Stalin’s Piano, Tito’s Zebras and Dictator Tourism: Brijuni

I knew little of Tito before I moved to Croatia, but had this notion that his was a more benign dictatorship, and although he may have been dead for more than 30 years the first impression I had as I got off the tourist boat to Brijuni was of order.

Coming from a supposedly democratic country, I have always had a mild fascination with dictators around the world, and I have often been attracted to the symbols of their power on my travels.

One of the most amazing museums I have ever visited was in the town of Gori, some 60 km west of the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. Here was the only town in the whole of the former Soviet Union where the statue of Stalin was not pulled down with the end of Communism, for it was the birthplace of Georgia’s most famous son, and there was a remarkable museum of Stalin memorabilia to commemorate him.

I had a play on his private piano, and I even sat down on his personal toilet on the private train carriage with which he travelled through his vast empire. It was the same in Central Africa when I was an aid worker in Rwanda after the genocide; when I got a day off, I headed into the Democatic Republic of Congo to wander round the remnants of Mobutu’s villa on the shores of Lake Kivu.

I knew little of Tito before I moved to Croatia, but had this notion (aided by my sheltered upbringing, where my opinions were formed for me by the press) that his was a more benign dictatorship, where things were a little more relaxed, but there was no let up on the excess. I had heard that there was an island in northern Croatia which had been his private playground for much of his reign, where exotic animals roamed freely, and I put it on my list of things to visit.

Tito may have been dead for more than 30 years, but the first impression I had as I got off the tourist boat to Brijuni was of order. Perhaps I have been in Dalmatia too long, but four tourist guides were waiting to separate us into the tour language of our choice (English, German, Italian and Croatian), before boarding us on a very quaint train which took us on a delightful one-hour tour of the perimeter of this fabulous island. It took but a few moments to figure out why Tito had made it his semi-permanent home for more than 30 years, and from where much of the business of State was conducted.

Pretty bays, idyllic views, and what’s this? A full golf course, open to the public for 220 kuna a round. And then the animals, so many exotic animals that one could be forgiven for thinking one was in Africa on safari. I never thought I would see a herd of zebra roaming freely in Croatia, or Shetland ponies – a gift, it appears came from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth herself.

Foto: total-hvar.com

It was when the excellent guide pointed out the one surviving elephant from the pair gifted to Tito by Indira Gandhi that I began to realise just what Brijuni had meant in a previous generation. In total, more than 60 heads of state came to see the former Yugoslav president in his island retreat, with many indulging his love for exotic animals.

As many of these leaders were from Non-Aligned states, there were some very exotic animals indeed, with not all of them surviving. But if they were donated, they can still be seen today, as there is a quite phenomenal collection of stuffed exotic animals (the baby giraffes are with me still) housed in the museum, a very surreal sight.

What is almost as striking is the photo exhibition of Tito with all the visiting heads of state, and it serves to emphasise the importance of Brijuni as the seat of Yugoslav power. Fidel Castro, Haile Selassie, Yasser Arafat, Mad Dog Ghadaffi, they are all adorning the walls of the former presidential retreat.

Foto: total-hvar.com

Foto: total-hvar.com

And there is a further treat for classic car lovers, as the presidential limosine is on display for all to see, complete with two pictures on the dashboard, one of the president with devoted wife Jovanka, the other with the greatest ever Englishman, Sir Winston Churchill. Photos sitting in the 1953 Cadillac can be arranged for 55 kuna, or if you are feeling a little more flamboyent, how about a chauffered half-hour tour of the island in the Cadillac, for a cool 2,750 kuna? There are plenty of Russian tourists taking a spin…

Foto: total-hvar.com

Accommodation does exist on the island, as do restaurants, but the very pleasant half-day excursion gives you the chance to get a window into the life of a dictator who loved his conveniences and whims, a safari (both real and stuffed) thrown in, perhaps a round of golf and a drive in a presidential Cadillac, and the question arises – is there a more fascinating day out in Croatia?