Exploring Istria – National Park Brijuni

From Bale, it was an easy day trip to the island of Brijuni, a place we had long wanted to visit. Since the 1990s it’s a National Park that anyone can go to, but before that, it was the summer residence of Yugoslavia’s President Tito and off-limits to all but government officials and foreign dignitaries. The boat service runs from Fažana, or you can take your own boat and explore all of the islands in the archipelago.

Brijuni harbour

We went as a day trip, but there are hotels to stay in and villas to rent, thanks to wealthy Austrian industrialist, Paul Kupelwieser, who bought these islands in 1894 and developed them as a holiday resort for himself and his rich friends. The estate included first-class hotels, restaurants, villas, casinos, a golf course and yacht harbour. Until the First World War, it was extremely popular with the Viennese upper class and members of the European aristocracy. Between the wars, the general decline in world economics led to the estate becoming run down, until Tito made his official summer residence there, the island once again hosted heads of state and celebrities.

Train to the Safari park

You can buy your tickets online and download the Brijuni Guide App to your phone. It’s a great pocket guide, with good descriptions and a handy map to follow. Our tour was mostly archaeological sites, with some gardening and cultural interest thrown in. First up, the Boathouse, which turned out to be a rather beautiful architect-designed family residence for the island doctor, combined with a surgery and pharmacy. Dating from 1901, it reminds me very much of the style of Charles Rennie Mackintosh who was designing buildings in Scotland at around the same time.

Veliki Brijuni has been carefully landscaped with rolling grassland and trees. It has the feeling of a parkland as you follow the pathways and watch the herds of deer stepping across the grass. From the harbour, we walked over to see the old olive tree, reputed to be over 1600 years old. It still produces 30 kilos of olives each year, which is good going!

From there we wandered along Pine tree alley to the Mediterranean garden, which I have to say I found a little disappointing, as there was more information about the various gazebos than the plants. I had been hoping for some ideas for what to plant in our own garden! And then again, perhaps it’s just not at its best in October?

Next we headed for Verige Bay, with a detour up the nearby hill to see Gradina, a Bronze Age hill fort. During Kupelweiser’s time, trees were cleared to make a horse racing track around the site, which actually helps you to see the extent of the ancient ruins. Impressive walls, but hard to see anything of the enclosed dwellings. Of course, maybe those were only of wood, so not much will remain. We had the place to ourselves, with the exception of a small party of deer.

Down the hill to the remains of a large Roman villa which lies around the rather lovely Verige Bay. The site is extensive, this was clearly the luxury residence of a prosperous Roman family. Again, we have the place to ourselves as we wander up and down steps, deciphering where the rooms were amongst the colonnaded walkways. The views over the bay are just beautiful. What a glorious place to live! There was a full working harbour here, some of which is now underwater. 

Our next target is the Byzantine castrum on the west coast, so we set off across the rolling grassland in the right general direction. Originally the site of a Roman villa, the buildings on Madonna Bay grew into a small fortified town during Byzantine times up to the 5th century AD. The high wall surrounds a warren of houses all huddled together by the bay. Next to it is a more modern villa with protective fencing and warning signs to keep out. The Croatian government still keeps some private properties on the island for its own official use. 

Nearby are the remains of the Basilica of St Mary, deep in the forest. This little church may be one of the earliest in Istria, constructed with stone from more ancient buildings on the island.

From there we walked back along a shady tree-lined alley to the harbour area, where we enjoyed a cold drink on the waterside in front of the hotel while waiting for our boat back to Fažana. All in all, we walked over 5 miles, and were wishing that we’d taken the option to rent bikes or a golf cart so we could have gone further. October was a beautiful time to visit, as we had a lovely sunny day and peace to explore all these interesting sites.

Here’s my sketch for the day – Verige Bay, with the site of the Bronze Age hillfort (and race track) in the background…

Find out more….

Brijuni National Park website