Although the islands were a popular rural retreat for wealthy Romans, the Brijunis’ history as an offshore paradise really began in 1893, when they were bought by Austrian industrialist Paul Kupelwieser. Kupelwieser, whose aim was to turn the islands into a luxury resort patronized by the cream of Europe’s aristocracy, brought in Nobel Prize-winning bacteriologist Robert Koch, who rid the Brijunis of malaria by pouring petroleum on the swamps. Smart hotels and villas were built on Veli Brijun, and the Mediterranean scrub was cleared to make way for landscaped parks. The Brijunis’ heyday was in the period immediately before World War I: Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Kaiser Wilhelm II both stayed on the islands, and struggling English-language teacher James Joyce came here to celebrate his 23rd birthday on February 2, 1905.
Following World War I, the development of Brijuni as a golf- and polo-playing resort helped preserve the islands’ reputation as a key venue for aristocratic fun and games. Running costs proved high however, and Kupelwieser’s son Karl committed suicide here in 1930 when it became clear that this elite paradise would never turn a profit.
After World War II, Tito decided to make Veli Brijun one of his official bases, planting much of the island’s subtropical vegetation and commissioning a residence (the White Villa, or “Bijela Vila”) in which he was able to dazzle visiting heads of state with his hospitality. It was here that Tito, Nehru and Nasser signed the Brioni Declaration in 1956, which paved the way for the creation of the Non-Aligned Movement, which nowadays consists of 118 nations (but none of the republics of the former Yugoslavia). Far away from prying eyes, the islands were the perfect spot from which to conduct secret diplomacy – Yugoslav-sponsored terrorist Abu Nidal was a house guest in 1978.
Tito himself resided in an ultra-secluded villa on the islet of Vanga, just off the western coast of Veli Brijun. He contrived to spend as much time here as possible, conducting government business when not busy hunting in his private game reserve or pottering about in his gardens and orchards (tangerines from which were traditionally sent to children’s homes throughout Yugoslavia as a New Year’s gift). International stars attending the Pula Film Festival stayed here as Tito’s personal guests, bestowing his regime with a veneer of showbiz glamour.
After Tito’s death in 1980 the islands were retained as an official residence, and a decade later became the favoured summer destination of President Tuđman. Tuđman’s rank ineptitude as a world statesman ensured that no foreign leader ever came to visit him here, and with successive presidents declining to make use of the islands, it looks like the Brijuni have lost their mythical status in Croatian politics.