Brijuni - Brioni Islands
Cities, Towns and Hamlets


Tito's Retreat Goes Public

By Henry Kamm
New York Times 
January 29, 1989

LEAD: ONE shouldn't really blame Comrade Tito too much. Brioni, the cluster of small and verdant islands off the coast of Istria at the head of the Adriatic, is irresistibly beautiful. And he was deserving of the Yugoslav nation's gratitude for having led its gallant struggle to throw off German occupation and Soviet dominance.

ONE shouldn't really blame Comrade Tito too much. Brioni, the cluster of small and verdant islands off the coast of Istria at the head of the Adriatic, is irresistibly beautiful. And he was deserving of the Yugoslav nation's gratitude for having led its gallant struggle to throw off German occupation and Soviet dominance. And anyway, Brioni had a long history of being privately owned. So, in 1949, flushed with genuine popularity, he declared the archipelago his residence. (The year before his government had made the 14 islands a ''protected area,'' which restricted access to them.) Thereafter, the only persons, Yugoslav or foreign, to set foot on Brioni did so as President Tito's aides or invited guests or because they were needed to care for, feed, protect or otherwise serve him and his favorites.

Now, nine years after the President's demise, foreign tourists, as well as Yugoslavs, are at last free to see the beauties of Brioni and the luxurious improvements made to its main island, Veliki Brion, by, and for the pleasure of, the late leader.

But it must be said that foreigners are meant to benefit more than Yugoslavs. Heavily indebted to the West, Yugoslavia wants the Brioni National Park (as Brioni has been called since 1984) to do its share in reimbursing the country's creditors. Where official status once determined access to the islands, now the ability to pay in foreign, convertible currencies makes the difference.

Still, the total of this year's guests at Brioni's hotels will probably be evenly divided between Yugoslavs and nonYugoslavs, but only because the government tourist agency has not yet succeeded in filling all the rooms with foreigners. According to Zoran Nikolic, the promotion manager for the national park, if current efforts to sell Brioni to international travelers are successful, Yugoslavs ''will have to find somewhere else to go.''

Throughout the year, a fleet of ferries, including two small former mine sweepers, chugs across the two miles of water from the Istrian port of Fazana, carrying daytime excursionists to Veliki Brion. The visitors are taken on guided tours of the island, conducted in Serbo-Croatian, English, Italian or German. They then head back to the mainland, having been in a guide's charge throughout their three-hour stay. Only those who have reserved a hotel room in advance are allowed to explore the island at will, and then only up to a point.

President Tito's White Villa, which was his residence-cum-office for about one-half of the year, remains fenced in, guarded by marines and off-limits. The same is true for the two villas that formerly lodged guests of state, Yugoslav ministers and Communist Party bosses.

Also off-limits for most visitors is the smaller nearby Vanga Island, which the President made into a private retreat, away even from the select few who worked with him at the White Villa. Uninhabited and covered with thick underbrush when Tito discovered its beach in 1952, Vanga was developed by its patron into something like the royal hamlet at Versailles, where Marie Antoinette and her friends played at being shepherds and shepherdesses.

The first photo taken of the marshal on Vanga depicts him as a pioneer, clearing the underbrush with a machete. Later pictures show him in splendidly landscaped or decorated outdoor and indoor settings, working at his various hobbies, for which Vanga was made the playground.

On this tiny island - less than 1,000 yards long and only 15 feet wide at the narrowest point of its figure-eight shape - President Tito had planted and sometimes personally tended a tangerine grove, an orchard and a vineyard; there were also wine cellars, where he produced his Presidential vintages and brandies.

For his indoor pastimes, he harked back to his childhood as a blacksmith's son and his youthful days as a metalworker. A small smithy, complete with caldron, and a metal workshop awaited his idle hours. A photo laboratory served his more sophisticated hobby; its color enlarger was a gift of President John F. Kennedy.

For the time being, Vanga can be visited only with special permission from the Josip Broz Tito Memorial Center in Belgrade, but efforts are being made toward opening it for guided tours to all visitors.

In ideological unease, Yugoslav officials bridle at any suggestion that Vanga, even more than Veliki Brion, was turned into something sumptuous, as pictures show and visitors through the years have recalled. But they do concede that President Tito did well by Brioni.

There was a lot to begin with. The islands' climate is mildly Mediterranean, slightly warmer than the mainland through the year. Veliki Brion was once densely wooded. In fact, earlier proprietors of the islands, wealthy Venetian families, used to lease Brioni to entrepreneurs who exploited its forests and stone quarries.

In 1893, Paul Kupelwieser, an Austrian industrialist, bought the archipelago from a Trieste merchant, who himself had purchased it from the Venetians. Mr. Kupelwieser soon discovered that Veliki Brion, the island he planned to turn into a playground for the wealthy of the Austro-Hungarian empire and the newly united nation of Italy, was overgrown, neglected and, above all, infested with malaria-bearing mosquitoes.

To eradicate the disease, he called in no less a scientist than Robert Koch, the German Nobel Prize-winning discoverer of the tubercule bacillus. Dr. Koch first sent his assistants to Veliki Brion and then arrived himself to devise and put into operation a successful program of research and eradication. His contribution is recalled in a sentimental period tablet, carved into a tree-topped rock-wall behind the island's shorefront hotels. It shows, oddly, a maiden placing a laurel wreath not around Dr. Koch but around a statue of him.

Paul Kupelwieser had much of Veliki Brion's forest landscaped into handsomely laid out parks, crisscrossed by an extensive network of walking paths, some of which are lined by straight rows of stately oaks or romantic, cone-shaped cypresses. Taking advantage of the propitious microclimate, he introduced many trees, shrubs and flowers not native to Brioni, which, in turn, have attracted a rich variety of birds, both as migrants and as permanent residents.

