 

Brijuni, from Brevona, Italian for short, named after the shallow waters surrounding the islands, first mentioned in the 6th ct AD

After the dark truth has been let out, let’s just allow Brijuni magic to possess us and leave those hard thoughts behind for a while. 

Once one reaches Istria and boards the ferry on coastal Fažana, it feels like one is passing through a portal to another dimension somewhere in the Fažana canal, approaching the only port on the Brijuni islands. The ferry ride is less than 20 minutes. If someone promised me to cure me out of my woes in 20 minutes I’d tell them they’re fools. But Brijuni can do that, and the effect is long-lasting. 20 minutes to leave worries behind and dive into lush nature and historical tales is all it takes? How can that work? Here’s how I combined the elements to get myself to feel anew.

1. History, So Much History

With backstories reaching to the age of the dinosaurs until most recently, history buffs have a lot to discover on these islands. Whether you’re into the middle ages, the Histri, the Romans, the first Christians, the Byzant era, or into more recent history of the times Tito spent on this island and hosted the world’s leaders of the time, you’ll spend a lot of time visiting the locations and tracing places to stories. James Joyce celebrated his 24th birthday on Brijuni islands. There’s evidence of more than 4000 years of human history here. Since the biggest of the Brijuni islands is still small (5.72 km2), to reach those places you’ll need good walking shoes, or a bike, a map and eyes wide open. The bonus is that wandering through the forests, it’s likely you’ll meet a herd of deers, bunnies, squirrels, pheasants or some other rare birds, butterflies, bugs and whatnots. For 14 tiny islands, and a total surface area of 3,395.00 ha, that’s not bad at all.

What is this you may ask? A decantation basin – a part of an ancient olive press machinery for making olive oil! – found in Verige bay, Roman villa 1st ct AD

A corinthian column detail from the Venus Temple also in Verige bay, one of the three temples 

View from the Roman villa, bathing is now forbidden here. 

Early Christian church of st. Mary, erected in the 5th/6th ct.

Column detail from the early Christian St. Mary’s Church, built in the 5th/6th ct.

2. Nature

The islands weren’t always so lush and inviting. If it hadn’t been for the visionary Paul Kuplewieser and Alois Zuffar (Alojz Čufar), Brijuni islands might have never reached the glory they bask in today. Zuffar was a talented botanist without a degree, who had a knack for planting these wondrous creatures that now stand as evidence of a great transformation. With some help of Robert Koch who had at the time just been making breakthrough investigations in the field of malaria (among others), the once malaria-infested Brijuni islands were transformed into an oasis we now know and love. Quinine was prescribed to cure the residents. Additionally, Brijuni swamps were populated with an invasive fish species Gambusia holbrooki, that feeds on mosquitoes, and eventually, swamps were dried out and the land was filled with larger Mediterranean trees. A lot of elements had to come together to achieve this beauty! 

Since I’ve mentioned quinine, it doesn’t hurt to remember that quinine was extracted from the bark of the cinchona tree, native to South America, which is the recipe given to the Jesuits by the Quechua, the Cañari and the Chimú indigenous peoples of modern-day Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador. It’s a sad paradox that the colonisers wouldn’t have been able to colonise further had it not been for the indigenous people providing the cure. 

Aleppo pine is not autochthonous to the region, however, the forestation of karst areas with the Aleppo pine was known even to the Romans. 

Evergreen oaks, one of the symptoms of Jupiter, also used for divination in Greek mythology, are autochthonous in the region

That’s me, not a part of the usual scenery

Mediterranean garden with all kinds of plants and flowers
A shade only a forest of Aleppo pines can provide

When the sun comes down a little, the animals come out from the shade to eat. These roam freely on the island. 

The legendary 1600 year-old Olive tree

3. Great beaches, wild and free or public, also nice.

If you love to be alone on a beach, the islands offer plenty of places for private sunbathing, but the public beaches are also alluring (toilets and showers are a plus). There is one designated FKK beach with a toilet, but you can be a nudist anywhere besides the public beach. Wherever you go, you’ll find warm seawater (the sea is pretty shallow in this part of the northern Adriatic), with tiny fish swimming peacefully, sea cucumbers, various sponges, for example, cute Porifera, Pinna Nobilis, the largest shell of the Adriatic, fried egg jellyfish and so on.

