History before golf

The archipelago of Brioni is an extraordinary blend of natural, historical and cultural heritage. The mild climate and the favourable geographical conditions, deep retracted bays and easily defendable elevated fortifications, have secured a continuum in the human activity on the island from a pre-historic age until the present day. On a relatively small archipelago, of an area of around 7 km2, have been registered some hundred sites and buildings of archaeological and cultural-historical value and which comprise the period from the first Neolithic settlements, the dugouts in the bay of Soline, until the creation of an elite summer and health resort at the beginning of the last century and the presidential residency visited by statesmen from one third of the world’s countries in its 25 years of existence (1954-1979).

Mira Pavletić

1.Ancient glory

Neolitic – Roman Empire – Middle Ages – venice

Brioni Islands have a long and glamorous history. Long before humans, dinosaurus walked on its soil. It is amazing that one can still admire their petrified footprints which are visible on the west coast of the main island! This lovely Northern Adriatic archipelago has been inhabited since the neolithic and we have some finds from that period: in stone, ceramics and bones. Remains of fortification constructions (castellieri), tumulus and necropolis from eneolithic is still visible on a small hill in the central part of the main island and on Brioni Minor too. Illyrian Histri were inhabiting this region and gave the name of the present region. Histri probably named islands Brevona (6th century b.C.) while, after Romans conquered this region, and abolished the Histrian Kingdom, called them Insulae Pullarie what might be translated as Raven Islands. On the nearby mainland, deep into a well protrected bay, Romans developed an old small town to a significant colony, a bit later know as Colonia Pietas Iulia Pola Pollentia Herculanea.

First period in which Brioni were a posh place to be, was the period of the Roman Empire. During the reign of Augustus, Brioni were part of the Region of Venetia et Histria on the eastern limits of the Empire. Hedonistically disposed Romans quickly
found themselves in such a place building, villas and temples, producing vine, olives, olive oil and other agricultural products. Remains of nice rustic villas, oil mills and temples from that period are still well preserved and documented. That was the first period in which Brioni Islands flourished. Roman era lasted here for almost six hundred years and then started to decline.

After Roman Empire declined first Gots then Byzantium overtook this region for some time and we still had a vivid life on the island. From that period we have remains of the Byzantine castrum and the church of Saint Mary from the 6th century. After that period, the importance of this archipelago declined and for centuries it looked like a lost and forgotten paradise. Frank rule brought passive medieval times and feudalism. Venice had Brioni from 14th to 19th century and didn’t find any particular value in those islands as the frequent malaria epidemics depopulated Brioni’s population.

Verige Roman Villa Rustica, 1st century A.D.

2.Brioni’s renaissance

Austro-Hungarian Empire – Paul Kupelwieser creates paradise (1893-1914)

When on the Istrian island of Brioni all the yet unexplored and mostly inaccessible monuments from all ages, from the early periods of the pre-Roman Istria until the 16th century, will be discovered and made accessible to research then this beautiful island will be a unique museum rich in architectonic inventory of high artistic and historic importance. To all the cultures, which settled through history on the northern Adriatic coast, will be possible to ascribe at least one monument of architectonic heritage or some other artefact witnessing its presence.

Anton Gnirs, 1911.

New flag: the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. From 1806 Istria region is part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and now the region is gaining much of importance. City of Pola becomes the main military port, big military shipyard is built in it and in and around the city a lot of army barracks and defensive fortifications are constructed. As Brioni Islands are part of this huge protecting network, two big fortresses are constructed there as well: Tegethoff (1864) on the main island and Brioni Minor (1895-1900) on the second largest island. Pola grows exponentially as people comes in from any corner of the Empire and other european countries, like the neighbouring Kingdom of Italy. Specially in the last decade of the nineteenth century and first decade of the twentieth. A brand new railway is connecting now Pola directly to the main commercial port of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – Trieste and to the capital itself – Vienna. All this coincide with the birth of a new industry – tourism.

A new renaissance occurs after Austrian industrialist, entrepreneur and innovator Paul Kupelwiesser buys Brioni Islands in 1893. The former Venetian family Franzini, living in Portugal, sells the Brijuni Islands for 48,000 guilders to the Swiss merchant Wildi, resident of Trieste. A few weeks later Wildi sells 12 of the 14 islands to Paul Kupelwieser for 75,000 guilders. In the beginning, Brioni Islands were just a new Mediterranean home for the Kupelwiesser family, but soon after they started developing it as a tourist destination of prestige. They succeeded but this transformation didn’t come overnight. Paul transferred his family to this new home and during the next ten to twenty years he transformed this malarial and forgotten part of Istrian soil into a fashionable resort. Paul’s entrepreneurial and innovative spirit and hard work made this vision a reality.

I had a strong feeling that with reason, patience, and, of course, considerable financial resources, man could succeed in making this piece of land healthy and fertile, and in its vegetation very beautiful.” from Memory of an old Austrian, page 35.

The first hotel (14 rooms) named Brioni is built in 1896. Government Council Dr Wilhelm Swetlin is considered the first spa guest.

Hotel Brioni 1896 (from: Brioni, 1986.)

Austro-Hungarian Military had already established positions on Brioni islands, first of all those two fortresses and Paul had to have clear boundries with them.

While he eventually came to a beneficial compromise with the military which resultted in a joint investment to build a nice new, accomodable port of Brioni. In the other hand, with the state income office was a different story. Bureaucracy always wanted more. From Paul’s memories: “Even outside Austria, bureaucratically run institutions often see difficulties in creating everything new, and often have to adhere to short-sighted excuses to make inactivity seem mandatory state care.” page 147.

