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Clare
Clare

Day 4: Brijuni

When we originally planned the holiday, our intention for today was to visit the town of Poreč, a bit further up the coast from Rovinj. It looked like a pretty place in photos, but one of the guidebooks I read later suggested that it was overwhelmed by tourists on package holidays, so I began to wonder whether it was such a good idea after all. Looking at the map for inspiration of other places that would make good day trips from Pula, my eye was caught by the Brijuni National Park.

Brijuni is a group of 14 small islands not far off the coast from a little fishing village called Fažana. I had read about the islands recently in a Croatian novel, which had explained how the former Yugoslavian leader Tito had had his summer residence there. I knew that he had created some sort of safari park there, full of exotic animals which had been donated to him by other world leaders, but that was about all. A bit of googling later, it seemed that the islands looked really pretty so we decided to abandon plans to go to Poreč and give Brijuni a try instead.

Because the islands are a national park, you can only visit them via a special boat that runs from Fažana. This is an important point to be aware of, because there are lots of tour companies in Pula and surrounding towns trying to sell "Brijuni" boat trips, but the majority of these simply circle the islands, giving you a panoramic view of them. That might be nice, but landing on them sounded a lot more fun to us.

There is a local bus which runs from the centre of Pula to Fažana, but unfortunately the timetable is a bit erratic, so we had to make an early start this morning, catching a bus at 9am, although we weren't actually due to get a boat until 11.30. Because the national park boats can only accommodate a certain number of people per day, you have to contact the national park office a day or so in advance to reserve a place. I had originally emailed asking to reserve spaces on the boat leaving at 10am, but the lady at the national park office had informed me that they only had a German guided tour leaving at 10am and that if I got the boat at 11.30, I could go on the Croatian guided tour instead.

The Croatian tourist industry seems big on the idea of guided tours and organised excursions, and Brijuni was no exception. You have to pay 200 kuna (about £20) to enter the national park, but this includes your return boat fare to the islands as well as panoramic circuit around the island on a tourist train and some sort of guided walks. This isn't normally the sort of thing we would sign up for, but we had to pay the 200 kuna regardless of whether we went on the tour or not, so in the end we decided to give it a go. I would probably have understood a lot more of the German guided tour at 10am, but trying it in Croatian sounded like an interesting challenge :) So it was that we arrived in Fažana at 09.30 with two hours to kill before our boat.

Two things quickly became clear: Fažana is very picturesque, but very small. Within a couple of minutes we had found the village church and main square.

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We had a stroll around the waterfront.

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There was a pier sticking out into the sea which we were able to walk along and get some beautiful views back towards the town.

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Within about 20 minutes we had seen all there was to see, so we found a cafe with a lovely view where we were able to sit drinking coffee until it was time for our boat.

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At 11am we set off for the national park office to purchase our tickets and then queue up for the boat. There were more lovely views of Fažana as we pulled out to sea.

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The boat was taking us to the island of Veliki Brijun, which is the largest island in the group and the only one which tourists are routinely allowed to visit. It was a short journey (around 20 minutes) and as we pulled into the harbour we could see the tourist train waiting for us!

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We piled into the carriages and soon left the boat behind as the train began its trip around the island.

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Our first stop was the safari park, housing the descendents of some of the animals which were donated to Tito. There were ostriches...

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...zebras...

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...various sorts of donkeys...

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...and even an elephant.

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I had expected that all of the animals would have been gifts from African or Asian leaders - and many of them were - but the guide also pointed out to us an enclosure of Shetland ponies which had been a gift from Queen Elizabeth!

It may not have been the most exciting safari park from the point of view of the animals, but this probably does win the prize for the safari park with the best view ever.

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After a short break to stroll around and enjoy it, we were back on the train for the next leg of our tour. This took us round the various official residences, including those where Tito himself stayed and those where he housed his foreign visitors, which over the years included figures as diverse as Haile Selassie, Willy Brandt, the Queen, Sophia Loren and Elizbeth Taylor. Today the residences are still owned by the Croatian government and used from time to time by the president. They are all surrounded by very high fences and guarded by Croatian soldiers who look like they would spring to life if you started trying to take a photograph of them. The surrounding countryside is very pretty though.

