One of Europe's oddest places, Croatia's Brijun evokes dead cheetahs, Tito and some movies stars
The visitors to the aviary on Veliki Brijun Island, Croatia, move away from the cage housing the big yellow-crested cockatoo and stare at the bright ara parrot in the corner. Koki, the cockatoo, stops munching on his sunflower seeds and climbs the bars of his cage like a musician starting a gig.
"Kako si, Tito?," Koki screams. "Tito, Tito, Tito!"
He taps his beak against the cage bars, just to be sure the humans have got it.
As predicted, the tourists leave the silent ara and stare again at Koki. They smile.
"Kako si, Tito?," Koki repeats, triumphantly, and swears briefly in Croatian. The tourists don't mind because the parrot of the late President of Socialist Yugoslavia, Josip Broz Tito, has finally spoken, asking his trademark "How are you, Tito?".
Koki is now 53 and is arguably the greatest attraction on Brijun, the one time island residence of Tito, who ruled the Yugoslav federation from 1945 until 1980. In 1983 the island in the northern Adriatic was declared a natural park and is now a tourist attraction. Its western part, where the summer residence of the Croatian president is located, is still off limits.
Veliki Brijun island – its Italian name is Brioni – was for centuries an insignificant piece of land. While it was under Italian domination, its quarries supplied building material for Venice and, while it was under the Austrians, to Vienna and Berlin.
In 1893, the Austrian industrialist Paul Kupelweiser bought the island and turned it into a playground for the elite of Europe. Hotels and casinos were built and the first on-board diesel engined ship in the world ferried guests to and from the mainland port at Fažana. Several types of game, which had been extinct in that area for some time, were reintroduced. In 1900-1902, a very special guest and the founder of modern bacteriology, physician Robert Koch, eradicated malaria and mosquitoes from the island. Within years, Veliki Brijun was completely transformed.
The Great Depression put an end to this. Paul Kupelweiser's son and heir committed suicide and the island became Italian state property. During the Second World War it suffered heavy damage, and afterwards became a part of Yugoslavia.
Tito loved it and turned it into his exclusive property.
The president of Yugoslavia was a maverick who used Socialism as a political tool, ditched Stalin and wooed the West, playing his own game all along. Veliki Brijun was a part of it. Here, Tito built several residences, where he enjoyed the Adriatic sun and sea, and the company of international celebrities like Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida... The other group of Tito's guests on Veliki Brijun, however, had nothing to do with art or entertainment.
Tito turned the island into a place for high-ranking international meetings between leaders of developing states who didn't want to play with either of the big boys in the Cold War game.
The first of them was Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, who visited in 1954. Two years later, the President of Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser, and the Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, arrived on Brijun. That meeting laid the foundations for the 1961 Non-Aligned Movement, signed into being on Tito's territory, in Belgrade. The movement is still active, and today it has 120 members.
As a matter of good manners, Tito's high-ranking guests came laden with presents, mostly exotic wild animals and birds.
They arrived on Brijun: lions and cheetahs, strange birds and monkeys, zebras and antelopes, Indian holy cattle and llamas, wild donkeys and Somali sheep. While they were alive and well, they inhabited Tito's private zoo. A Safari Park was set up on the island in 1978 and is still there, inhabited by roaming herds of zebra and antelope.
Indira Gandhi outdid everyone else – she presented Tito with a couple of Indian elephants. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Sony and Lanka were on the verge of being sold to a circus as they were too expensive to maintain and the island's authorities were struggling financially. In 2010, Sony died but Lanka, although inconsolable, is still there.
The animals who died were stuffed and arranged in several rooms, set in landscapes imitating their homeland habitats. This macabre exhibit is the most remarkable thing tourists see on Brijun and easily outshines the island's other sites of interest: the dinosaur footprints from the Cretaceous Era, the remains of a Roman villa and a Templar Knights church and the memorial to Robert Koch.
Koki the parrot
Koki is the only exception. He's not only living, he is also the only animal on the island which was not a present to Tito. Tito himself gave Koki as a present to his grand-daughter, Aleksandra, when she was nine.
After spending several years with the family, Koki moved into the Brijun aviary. It is unclear who taught him to ask Tito how he was, or how to swear. He is expected to live until he turns centenarian.