It's been enchanting everyone since the Ancient Romans. Popupla founder Pavia Rosati was just one of the latest to be charmed by the archipelago off the Croatian coastline.
BRIJUNI, Croatia – In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a sacred pleasure dome erect, and on the Brijuni Islands did Yugoslav honcho Josip Tito build himself one hell of a playground.
I spent a day on Brijuni ("Brioni" in Italian) on a trip around Istria in June. I was on someone else's itinerary, so I had no choice. Left to my own devices, I doubt I would have picked this national park as a day trip. And the sight of seven zillion schoolchildren on the ferry from Fažana — snapping selfies, ignoring the adult supervisors shushing them, squealing at that hideous pitch 12-year-old girls uniquely possess — only further convinced me that this would be an annoying, touristy waste of a day. And, damn it, my trusty getaway speedboat was nowhere in sight.
But then we landed and walked into Neptun Hotel, a perfect specimen of a mid-century Mittle-European hotel frozen in time. Room renovations are in progress, but all I saw were older bits in all their marvelous glory: ornate Art Nouveau fonts directing people to the luggage room and the "internet," stained silk lampshades in the bar, Do Not Disturb signs with smiley-face suns, combination vanity-desk-mini-fridge furniture in the rooms, elaborate heavy silver coffee pots. Hang on a second. This place has potential.
I'm not the first person to be charmed by the fourteen small islands in the Brijuni chain. The jetsetters from the empires of Ancient Rome, Venice, Byzantium, and Austro-Hungary, to name just a few, have been laying claim to the area for thousands of years, and they've all left their traces behind. The main island, which gets most of the attention, came into the modern era in 1893 when Austrian magnate Paul Kupelwieser bought the archipelago and set up a resort and golf course. The Italians took it after World War I, and Yugoslav president Josip Tito made it his State Summer Residence after World War II. Tito was a complicated leader, a revolutionary and a dictator, but he did an amazing job of befriending heads of state of all political persuasions. Everyone came to visit him: world leaders from the east and the west, movie stars like Liz Taylor and Sophia Loren. You can see photos of all of them in the museum dedicated to Tito's life.
We spent the day exploring on golf carts, the only motorized form of transportation on the island. You can rent them at a tourist office, along with bikes and masks and fins. We stayed above water, and we were plenty busy.
There are military barracks for secret government guests! (A friendly guard let us sneak in to have a look around the residence, which had a gorgeous dining room table and draping fishnets for curtains. But pretend I didn't tell you that because I don't want to get him in trouble.) There's an olive tree that's more than 1,000 years old! (It's being propped up with a stump, but it still yields fruit.) There's a safari! With zebras and ostriches and goats and horses grazing in wide fields. There's a shy elephant called Lanka! She was a gift to Tito from Indira Gandhi, and she's really sad because she misses her mate, Sony, who died a few years ago. There's Park Dinosaura! Carniverous dinosaurs from the Theropoda group used to roam these shoals when it was the Tethys Ocean, some 115 million years ago, and their remains have since been unearthed. You can step in their three-digit footprints along the rocks. (They're a lot smaller than you'd think.) There are Roman and Byzantine ruins from the 2nd century B.C. to the 14th century A.D. and gates to villas you can't enter. (Slavic secrets. How almost totally James Bond-y.)
Now Brijuni is a national park, which is terrific because it should belong to the people of Croatia. But this place should be so much more. It's a party island waiting to happen. Not in the gross Cabo-Daytona-SoBe way. More in an alternative to the Tuscan villa way. On the ferry back to I emailed my friends asking, "who's got a 40th birthday or an anniversary or something to celebrate?" I'm ready to move in for a few weeks.