Brioni National Park
If there exists a place in the Adriatic where it could be said that the nautical circle is closed, it is Brijuni. In this fascinating archipelago, which lies off the west coast of Istria, not even a kilometre away from Fažana on the mainland, the idea of sailing for pure pleasure was experimentally pursued for the first time. We have to remind ourselves that it was based on the idea of its virginal exclusivity. Here, where industrious fishermen led their hard lives, the first modern sailors would seek out an idyll by separating themselves from civilisation and sailing under the sun into the untouched saltiness.
One of the first people to do this was the wealthy industrialist Paul Kupelwieser, who sailed into the pristine waters of Brijuni in 1893. In keeping with his imperial notions, during his lifetime this rich Austrian turned these malarial islands into an artificial paradise, never suspecting that in an unusual historic reversal he would be replaced in his mission by his class enemy, the comrade, proletarian and marshal, Josip Broz Tito.
From capitalists to socialists, the Brijuni islands have been a dream place for the chosen and a fantasy for the general public. In order to create a maritime paradise, the local population was evacuated, and from Pula across Fažana to Tito's base on the islet of Vanga, everything was covered in a veil of secrecy. Besides the news that "Marshal Tito travelled yesterday on a working holiday to Brijuni", current events were presented through newsreels in which people were told, for instance, how the leader of nations and nationalities received Sophia Loren, Richard Burton, Haile Selassie or someone else from amongst the plethora of faces from what is today a forgotten era.
The only evidence of voyages around the Brijuni islands of that time were the pictures of the yachts Podgorka and Jadranka with their distinguished guests, and those of Comrade Tito in a mahogany speedboat. For the local population, the Mare Incognito began with Fažana pier. It was believed that the Copernican Revolution has been brought by democracy. Although the Brijuni islands were declared a national park in 1983, they only became navigable in the new millennium, bringing the idea of exclusivity back into fashion. Protected white spots for the vacations of moguls, like the islet of Vanga, still exist on the pilot guides of the archipelago. Navigating through the remaining free places of the Brijuni islands and enjoying the magical mixture of original features and artificial kitsch is reserved only for high society. I realised that the circle was completed when I obtained permission to sail - on business, not because of winning the lottery - into the realm of the 14 guarded islands and islets, of which Veli and Mali Brijun are the largest. Sailing along the given route, it was no coincidence that I headed for Verige Bay. Besides going through many historical changes - from the time 5,000 years ago when ancient ethnically unknown inhabitants used to live here, to the rule of the Histri, Romans, Byzantines, etc., it also in some way serves as a model for futuristic cultural navigation. So I stayed in Verige, swam, walked and learned something.
I knew beforehand that the Romans had left the greatest mark in the Bay, proof of which is offered by the remains of a villa rustica. I was very pleased that the archaeological campaigns have retained the atmosphere of Roman antiquity in terms of spatial planning. The Romans, too, like me, were bothered by the bora wind, which this bay is exposed to. What I additionally had to think about were the remains of their port which, due to a rise in the sea level of one metre, were now situated below the keel. My advice here is to be careful and not go close to the coast.
The construction of a vast Roman villa, which in accordance with the customs of the time was also a farm, began in the first century BC.
Two centuries later, the villa's splendour had reached its peak, though certain parts of it were used until the 6th century.
The estate - the most luxurious of its type in the Adriatic - consisted of several structures intended for various purposes situated in carefully selected locations in different parts of the bay.
A luxurious part with two peristyles was located on the southern side of the bay. Temples of the sea god Neptune, the Capitoline Triad, and the goddess of love and beauty Venus, located at the bottom of the bay, formed an integral part of the complex. The Dieta, palestra, thermae, fishpond and farming area were situated on the northern side of the bay. All the buildings were interconnected via an interesting system of open and closed paths that stretched for a kilometre along the sea.
Access to the port was regulated by a chain (Croatian: veriga) that linked the opposite coast and from which the bay acquired its name. The villa in Verige was not isolated on the Brijuni islands: a number of Roman villas were situated on the islands, among which the villa on Kolci Hill stands out.
The new era brought new developments. In 2004, after a 50-year break, polo was once again played on the fields of Brijuni. There were also developments on the seabed. In July 2013, an underwater educational trail was created in the bay, the first of its kind in Croatia and the Adriatic, and which is said to be one of only a few in Europe. It is approximately 500 m long and not demanding, which I can confirm since I swam and snorkelled along it for 45 minutes. Besides the archaeological remains under the sea, I also saw many fish, sea cucumbers, sea urchins, algae, sea sponges, crabs and shellfish, and even the noble pen shell, a rare and strictly protected endemic Mediterranean species. When I emerged, I felt like Brijuni: sublime and somewhat artificial.
About the author:
Josip Antić was born in Šibenik, and Šibenik Bay was the first sea that he set sail in. As a journalist, he worked for numerous Croatian daily and weekly newspapers and portals, reporting during both war and peace from Parliament and the streets. He also spent a number of years as an editor. He remembers only those articles and reports he published about the sea and from the sea, spending time with fishermen, yachtsmen, sailors, caulkers and seagulls. For more than 10 years he was the editor of a nautical magazine.
He lives and works in Zagreb and sails in the Adriatic when he is able to.