By the turn of the century, Veliki Brion was a vast building site. Four hotels were in operation before the outbreak of World War I. An aqueduct brought water to the hotels, a windmill generated electricity, a narrow-gauge railway carried stones from the quarries to build a wharf. An indoor swimming pool of heated sea water, one of the first of its kind, was installed in one of the hotels. The owner built an elaborate zoo and stocked it with exotic animals.

So great was Brioni's popularity with the Hapsburg and German aristocracies just before their Gotterdammerung, and with the wealthy and famous of Vienna and Budapest, Munich and Berlin, that in 1913 a special sleeping car was added to the daily overnight Vienna-Pula express (Pula was the Austro-Hungarian empire's main naval base) for Paul Kupelwieser's guests. Archduke Franz Frdinand, whose assassination in Sarajevo began the war that destroyed that world, was himself a frequent visitor, as were last German kaiser, Wilhelm II and the last Austrian emperor, Karl I. After the war, Brioni changed flags but not owners. Italy received Istria and the offshore islands, but the Kupelwiesers retained possession. Paul Kupelwieser died in 1919, and his son, Karl, heir to his father's grandiose style, threw himself into a vast program of renewal and heavy debt.

He built the biggest golf course in Europe, founded a polo club and opened a large and expensive gambling casino. The propeller set of between-the-wars Europe came to sail and to ride and to be photographed, and the resulting pictures show how molto dole was the vita of the idle rich in Fascist Italy.

But the younger Kupelwieser lacked his father's luck. His wife ran away. He then married the island's post office clerk. The casino he opened was almost immediately put out of business by a government gambling ban. Lightning hit the riding stables and killed the horses. The mortgages mounted, and the Great Depression struck. In 1930, Karl Kupelwieser shot himself with his father's big-game gun, conveniently near the family burial plot at the center of Veliki Brion. There he reposes, next to his mother. The clerk left and never returned to the island.

Bankrupt, Brioni was seized by Mussolini's government. In the years immediately preceding the next war, Veliki Brion had a final golden age as an aristocratic international pleasure dome. The British Navy brought its polo ponies from Malta to compete in such events as the Baron Rothschild Cup, the Wanda Toscanini Cup and the Prince of Rumania Cup. War brought the Italian Navy in 1941 and German occupation forces in 1943, followed by Allied air raids and much destruction. Liberation gave Istria, a historic meeting place of Latin and Slavic civilizations, to Yugoslavia and Brioni to Tito.

The President set about making Veliki Brion a place fit to entertain his state visitors, which over the years included Queen Elizabeth II, Nikita S. Khrushchev, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Emperor Haile Selassie. Ho Chi Minh and, because he fancied the world of films, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

The hotels and villas were reconstructed; the parks were enlarged and, as in Paul Kupelwieser's day, enriched with plants gathered on the patron's journeys or presented by his guests. The zoo was restocked, and a safari park was added, in which Jawaharlal Nehru's and Kenneth Kaunda's gift antelopes now cavort among Sekou Toure's zebras, while Muammar el-Qaddafi's camels graze uder the gaze of Indira Gandhi's elephants.

The President loved deer, and he installed a small herd on Veliki Brion; today, augmented by natural demography and gifts, it numbers about 1,000 deer. They graze freely on the island's extensive lawns, and often, especially at dawn and dusk, approach the hotel grounds to feed, casting occasional glances of graceful timidity at those who watch them. Some of the exotic animals introduced onto the island failed to adapt, and many died. The President's resident taxidermist prepared certain remains for display in dioramas of their natural settings; these were installed in a specially designed natural history museum. The museum also contains a large exhibition of photos of President Tito with his visitors.

Roman and Byzantine ruins were excavated and restored. To show his official visitors the medieval church art of the region, the President had copies of frescoes and sculptures installed in a chapel near the island's hotels. He also established a small ethnographic museum in order to indicate the variety of Yugoslav traditions. Today, all these displays, are open free of charge to unofficial visitors, both Yugoslav and foreign.

Hotel guests can ride around the island in either a specially built five-seated car powered by electricity or in horse-drawn coaches. Daytime excursionists are limited to traveling by a small toy train. Bicycles are available for rent. In all of Brioni, there is only one parking lot, and it accommodates a garbage truck, a fire engine and a police car. ISLAND VISITS Getting There

The Brioni islands of northwestern Yugoslavia are about 140 miles from Zagreb, 400 from Belgrade and 60 from Trieste, Italy. Veliki Brion is two miles, or 15 minutes, by ferry from the mainland port of Fazana, near Pula. There are several crossings a day, and the fare is about $1.75 each way.

A half-day trip of about three hours with a guided tour of Veliki Brion, the main island, can be arranged through the Kompas and Atlas tour companies. Reservations may be made at their offices in Pula and Fazana or at the Atlas office in Dubrovnik. Kompas offers visits to the island the year round, Atlas from April through October only. Both charge about $25 a person and, from spring to fall, both also book hotels for those who want to remain on the island.

Americans need a visa to enter Yugoslavia. Visas may be obtained by mail from the Yugoslav Consulate, 767 Third Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10017; 212-838-2300; or in person at the consulate from 10 A.M. to 1 P.M. No photo or fee is required. Hotels

The three first-class hotels, the Neptun, Istra and Karmen, open from May through October, accommodate 250 guests. Rates are highest in July and August: $94 to $104 for a double room, including breakfast and dinner. In the other months prices start at $76 for two with the two meals. At the Hotel Jurina, the former guard barracks, and also open May to October, rates range from $48 to $60 for two, with the same meals. Visitors may also make reservations for the island's hotels at the Brioni National Park office in Fazana. - H. K.



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Created: Wednesday, January 29, 1989; Last Updated: Wednesday, August 12, 2015
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