He employs the best professionals for this development. Alojz Čufar is maybe the most importan one. On April 4, 1894 forester Alois Zuffar takes up his duties on Brioni.

He always looks for locals and plans Brioni development in accordance with the local environment. In the same time he looks further and finds and engages new and innovative individuals and technology. This is how Robert Koch was given the chance to prove his research of the malaria desease and treatments. On On November 18, 1900 Paul Kupelwieser invites Prof Robert Koch to Brioni to conduct malaria studies.

dr Robert Koch and his Brioni microscope (from Brioni, 1986.)

Start of preparatory work for the development of Brioni as a health resort. On November 7, 1902 Dr. Otto Lenz is found as the suitable spa physician. In 1904, for the first time, spa guests are statistically recorded with a total number of 333, of whom over 90% come from Austria. In April 1906, the Hotel Neptun I is being finished. The steamboat connection Pula-Brioni is being opened (until then it was necessary to travel via Dignano and Fasana). Archduchess Maria Josepha visits Brioni as the first member of the imperial family. On May 14, Paul Kupelwieser buys land in Medolino from the bishop of Parenzo. Year 1907 In May, Dr. Lenz marries Maria von Guttenberg, daughter of the forestry inspector for the coastal region. Alois Zuffar, the operational manager, dies in autumn. This was the first, of few human loses, which badly influenced Brioni destiny as a project envisioned by Paul. Later Paul remebers: “It was a heavy loss for both me and 0the Brioni. Both of my sons worked very hard to make up for this capable and conscientious workforce. There was a division of labor. Karl wanted and needed to take over the management of the Brioni, and Leoplod took care of already quite developed tourism and wine trade, for which he skillfully and diligently organized a warehouse in Vienna. By their natural inclinations both were especially capable of these activities and both in the following years provided me and the Brioni in many ways excellent services.” page 153.

In 1908 The Hotel Carmen is built. The world’s first diesel-powered passenger ship is launched and used on the Pula-Brioni route.

In 1910 The Hotel Neptun II with 31 rooms is finished. A motorboat for 300 persons is put into service on the Pula-Brioni route. At the Val di Torre a workers’ residence which resembles a “proud manor house” is built. Carl Hagenbeck plans a branch of the Hamburger-Stellingen zoo and an acclimatization station for exotic animals on Brioni. In July, 11 archdukes and 11 archduchesses visit Brioni.

Paul knew that this venture is still not profitable: “All these things improved the development of Brijuni, but until the number of rooms available to guests of Brijuni exceeds three hundred, it will not be possible to count on a significant income from the hotel. As for my financial situation, I moved more downhill than uphill.” page 135.

In 1912 Hotel Neptun III is completed, increasing the bed capacity to 500 (300) rooms. A sleeping car is provided on the route Vienna-Pula and is moved in Pula directly to the pier for the passage to Brioni. Train detaparts from Vienna at 19:20 arriving in Pola (Pula) at 08:27, departing from Pola (Pula) at 18:42 and arriving in Vienna at 09:10.


In 1913 The zoo is being finished and the winter swimming pool is being opened on October 6. Brioni is approached by the Austrian Lloyd and the Ungaro-Croata line. The Adriatic Bird Observatory is founded on Brioni by Eduard Paul Tratz.

There is an local newspaper – Brioni Insel Zeitung.

He started developing modern horticulture, building and arranging hotels, villas, roads, tracks, a harbor, infrastructure and sports commodities. A farm with some 200 cows, pigs and Tirol horses. Then they were producing a very distinct cheese. The old olive plantation is felled. From a number of vineyards very good wines were consumed by the guests on the island but also sold in Vienna and elsewhere. Paul actually didn’t have that much capital as it was believed he had. He was a great entrepreneur, master of administration and a great marketer. Those capabilities togehter with the commitment of the whole family building and developing their new home and hard work was the “secret magic formula” which made this, once abandoned old Adriatic pearl, great again.

Neues Wiener Tagblatt 24.06.1912.

This venture began enthusiastically and besided being his family new home and a private resort, pretty soon he realizes it would have to produce some incomes too. Beside the economy, to be a touristic business. Tourist were coming in larger and larger numbers.


As it is visible, numbers were raising and a number of those guests were true celebrities who’s visits just added to the brand of Brioni and promoted it as best influencers. Majority of gusests were from Austria and specifically Vienna. In summers 1910-1913 from 50% up to 75% of all guests were coming from Vienna.

It is also important to say that in the same time, Brioni had a very large number of daily visitors – hikers. Estimates say 1905 – 5,000, 1906 – 15,000, 1909 – 25,000 and in 1913 – 50,000. Those were coming from Pola, Triest, Portorose, Abbazia and Crikvenica. A number of guest were coming with their own yachts.

Sad thing is that, in the next period (1920-1940), those numbers will not be even closely matched.

End of an era


It’s late June 1914 and a beutiful summer on Brioni Islands. Heir to the trone Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sofia passes by Brioni Island on the way to Sarajevo and shortly stop in the Fazana channel just in from of the Brioni Main island. Few days later this ship will carry their dead bodies back to Austria. First World War is just about to begin. It will change the course of World’s history and sadly close a serene era of the Brioni’s paradise.

Paul Kupelwieser (source Wikipedia Commons)

Another citation from his book of memories: “Looking back on my whole life so far, I have never aspired to acquire money. But for those who work usefully, money always comes to me and I have experienced it since my youth. Work has always seemed to me a crucial, main task, and acquiring money it was always only a side effect. After all, my wealth was far behind what my immediate and distant surroundings foresaw.” page 29.