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The train then took us past the remains of a Roman settlement and the guide started explaining a bit more about the islands' history.

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Originally settled by Istrian tribes, the islands eventually became part of the Roman empire and we were looking at the remains of a large Roman villa.

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Along with the rest of the region, the islands spent a long time in the possession of Venice, but became completely uninhabited because of problems with malara. The Austrian industrialist Paul Kupelwieser purchased the islands in the nineteenth century and hired a scientist to help eradicate the mosquitos which were carrying the malaria. He then proceeded to turn the islands into a fashionable holiday resort for the Austrian aristocracy, building several hotels and even a golf course. The golf course is still there today, although the guide explained that it was hard work for them to keep the grass in suitable condition for golf, as the fact that the island is now part of a national park means that they aren't allowed to use any ferilisers or pesticides.

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This concluded our panoramic train ride. The rest of the guided tour was going to continue on foot, starting with a 15 minute tour around the island's chapel.

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We'd survived the tourist train, but the thought of following someone holding a sign around on foot for the next three hours didn't really appeal, so while everyone was disembarking from the train we decided to slip away an explore on our own. It wasn't obligatory to participate in the excursion, though we did need to make sure we were back at the harbour on time for our boat at 4pm.

The train had been quite crowded, but as soon as we had left it behind we were able to see just how deserted the island is.

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Although there are some hotels where tourists can stay overnight, no one lives on the island and once you get off the track which the train takes you can walk for ages without meeting another tourist.

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We didn't have a map of the island but there were helpful signs and arrows indicating the way to the main attractions. We started with a visit to the Mediteranean botanical gardens.

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They were really beautiful, and surprisingly green considering how hot the Croatian climate is.

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From there we retraced part of the train route until we found our way back to the Roman ruins.

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The remains of the settlement are situated in a little bay which the Romans were able to use as a natural harbour. The guide had explained that due to the changing level of the ground over the centuries, there were even more ruins which were now under the water and which could only be seen by diving.

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There was hardly anyone else around, so we were able to explore to our hearts content.

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Unfortunately there was no explanation of exactly what we were looking at, but we could see the remains of lots of walls, seemingly separating different rooms.

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There were also lots of little pillars...

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...and a very ornate column.

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The blue of the sea made a beautiful backdrop for everything.

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Once we had finished exploring the ruins, there was one more thing on Brijuni which we really wanted to see: the dinosaur footprints! Apparently over 200 dinosaur footprints have been found on the island, and there's some sort of museum where you can see them. We retraced our steps until we found a signpost which indicated the correct direction, and began to walk that way.

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We weren't sure exactly where the footprints were, but we still had plenty of time until the boat.

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Frustratingly though, after we'd been walking for about half an hour or so we came to another set of signposts, which listed everything else that was supposed to be in the direction we were going except for the dinosaur footprints. We were a bit annoyed but kept walking anyway, enjoying the views of the island.

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On our way we stumbled across the ruins of a Byzantine palace.

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This wasn't something which seemed to feature on the guided tour at all, so we had it completely to ourselves.

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We continued walking through the forest, and after a while I could here some strange rustling sounds. If this had been a Lithuanian forest then I might have been a bit concerned, but the guide had explained that the biggest animals native to the islands were deer. It's a bit difficult to make out from the photographs, but as we peeked through the trees we caught sight of a little family of deer :)

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A little further along we came across some cactuses. I thought the guide this morning had said that they were donated by India and that the Croatians had found a way to make rakija out of them, but both these facts seem so odd that I'm not completely sure whether I understood correctly!

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Shortly after the cactuses we got a little excited again when we found another sign mentioning the dinosaur footprints. Perhaps we were going in the right direction after all! We walked along the coastline for a bit...

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...but eventually came to a dead end outside the safari park and had to turn back.

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It's a shame that the footprints proved to be so elusive (and that the signs were so confusing!). Next time we will have to come back with a proper map!

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We made it back to the harbour around 3.30, with just time to grab a cold drink before our boat set sail back to the mainland.

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By this point we were absolutely starving, so we found a nice restaurant with a view back towards Brijuni and enjoyed a rather late lunch of pizza.

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The Brijuni islands are beautiful and we would definitely go back, although once in a lifetime is probably enough for the tourist train :)

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