A quick tour of Brijuni National Park

Last week we were in Istria exploring possibilities for some new tours due to increase in bookings we have for this truly magical part of the country. One of the places I wanted to visit was the Brijuni National Park. Last time I was there was in elementary school some 30 years ago :) Many things have changed since and Brijuni are even no longer in the same country, so it was time to visit.

There are few ways to get to the NP but guests usually come by the big boat from Fažana. The picturesque seaside town is just perfect place to start the visit with its cafes and restaurant lined along the main promenade. The office of the NP is just across from the big pier and that’s where you get the tickets.

From Fažana to Brijuni

From Fažana to Brijuni

The boat is quite spacious and it is a smooth ride to the main harbor of the National Park.

Brijuni Main Harbor Brijuni Main Harbor

The story of Brijuni is fascinating! One can literally make a movie about these beautiful islands:

The Brijuni Islands had been used for their quarries up to the late 19th century. The islands belonged to Venice from the Middle Ages, and stone from the islands was used to build the palaces and bridges of the city. Parts of quarries can be seen now in the main harbor area.

Since 1815, the islands became part of the Austrian Empire, which later became Austria-Hungary and they have built a impressive Fort Tegetthoff as well as several other fortresses on other islands of the archipelago.

The Austro-Hungarian Navy abandoned the fortress in 1893 and the Viennese business magnate Paul Kupelwieser bought the whole archipelago and created an exclusive resort. First class hotels, restaurants, beach resorts, a casino and a yacht harbor …made Brijuni a very popular destination of the most important people of Austro-Hungarian empire as well as aristocracy of the entire continent.

In 1918 after World War I Brijuni became part of the state of Italy. Karl Kupelwieser, the son of the founder of the estate tried to maintain the former splendor, but after the economic crisis following the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the estate went bankrupt and Karl committed suicide.

After World War II, Brijuni became part of Yugoslavia and President Josip Broz Tito made the Brijuni Islands the State Summer Residence of Yugoslavia. Almost 100 foreign heads of state visited Tito on his islands, along with film stars including Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Sophia Loren, Carlo Ponti, and Gina Lollobrigida. Tito died in 1980, and by 1983 the islands were declared a National Park of Yugoslavia.

Today, we can just image all this splendor…

Our vehicle of choice

Our vehicle of choice

So after a short boat ride, we got to the main harbor and went to rent a golf cart to drive around the island of Veliki Brijun. This is the only part of the park officially open to public and it holds most of the interesting spots for general visitors.
Golf cart was much better option for the three of us then renting a bike but that is a great alternative as the flat roads are asphalted and with lots of signs.

Mali Brijun island in the distance.

Mali Brijun island in the distance.

First stop – Safari Park

Safari park

Safari park

Push the button and the doors open. I still remember all those animals seeing as a school kid. It was quite impressive back then as most of the wild animals we saw for the first time.

African ostrich

African ostrich

Brijuni Safari Park is home to a variety of exotic animals which were given to the park by the diplomatic partners of Tito. The Nilgai, Zebu and Asian Elephant were donated as a gift from Indira Ghandi, Plains Zebra and Mountain Zebra were given by Ahmed Sékou Touré from Guinea, Waterbuck came from Ethiopia… We did not get to see Lanka, the only elephant remaining after Sony died 5 years ago, but we saw plenty of other animals peacefully enjoying their pastures.

Peace on Brijuni

Peaceful coexistence on Brijuni

Next stop was a very impressive Byzantine castrum.

Byzantine castrum

Byzantine castrum

Dating back to 5th century, this is not a typical castrum (a military fortress) but it is a mix of civilian buildings and military barracks and walls. The settlement was abandoned probably in the 8th century.

The gates of castrum

The gates of castrum

Driving through the pine forests, Brijuni kept revealing an amazing wealth of sites for such a small island. Some historic, some recent, this place is just a treasure trove of both historic and natural wonders.

Ruins of a huge Roman villa

Ruins of a huge Roman villa

Mediterranean garden

Mediterranean garden

One of the must see animals of the park is a 60 years old kakadu parrot Koki who was not so cooperative when we visited.

Koki relaxing in the back Koki relaxing in the back

And Brijuni are the home of 1600 years old olive tree. One of the oldest in the Mediterranean!

Brijuni olive tree

Brijuni olive tree

Like so many places in Croatia, Brijuni National Park is another “potential” nowhere near used to it’s maximum.  I am glad that there are no longer big cats cramped in small cages and that’s all I care about. Brijuni are a pleasure to visit for families, historians, nature lovers, couples, golfers… One can spend days staying in the hotels there and explore each site in detail or, one can do a quick 2-3 hour visit just to enjoy a unique atmosphere of this amazing archipelago. And then plan the second visit!

Tours in Croatia

Curious “gallery” on Šolta Island

In Croatia, although small, there are hundreds of really cool spots that I still have to visit. One, visited recently, easily makes the top 10 list of the strangest and coolest places I have seen in a while! It is nothing particularly exceptional, it is not something breathtakingly beautiful but it is just a very cool and unusual place. It is a mysterious exhibition in an abandoned military tunnel on the island of Šolta.