The thing that made me wonder is a curious amount of the comb jellyfish, which is definitely not native to the Adriatic sea. This not-really-a-jellyfish came with the ballast waters of large tankers that docked in some of the northern Adriatic ports: Trieste, Pula or Rijeka. We haven’t started dealing with this invasive species that feeds on fish eggs and wreaks havoc on the ecosystem, but I hope we will, as it is also rather eerie to swim through a swarm of these, even though they do not sting. What’s worse, you never know where they will be, as they seem to occupy different beaches at different times. Sorry no photo, but here’s one I’ve found on the Internet:

Comb jellyfish, not a real jellyfish. Photograph: Amy-Jane Beer

If you encounter the fried egg jellyfish, these are entirely friendly even though they look dangerous, it’s just slightly uncomfortable to meet one of those unprepared. They don’t sting either.

4. Exhibitions

There are several quality exhibitions to visit; 1. an exhibition focusing on Paul Kuplewieser’s life, 2. an interactive exhibition about the life of Austrian doctor Otto Lenz in the boathouse, 3. a large photo exhibition about Tito’s life on the islands and 4. an exhibition on gothic frescoes in the Northern Adriatic in the gothic church of St. German, and 5. zoological collection of taxidermy animals. You’ll find the impressive array of historical personas who visited Brijuni during the time Tito was alive. Tito definitely put Brijuni on the global map by having The Non-Aligned Movement declaration discussed and signed on Brijuni’s Vanga island. Three major leaders signed the declaration; Yugoslavia’s president, Josip Broz Tito, India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Egypt’s second president, Gamal Abdel Nasser on 19th July 1956. Tito’s residence on Brijuni islands, the White Villa, was a highly esteemed residence for global leaders of the time. Nowadays, Bijela Vila is a presidential residence, and it mostly stays empty. 

A sculpture by Dušan Džamonja titled Golub mira (Dove of Peace)

The White Villa, where statesmen and political leaders were hosted from 1953. Closed for visitors. 

5. Space to wander 

One hot midday, when I was searching for the remnants of St. Peter’s church somewhere in the forest shade, I stumbled upon this surprise hammock that just invited me to lay down and rest for a bit. While I did, I saw two male fallow deers (bucks) pass near me. I didn’t take a photo of them, as I didn’t want to interrupt that precious moment.

Picture your legs here. 

Who has done this? A little bird told me it was carved by an artist from Pula, who makes jewelry from olive trees: Okór Jewelry (I was not paid for this) 

When I eventually did find the remnants of the 7th/8th ct church of St Peter elsewhere in the middle of a forest, I was a bit disappointed, as there’s barely anything left there. On the other hand, by that moment I may have become very spoiled considering I’ve seen such impressive remnants in excellent shape, for example, the Byzantium Castrum, in which the earliest stratum is from 1st ct BC.  

Remnants of st. Peter’s church

6. Hotels that feel stuck in time, not in a bad way (unless you need to check your privilege)

There are currently three hotels on the island; Neptun, Karmen and Istra, projected by Austrian architect Kramer Eduard, who also projected the boathouse. A little bird told me that when they were remodelling the boathouse into a museum, they didn’t have to change the wooden windows, as they were built to last (these windows are more than a 100 years old, and mind you, the boathouse is just above the sea and windows sustained the salt and winds). There are several private and exclusive villas for rent, such as Villa Lovorka. All hotels were built by 1913, courtesy of spearhead Paul Kuplewieser who was not only a visionary but also a marketing genius. There was a newspaper he issued from 1910 in order to encourage rich visitors to the islands, Brioni Insel-Zeitung. He even invited influencers of the time, the archduchess Maria Josefa of the Viennese court being one of the first to play the influencer role in order to advertise a tourist destination. While some people complain that hotel Neptun hasn’t been renovated since the 1970s, there’s a specific charm to it (the way one has keys for rooms instead of room cards for example). I stayed at Hotel Karmen and loved the way it felt so 1970s that I believe I will come back here again, instead of Istria which has been renovated recently.  

Hotels Neptun and Istria, and the boathouse on the far left

View from the hotel Karmen’s reception

View from the room. I choose the park view, so I can wake up looking at the pine trees I’m so in love with.

Finally, the way visiting most new places reinvigorates one’s soul is true for Brijuni islands, except the nourishing effects of this place seem to exceed any other I have previously visited. Maybe it’s nostalgia’s bitter-sweet effect, and the way memories make us simultaneously smile and frown at the way time passes and can never be pinpointed except for the very second we’re living in and even that’s already gone. And maybe we need to incorporate past lessons in order to truly move ahead. Maybe that’s what rejuvenates me. Whatever your soul’s woe, bring it to Brijuni and see what happens to it. But don’t take any rocks away from here either, like rich visitors did in the beginning of the 20th century. Back then, taking memorabilia found in the Roman villa of Verige bay was a given. We gotta leave some for the generations to come otherwise soon there’ll be none left. Also, please, don’t leave cigarette butts on the beach. It is a national park after all.

Words by: Ravijojla Novaković

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