Monday, October 28, 2019
Vagabonding Day 28
Brijuni National Park, Croatia
National Parks. Anyone who knows me very well knows that I’m obsessed with them. I dream about National Parks. Literally. I have the Ken Burn’s documentary series “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” playing most nights to help me sleep (thanks, insomnia!).
As we decided where to go next after Rovinj, Brijuni National Park seemed like a natural next step. Situated on a group of 14 small islands not far away, Brijuni was only a hop, skip, and a jump away. Ok actually we took a bus to Pula, a taxi to Fažana, and a ferry to Brijuni… but you get the idea.
Granted National Park status in 1983, Brijuni isn’t your typical National Park. The Brijuni Islands were the summer residence of the former leader of Yugoslavia, Josip Broz Tito. He lived on the Brijuni Islands from 1945 until his death in 1980 and hosted many political meetings there as well as celebrities. The islands are also home to a safari park with animals donated to Tito by foreign dignitaries as well as ancient Roman ruins and fully preserved dinosaur footprints from the Cretaceous Period. Brijuni continued to remain a National Park when Croatia gained independence from Yugoslavia in 1991.
We arrived on the biggest island, Veliki Brijun, on the 11:00 am ferry and left our bags at the magnificent Hotel Neptun. Originally constructed in 1913 by Austrian magnate Paul Kupelwieser, Hotel Neptun is a grand building that formerly housed guests of President Tito. Since we arrived in the off season, the staff upgraded us to a swanky room with a balcony and a seaview.
The National Park does not allow cars on the island but it does have golf carts and bicycles for rent. Anyone who knows Daniel very well knows that he’s obsessed with golf carts. He extols the virtues of golf carts with some regularity has yearned to drive one as long as I’ve known him. So we headed over to the Sport Station after we checked in and rented our own private golf cart for the entire day. This would have been a rather expensive venture in the summertime but since we arrived in the off season the price was greatly reduced.
Golf cart obtained, we were soon zipping around the island at a top speed of 15 mph. We hadn’t done much research on Brijuni before arriving and didn’t really know what we were in for. Our knowledge basically extended to “National Park” and “Tito History Museum” as well as “Safari Park” and “golf cart rentals available”. Surely it couldn’t get any better than that.
So when we arrived at the impressive Byzantine Castrum ten minutes later, we were blown away. The ruins of an ancient city stretched out before us, covering approximately 2.5 acres. Originally settled in the 1st century BC during the reign of Roman Emperor Augustus, remains have also been found from the Late Antiquity period as well as Eastern Gothic, Byzantium, Carolingian and Venetian periods. It’s hard to imagine how this city would have changed over the years as each new group of settlers arrived.
Not far from the Byzantine Castrum is the crumbling Basilica of St. Mary. Constructed in the 6th century, it was built for use by the inhabitants of the Castrum. Today, the structure is half hidden in the trees and its moss-covered walls seem shrouded in mystery.
As it turns out, ancient ruins dotted much of the island. We also came across the remains of a luxurious Roman villa that once stretched all the way around an entire bay. Construction on the Roman Villa in Verige Bay began in the 1st century BC and the villa was used up until the 6th century AD.
Once we had our fill of ancient Roman ruins, we headed to the Safari Park on the other side of the island. We arrived at a tall fenced enclosure and pushed a button to open the gate. Soon we were meandering through the green rolling pastures of the Safari Park *in our own golf cart*. At this point I was bouncing in my seat with excitement. Golf cart? Check. Island? Check. Enclosed Safari Park on an island that you can drive through in said golf cart? Check. It really did feel like were in the movie Jurassic Park.
And similarities didn’t end there. At the other end of the Safari Park, we passed through yet another gate to enter the Park Dinosaura (aka Dinosaur Park). Apparently, bi-pedal carnivorous dinosaurs called theropods inhabited the islands 125 million years ago. Their three-toed footprints are still clearly visible on the island’s beaches right by the Safari Park. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
Later in the day, we parked the golf cart for a bit and went on a short nature hike. We walked along an interpretive trail which provided information on the area’s flora and fauna. We saw the remains of ancient lime kilns, used to produce lime from the naturally abundant limestone.
After passing by a 1600-year old olive tree (you know…as one does) we ended the day at the Tito History Museum. The ground floor is chiefly filled with taxidermied animals from the Safari Park which was a little creepy but still fascinating. Apparently, the park used to house all sorts of animals including lions and tigers and chimpanzees.
We found the top floor to be more interesting, however. A photographic display depicts a (somewhat sanitized) history of Tito’s life on the Brijuni Islands. As a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement, Tito hosted numerous meetings on Brijuni with other heads of state. The Non-Aligned Movement as an organization was founded on the Brijuni islands in 1956.
It’s hard for me to wrap my head around the layers of history on the Brijuni Islands. With so many different kinds of historical and culturally significant artifacts in one place, it’s a little overwhelming. But I’m glad we decided to check out Brijuni National Park – it’s one of my favorite places we’ve travelled to so far.