Every since I got back from my trip to Croatia with James Villas a few weeks ago, (read about it here), I’ve not been able to stop thinking about our trip to Brijuni National Park.
Brijuni National Park is a cluster of 14 islands, just off the Istrian coast. If you’re flying into Pula and staying in that part of Croatia then you really MUST visit, even if it’s just for the day. There are hotels on the main island too – Veliki Brijuni – and it would be a very quick and easy transfer if you wanted to stay in the national park itself.
We were staying in a James Villa right up in the northern part of Istria, but even then it was still totally doable as a day trip. They have plenty of properties nearer to Pula too though, so worth checking out.
How to get to the Brijuni Islands
It’s dead easy to get to Brijuni. As you can see from the map, Pula airport, which is only a two hour flight from the UK, is very close by. You can either drive to Fazana, which takes about twenty minutes, or there are local buses from Pula bus station.
Fazana itself is a very quaint little port town, with a brilliant line in naff fridge magnets. Whenever I travel I always bring home the most ‘unusual’ fridge magnet I can find for our fridge collection.
(I actually bought two in Fazana. I couldn’t resist. One thermometer style – classic – and one that was actually a tiny bottle of grappa! Genius. It meant I had to throw away a bottle of shampoo to be able to bring it home in my hand luggage but it was totally worth it.)
There are plenty of waterside cafes and restaurants where you can enjoy a little coffee al fresco, or something stronger, while you wait for your boat. (More info on boats here.)
The boat ride itself only takes about 15 minutes and there is seating on the open deck or in the shade if you’re worried about the sun. The best option of course is to sit outside but sport a stylish cap like mine.
The history of Brijuni
Brijuni is rich in history and there were settlements on the islands as far back as ancient Roman times. You can still visit the remains of a Roman villa, dating from the first century, and do stop for a look at the ruins of the Kastrum, the richest archeological site on Brijuni, boasting finds from the period of the Roman Republic and Empire, Late Antiquity, Eastern Goths, Byzantium and Carolingian period.
The ruins of St Mary’s basillica are also worth visiting. Based on the height of the remaining walls and the size of the basillica, it’s believed to have been built by a large population of the nearby kastrum in the 5th and 6th century.
Time passed, lots of stuff happened, but the bit I like best is when the whole collection of islands was bought in 1893 by business magnate Paul Kupelwieser. What followed were, it feels to me, Brijuni’s glory days. The estate was filled with first class hotels, restaurants, beach resorts and a casino and became THE place to go for anyone who was anyone in the early 20th century.
Visitors to the resort would head out in the morning after a hearty breakfast to enjoy polo, swimming and other sports, frolicking in the sea and generally being very glamorous and rich. Later in the day they would return to their hotels for gin cocktails and dancing. (I don’t have facts to back up the gin cocktails bit, but that’s how I imagine it.)
Unfortunately for Brijuni, things started to go a bit wrong after the first world war. Karl Kupelwieser, the son of Paul, tried to keep things going, but after the Wall Street crash in 1929 the estate when bankrupt and Karl committed suicide. The islands were bought by the Italian government and fell into decline until 1945 when they became part of Yugoslavia and President Tito declared them his official summer residence. After his death in 1980, the islands were declared a national park in 1983.
Tito’s influence is evident across the islands, not least in the form of Lanka, one of two surviving Indian elephants given as a gift to Tito from Indira Ghandi.
Just by the elephant there is a little cafe where you can buy drinks and ice creams. It’s always good to know where you can buy an ice cream on a day out I think.
Animals on the Brijuni Islands
There are lots more animals to see on Brijuni as well as the elephant.
To see as much of the island as possible, your best bet is either to catch one of the guided land trains or, as we did, to hire a golf buggy. Although you are a little bit left to your own devices in terms of discovering things, the golf buggy does give you more freedom and allow you to explore at your own pace.
And you get to DRIVE. I don’t think they let you do that on the mini tourist trains.
We spent a little while driving along the coast roads, swooning over the colour of the sea. I swear I must have said ‘isn’t the sea just beautiful?’ about 27 times, but fortunately everyone else in our group was as well, so I don’t think I was too annoying.
After a little while though we pulled the buggies up at some closed gates that said ‘safari’. The lead buggy stopped to open the gates and we trundled through. It felt a bit like we were entering Jurassic Park and I kept expecting to see a diplodocus head pop out from behind a bush, or to feel the ground start to shake from giant dinosaur footprints.
The Jurassic vibe was intensified by the fact that we kept seeing pictures of dinosaurs on signs. It was most intriguing.
Fortunately for us, the only animals we encountered on the safari were of the slightly less ferocious variety, although to be fair, the ostrich looked like it would take your arm off soon as look at you. Don’t expect lions or tigers or anything like that – the safari is more of a novelty than anything else, but still quite fun.
After our tour guide had got told off by safari rangers for climbing over a gate to collect some peacock feathers, we moved off in the direction of the dinosaur signs, and came to a second gate. This time we had to leave the buggies behind and proceed on foot.
The tension was mounting. It felt like at any moment someone might suggest we split up so as to be able to explore better. NEVER SPLIT UP IN A SCARY SITUATION. Why does no one ever remember this on the films??
We walked through the trees and arrived at a beach. It was very beautiful, (did I mention how glorious the water was??), and lo and behold there was a dinosaur.
We all had a bit of a laugh at the randomness of a huge dinosaur statue. Perhaps it was just to amuse kids? Maybe it was some kind of in joke that we didn’t understand.
Oh no, hang on, it’s because there are ACTUAL DINOSAUR FOOTPRINTS THERE.
Not fake ones, not pretend – footprints made by REAL DINOSAURS. Apparently over 200 footprints have been found on Brijuni. The dinosaur statue doesn’t look so stupid now does it?
Sports on Brijuni
There’s plenty to do on Veliki Brijuni if mooching about looking at elephants and enjoying the view isn’t enough for you, including golf, cycling and tennis.
As the translation of the official Brijuni National Park website will tell you, ‘…sports and recreation offer on the Brijuni Islands from year to year is richer. These islands as if they were created for outdoor sports. The possibility of doing sports in the fresh air and unspoiled nature, surrounded by deer, mouflon, rabbits and peacocks, is really great.’
Oh, and there’s a 1700 year old olive tree.
What’s not to love?