North of Pula lie the Brijuni (in Italian, Brioni), a small archipelago of fourteen islands that became famous as the private retreat of Tito before being accorded national park status and opened to tourists in 1983 – visitors are still only allowed on two of the islands, Veli Brijun – the biggest island and main tourist draw – and Mali Brijun, home to an Austrian fortress. Tickets to the national park include boat crossing and a tour of Veli Brijun by tourist train – although you can forego the latter and stroll or cycle around the island at will, providing you stick to designated paths.

Gateway to the islands (and site of the national park’s ticket office) is the fishing village of Fažana, 8km northwest of Pula, closed to tourists until the 1980s and now a pleasant family holiday destination. Fažana has plenty of private accommodation and camping space, and you can also stay in one of Brijuni’s historic hotels.

Fažana

One of the more charming settlements on Istria’s west coast, Fažana is a cute little place popular with families and camping types. Part lazy holiday village and part working fishing port, it’s famous for the pilchards that form the mainstay of the local cuisine and the excuse for seasonal festivals, such as the pilchard-salting school in May and the Pilchard Festival in August, when entire shoals of the creatures are grilled on Fažana’s seafront. As well as being the main port for the Brijuni islands, Fažana retains a maze-like core of old stone houses grouped around small piazzas, and a long stretch of pebble beach on the far side of its harbour.

Veli Brijun

Boats from Fažana’s picturesque port make the fifteen-minute crossing to biggest of the Brijuni islands Veli Brijun, docking at the hotel complex built by Paul Kupelwieser on the island’s eastern shore. From here a miniature train with an English-speaking guide heads north through the golf course towards a safari park at the northern tip of the island. This was originally stocked with beasts given to Tito as presents by world statesmen, and you can see zebras, antelopes and indigenous long-horned cattle (boškarin) from the Istrian interior.

The train continues along the western side of the island to the White Villa and other official residences, including the Villa Jadranka, where guests have included Queen Elizabeth II and Gina Lollobrigida, and stops at the southwestern corner of the island to allow exploration of a ruined Byzantine fortress; the fortress’s stark grey walls make a bleak contrast to the green paradise it was built to defend. The train then returns to the hotel complex via the scant remains of a first-century-BC Roman villa at Veriga bay.

At the end of the tour, day-trippers are free to explore an additional group of sights beside the hotel complex before returning to the mainland. Most prominent of these is a fifteenth-century Gothic church, restored by Kupelwieser prior to World War I and ceremonially reopened by ill-fated Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

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