by Pat Brennan
On this Adriatic island, you can take Marshall Tito’s 1953 Cadillac convertible out for a spin. It was the dictator’s favourite car from his stable of fancy vehicles. He chauffeured visitors such as Sophia Loren, Elizabeth Taylor, Fidel Castro, Queen Elizabeth and Nikita Khrushchev around his private island. Well, the car and the island are no longer private. Five years after Tito died in 1980, his Adriatic sanctuary amidst the toils and turmoil of being Yugoslavia’s powerful Communist dictator, was opened as a national park. Today the island has become one of the most popular tourist destinations in Croatia.
Croatia is a lot different today than the tragic, war-torn region of the old Yugoslavia that appeared on our TV screens each night in the mid 1990s. It became an independent nation in 1990 and then fought a bitter war with neighbouring Serbia for nearly six years to maintain that independence.
Many analysts believe the allure, history and beauty of the Adriatic shoreline is what triggered that war. Serbia wanted it. As part of the peace settlement (called the Dayton Accord), Serbian-controlled Bosnia and Herzegovina gets 20 kilometres of the shoreline. Croatia gets the other 1,700 or so.
And what a coastline it is for few will argue that it is the most beautiful in Europe. There are more than 1,000 islands strung out along the Croatian shore. For more than a century, the islands and the long, warm beaches on the mainland have been an exotic playground for Europe’s crowned heads and elite, as well as the great unwashed.
Not Brijuni however. It was a closed and heavily guarded island for nearly 60 years, Tito’s private playground, and his playmates were the biggest names in show biz, kings, queens, beautiful women and fellow dictators. You still encounter heavily armed soldiers standing near big iron gates on the island. The current Croatian president has a retreat here. It sits only three kilometers off the mainland along the Dalmatian coast of Croatia. Dalmatia is considered the home base for Dalmation dogs — trained for guarding the border — but you rarely see one.
You will see lots of other exotic animals out on Brijuni. Tito loved collecting wild animals, and he created one of Europe’s biggest zoos on his island. Deer run everywhere, but a small fence keeps them from nibbling on a 1,700-year-old olive tree on the island that still produces olives each year. It was planted by the Romans when they occupied this coastline.
Rubber-tired tour trains take you inside Safari Park where zebras and antelope and ostrich and other plains animals graze. Europe’s largest Indian elephant roams the park, just a baby when Indira Gandhi brought him to the island.
The meat eaters are in the Tito museum on the island, all stuffed now. They get the ground floor of the museum, and upstairs are photos of Tito and his many famous visitors, often seen riding in his black Caddy convertible. For 50 Euros ($82) per hour you too can be chauffeured round the island in the Caddy. And for $2,400, Maxx Tours of Toronto will chauffeur you around to many of Croatia’s finest attractions in a luxury tour bus.
In partnership with Ban Tours of Zagreb, Maxx offers an escorted seven-day tour of Croatia, which includes a trip out to Brijuni. The tour visits the port city of Pula where the ancient amphitheatre, built in 69 to 79 AD, is a smaller replica of Rome’s Coliseum. It’s older, but in better shape. The amphitheatre, sometimes called the Arena, will seat 12,000 fans for an opera concert in the middle of July.
The Krka River just north of the ancient city of Split drops 242 metres (Horseshoe Falls at Niagara is 52 metres) during its short run from the mountains to the sea and it does it through a deep canyon. Along the way the river plunges over 17 separate waterfalls and these waterfalls are broken into various shelves. It makes for a spectacular national park.
Most of Europe’s ancient tribes have stomped through this land in the past 3,000 years, and each has left its calling card in the form of architecture, language, art, food, passion, or high cheekbones.
Maxx’s tour starts in Zagreb, Croatia’s capital. That city of nearly one million has more outdoor cafes per capita than any city in Europe. They love their outdoor cafes in Croatia. There are residential streets in Split and Pula no wider than your outstretched arms — yet they still have outdoor cafes. A beer costs 10 Kuna, equivalent to $2.42 Canadian.