Saturday, 8 August 2009
Inside Tito's luxury playground
Former Yugoslavia under the late communist leader Marshall Tito never fitted the Soviet template for its satellite states. Rebuked by Moscow for being "too independent" he was courted by statesmen, royalty and celebrities from all over the world, and whenever they visited him, they were entertained in decidedly un-Communist manner, as Frank Partridge discovered.
From the holiday coast of north-west Croatia, it is a 20-minute ferry ride to Brijuni, an archipelago of 14 islands that for the last 30 years of Josip Broz Tito's extraordinary life became his private playground.
Tito would spend up to six months of the year on the islands, gardening, fishing and enjoying a lifestyle of luxury unimaginable to most of his people, if they had ever known about it.
But most did not because the islands were closed to all but their leader's coterie of hand-picked staff and labourers and a guest-list of glitterati that an American president would have found hard to match.
And if word did slip out about Tito's banquets and parties, there was no public indignation.
Most Yugoslavs liked the idea of their president cutting a dash for the cameras, kitted out in double-breasted suits from New York's Fifth Avenue and smoking fat cigars in the company of world leaders.
The most head-turning exhibit in the island's museum is a picture gallery of visiting VIPs, smiling in the company of the handsome, charismatic leader whose statesmanship and force of personality postponed the inevitable disintegration of the Balkan states for 40 years.
There is Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, visiting in 1954; Nasser of Egypt and Nehru of India, two years later, signing the declaration that spawned the Non-Aligned Movement that thrives today, with more than 100 member nations.
There is Queen Elizabeth II, paying a visit in 1972, Chancellor Willy Brandt of West Germany in 1973 and King Hussein of Jordan in 1978.
But Tito took his pleasures seriously too. He had a circle of famous and glamorous friends, among them Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida.
And many beautiful women came to Brijuni on private visits unrecorded by the official photographer.
Tito would collect them from the boat in his 1950s Cadillac, a gift from President Dwight Eisenhower, and drive them to one of four sprawling villas tucked away in the woods.
Four years after Tito's death in 1980, the wider public was admitted to Brijuni for the first time since an outbreak of malaria had led to its evacuation hundreds of years earlier.
An Austrian industrialist had bought the islands in 1893, hired a Nobel Prize-winning bacteriologist to remove the mosquitoes, and turned the main island into an exotic retreat for himself and his friends.
Fresh water and electricity were brought in, and he transformed the landscape with villas, lawns and gardens, sub-tropical trees and shrubs, a zoo, the first 18-hole golf course in continental Europe, and even a casino.
By the time Tito discovered Brijuni in the late 1940s, the Depression, Italian rule and the war had taken their toll, but he declared the islands his official summer residence and set about recreating their former splendour.
The villas were updated, the zoo became a safari park with animals donated by heads of state, including Shetland ponies from the British Queen and two elephants from Indira Gandhi.
Herds of fallow deer roamed around the parkland, keeping down the grass on the golf course.
Today, the main island is a national park, and a toy-town train shuttles tourists around the sights.
The government-owned villas, hardly used now, are still polished and cleaned every day.
In Tito's favourite, Villa Bijela, they preserved his basement gym, with its empty swimming pool, antiquated whirlpool and sauna.
Villa Jadranka is notable for its Japanese art and scrolls, Villa Brianka is done out in Argentine marble and exotica from other friendly, non-aligned nations.
But nothing compares with the fourth villa, Tito's "secret jewel", hidden from all but his inner circle.
It lies on the neighbouring island of Vanga, which is strictly out of bounds unless visitors are granted a special permit by the authorities in Zagreb.
Brandishing my permit, I was delivered to Vanga's jetty by a fast speedboat, where I was met and shadowed by a burly, silent guard in full military fatigues, looking absurdly out of place amidst the sub-tropical vegetation and the soothing sound of the waves and breeze.
Brijuni was Tito's private playground
Tito's glassy, open-plan villa on Vanga is shielded from view by a bamboo plantation.
Inside, the brilliant white walls, futuristic furniture and splashy artwork, including a Picasso, is so 1960s it could be the villain's lair in a James Bond movie.
The lone caretaker is a Communist-style babushka with scraped-back hair and without a scrap of make-up.
But her countenance softened when I asked her if she could still sense Tito's presence. "Yes," she replied. "I feel it every day."
In the grounds, there are plantations of oranges and mandarins, and a vineyard laid out by Tito in 1956, from vines donated by South Africa and South America, from which several varieties of wine are produced for the very occasional visitors.
As I sipped on a glass of 2008 Malvazia, I drank in the beauty and tranquillity of this magical place, and considered just how wrong we were about the Communists.
Or one of them, at least.