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Istria Travel Guide

Dinosaurs, Romans, Countrymen: On the History Trail at Brijuni National Park

This Croatian National Park is a collection of islands where dinos and Romans once roamed.

Brijuni National Park is a collection of 14 islands, with Veliki Brijun being the biggest and the one with the most attractions by far. The island offers a lot more than just parkland and wild beaches, it’s also a depository of a surprising amount of history dating back to the Palaeolithic period. Yes, dinosaurs once roamed here, followed much later by the Romans who built lavish villas and planted olive groves, and the Byzantines who created a fortified settlement. After being transformed into a fashionable resort during the Austro-Hungarian Empire and then closed to the public when Yugoslav President Tito established his official residence here in 1953, the islands were given the status of National Park in 1983. Read on to learn about some of the island’s most intriguing historical relics.

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The Boathouse

On arrival at the island’s small port, you can’t miss the handsome Art Nouveau-style building perched over the water. This is the old boathouse, built in 1902 and once home to the island’s doctor. It was restored in 2015 and converted into an interactive museum showcasing aspects of the islands’ cultural, historical, and natural heritage. A visit starts with an introduction to Dr. Otto Lenz himself, and a few of the famous personalities and literati who vacationed here, including George Bernard Shaw, Thomas Mann, James Joyce, and Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The interactive exhibits also give glimpses into the everyday lives of the farmers, stone masons, and producers of olive oil who worked on the islands, as well as an introduction to the islands’ rich plant biodiversity and marine life.

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Promenade of the Dinosaurs

Dinosaurs roamed here over 100 million years ago, much before these islands were formed. Kids and lovers of giant reptiles will enjoy looking out for the hundreds of dino footprints clearly visible on the rocky beaches at several points on the island. When stepping off the ferry on arrival, keep an eye out for the tridactyl (three-toed) footprint imprinted in the limestone of the pier. If you missed it, there are plenty of tracks belonging to two-legged tridactyls to spot on Cape Pogledalo on the northwest tip and Cape Ploče on the southern coast. Cape Trstike on the southwestern tip was the stomping ground of four-legged dinos, while nearby Cape Kamik was the turf for two-footed herbivores and carnivorous predators who left their footprints for eternity. More three-toed prints are visible at Cape Vrbanj, where a ferocious-looking life-size model of a theropod watches over this corner of rocky beach.

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The Byzantine Castrum

Of the island’s many ancient ruins, one of the most fascinating is the well-preserved Byzantine-era castrum on the edge of the sea at Dobrika Bay. A villa was first built here in the first century which expanded with a series of newer constructions in the 4th century to eventually cover a 2.4-acre area. Set within thick fortified walls, this maze of stone structures includes the remains of brick ovens, an olive mill, wine presses, cisterns, and cellars–everything needed by the inhabitants who made this large settlement their home until the 8th century.

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Basilica of St. Mary

The Basilica of St. Mary was built in the 6th century near the castrum to serve the needs of its population. This three-nave church is the oldest Christian building on the island and has been reconstructed several times. But many of its original details are still visible, like the arched windows and stone doorways and columns. Instead of the semi-circular apse typical of Byzantine basilicas, this one is unique for its rectangular-shape.

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The Roman Villa

On the edge of the deeply indented Verige Bay on the east coast lie the remains of what was once a vast and lavish first-century Roman villa. This imposing summer residence overlooking the bay was made up of a series of buildings laid with marble and stucco, decorated with frescoes and mosaics, and interconnected via pillared colonnades. Making up this luxurious complex were hot and cold thermal baths, a library, and temples dedicated to the sea god Neptune, Venus the goddess of love, and the Capitoline Triad–a trio of gods worshipped by the Romans. All that’s left today are neat rows of stone foundations on the edge of the water, stone columns of its two original peristyles, and the circular baths reached via a series of stone steps, but it’s easy to get a sense of the villa’s vastness and magnificence.

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The 1,600-Year-Old Olive Tree

The island’s massive olive tree is one of the oldest in the Mediterranean and one of the few that remains of the ancient groves once planted here by the Romans. Scientists used radiocarbon dating to determine the tree is more than 1,600 years old. During a violent storm in the ’70s, the tree was damaged and its trunk split open but it survived and still miraculously bears fruit, producing up to 66 pounds of olives which are then pressed for oil. During Roman times, olive oil from Istria was exported all over the empire.

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Practical Information

It’s a quick 15-minute sail on the ferry to Veliki Brijun from Fažana, a tiny port town on Istria’s southwest coast. The entry ticket includes the crossing and can be purchased at the park office next to the pier.

The best way to explore this car-free island is by bicycle or golf cart which are available for rent. Instead of the guided tour aboard the tourist train, download the park’s handy interactive guide PARQ via the free Wi-Fi. Scan the QR codes on the information stations found throughout the park for facts and insights on 100 attractions.

July and August are the busiest months and a popular time for families, while the spring and fall see fewer crowds. The mild winters also make this a good time to visit but beware: the ferry schedule is significantly reduced from November to March.

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