Our first full day in Croatia transpired in a series of unexpected events. Despite the wind, we were driven to Fagana, a beautiful seaside village, and boarded a boat for Brijuni, part-time home to the Communist dictator Tito.
We unloaded onto the island and were quickly ushered into a memorial museum for the dictator, filled with hundreds of flattering photographs of him and his seemingly infinite supply of famous guests and friends. Everyone from film stars, presidents, emperors, kings and queens, writers, artists and political leaders flocked to Brijuni, were warmly welcomed by Tito, and bestowed him with lavish gifts in the form of exotic live animals. We toured the animal museum next, an unnerving collection of stuffed wildlife involving far too many endangered species for our likings. We then proceeded to tour the island on a (fake) miniature steam train, narrated loudly in broken English by a local woman unfortunately in control of the overhead speakers.
“There is some of my little gardeners here some time, they are gardening not for money, no, THEY ARE DOING IT FOR LOVE”, her voice blared from the speakers. We later discovered she was referring to a species of deer.
The train rolled smoothly along the coastline, past ruins of Roman temples and ancient architecture. Brioni was absolutely beautiful. Suddenly, however, the train turned suddenly and led us into a “Safari Park”, full of what I can only assume were the offspring of Tito’s live gifts. Ostriches, zebras and elephants stared out of their enclosures. We saw a sign indicating that a “Dinosaur Park” was also in the vicinity, but our tour failed to include it. The donkey enclosure proved to be of greatest interest, as the animals were quite friendly.
Frozen solid and starving, we boarded the boat back to the mainland and walked through the streets of Pula to the restaurant “Kantina”, an upscale establishment serving high-quality, low-priced food in its basement. Hot soup and tea were on the menu, which was all anyone really wanted at that point.
The cold outside was formidable when we returned to the street, but we briefly toured the old parts of town anyway in a surreal sunset glow. Its light illuminated Roman temples, triumphal arches that once served as gates to the city, and the building where James Joyce taught English to the local population (sadly now home to a Diesel store).
We shuffled past the industrial harbor, rays of sun beaming through a mass of cranes and ship-building materials, and sought relief in the heated bus cabin, where our bus driver presented us with surprise roses for Women’s Day. Not displaying any signs of understanding our babble of American English, he handed them to us with a huge smile. Impressed by Eastern European customs? I think so.