Magical coast of Šolta

Magical coast of Šolta

I have stumbled upon the information on one local forum and ever since wanted to visit personally. It took me several months to finally find time to go to Šolta and once there, we drove to the small inlet on the western side of the island where the remains of a former Yugoslav military base can still be seen.

Remains of a former military base

Remains of a former military base

One can also see where former canons were placed. Now gone, I am not sure if they were taken down by our military after the war or by the scrap metal collectors operating (devastating) numerous places on the coast.

Former canon outposts

Former canon outposts

Military tunnels are no mystery to me as we have visited several over the years and one this past summer on Vis Island: https://secretdalmatia.wordpress.com/2014/11/29/military-tunnels-of-vis-island/

But this one is different. Completely!

Instead of holding the remains of former army life, traces of the times that passed by, this particular tunnel on Šolta someone turned into a gallery….

Entering....

Entering….

Someone has made large prints of photos of famous people from the mid 20th century and placed them on the walls of several rooms inside the tunnels.

Che Guevara

Che Guevara

Dr. Albert Schweitzer

Dr. Albert Schweitzer

There are also some giant fuzzy spiders hanging from the ceilings!

Spiders! (from Mars?)

The main “gallery room” is the most impressive although I could not recognize several faces…

Main room

Main room

And there is also a guest in one of the rooms that could not find his way out :)

Left behind

Left behind

I could not find any details on this tunnel. No details who created this, what is the message behind this “installation”… Maybe to remind us of that crazy part of the 20th century (60s and 70s) when these tunnels were built?

But the place is just great and well worth visiting! And preserving the exhibition as is! Please note that abandoned military tunnels are not 100% safe so do not visit unless with a local.

There is one exit to a small cove. Although there is plenty of air in the tunnels, fresh sea breeze coming from this exit seemed to bring all the famous rosemary and myrtle scents of Šolta.

The light at the end of the tunnel

The light at the end of the tunnel

Visiting these tunnels was a very different experience. One does not expect something this unique and different to be found in a completely abandoned place. Just faces of once important people in tunnels long abandoned. And that eternal scented breeze of Šolta finding its way through the darkness.

Kastel Gomilica – Faded gem of the past

Kastela are not often part of my visits. Once a beautiful part of the coast (if not the most beautiful), now is simply a mess of modern construction, 50 years of socialist industrial “planning” and 25 years of not doing anything… or at least anything good. So, even the 7 lovely historic towns definitely deserve attention, it is just a narrow strip by the sea that is worth visiting. And for all the good reasons! History and architecture: typical Dalmatian coastal villages, wine: Bedalov cellar is right by the water and we offer a very unique “behind the closed doors” foodie experience in Sućurac at our friend’s beautifully restored place. So when a friend of mine, Mr. Ivan Šuta, director of Kaštela museums invited me for a short tour, I was more than happy to come along.

Kastilac fortress of Kastel Gomilica

Kastilac fortress of Kastel Gomilica

All of Kastela got their names after castles that were built in each 7 of them and most of them are still standing. Today, Kastela are making up one large, 40 000 inhabitants big town but it was not like that in the past and each of them was a separate little town with its own history.

Arguably, Kastel Gomilica is the prettiest one. It was built in the first half of the 16th century by Benedictine nuns from Split who built it for protection of their servants from the Turks that were pillaging in the region. This patch of land was donated to them all the way back in 1078 by King Zvonimir of Croatia and there is still an ancient church nearby standing as a silent witness. They also erected Catholic Monastery on a small island, that became today’s Kaštilac.

Kastilac from the inside

Kastilac from the inside

Kastilac today is in a very poor shape. The local authorities have bought one ruined building right next to the entrance and they are starting the renovation of the main tower as well as a nunnery at the opposite end of a short street. Kaštilac is fairly quiet and very few people still live there. And cats…

Lazy Tuesday morning in Kastel Gomilica

Lazy Tuesday morning in Kastel Gomilica

But some folks are quite creative with elaborate seashell design :)

Seashells all over!

Seashells all over!

The Kastilac will have a very interesting appearance on the Game of Thrones in season 5 acting as a distant and mysterious Braavos! That will bring more visitors for sure and, hopefully, some funds for full restoration of this beautiful heritage site.

Getting ready for the summer

Getting ready for the summer

Next door, the boats are getting painted for the season… Just a picture perfect Dalmatian scene!
Then we ventured into the town itself. Mr. Šuta warned of several Roman monuments that, over the centuries, became parts of the the local house walls and facades.

One of the walls is even holding Aesculapius head! This gem of late antiquity is now in a fairly risky spot next to cables and wires and there are discussions of its removal.

Aesculapius and a Roman monument at one of the houses.

Aesculapius and a Roman monument at one of the houses.

So, Kastel Gomilica holds many secrets but it is still a mess. This is not a place you enjoy just as a typical tourist destination although it can be such a lovely seaside town attracting flocks of people just for an easy stroll or some nice sightseeing.

Old doors

Old doors

For now, the doors will remain closed and we can only hope that a better times are coming.

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