I swam in the sea, bobbed along on the salty waves of the Adriatic, looking up at the Grand Hotel Brioni as it jutted out above the rocks like an ocean liner, crisp and clean.
Freshly refurbished, and newly opened this summer, this five-star hotel in Pula, Croatia, is a sanctuary of quality and calm. Originally a Yugoslavian hot spot for the rich and famous of the 1970s, this jewel on the Istrian coastline has been returned to glory – still a destination for A-list guests (while we were staying so too was the President of Croatia) but in a much more refined and sophisticated manner.
You can recognise the building’s modernist past in its bold and angular structure; blocks linked into each other with crisp white edges. The kitsch and communist interiors of the old era are long gone, replaced by tranquil and open spaces, furnished in marble and velvet, subtly coloured in blue and gold tones – an extension and reflection of the exterior environment. Every area has been designed with relaxation in mind, turn each corner and the space opens into comfortable seating areas with paintings, ceramics and sculptures specially commissioned from Croatian artists.
Salt sticky on my skin, I pulled myself out of the water and climbed the steps towards the hotel, light rippling across it’s white walls as the sun reflected from the 60-metre-long saltwater infinity pool above me.
After cocktails on the terrace (I’ve never seen such an extensive cocktail menu, try the Zacapa Mojito, it comes with an After Eight mint!) it was time for dinner at Brioni Lungo Mare, one of the hotels three restaurants. Here they serve the best local seafood, speciality pastas and Mediterranean delights, and you can enjoy your evening on the terrace watching the dolphins play as the hot sun sets over the alluring sea.
Sleep comes easily when you sink into a freshly made bed, air conditioning silently cooling your room, no sounds, no disturbance. The complimentary gold dusted grapes probably helped.
In the morning, after a fulfilling breakfast, we headed out to Chiavalon Farm to get the inside intel on Istrian olive oil. We sat by the mill, amongst the groves, pushing and pulling the olive oil through our teeth in the most attractive manner (I lie, it was ugly, but it was a necessary motion). We learnt how to spot the true extra virgin oil from its lesser counterparts (for a start, it doesn’t come in a clear plastic bottle!)
Croatia is known for its truffles, extra virgin olive oil, wine and honey, along with the fresh seafood, fish and meats. For lovers of quality, unadulterated food, this is the place. The extra virgin olive oil is like nothing I’ve ever tasted – a peppery hit in the back of the throat, strong and rich, and apparently suggested (for the health benefits) as the first thing you consume in the day.
Onwards, to Medea Winery in the town of Vodnjan near Pula, where the enthusiastic team produce some of the best wines in Croatia. Their attention to detail comes from a true love of what they do. For their fresh and light Montiron, the grapes are picked and processed by hand, then the wine is aged in oak barriques. For those who favour a red wine, the exceptional and award-winning Punta Greca is produced in limited quantities from Istria’s southernmost vineyard on the Cape Punta Grkova.
Back at Grand Hotel Brioni, it was time to recover from the gruelling experience of having to eat and drink the finest award-winning artisan produce that Istria offers. What a life!
I made my way down to Gemma di Brioni, the hotel’s Wellness Centre which is spread over 1300 square metres and encompasses an indoor pool and jacuzzi, saunas, a steam room, a Water Paradise shower, and a Himalayan salt wall, as well as offering eleven facials and ten body treatments. Of the massages I was encouraged to choose the Precious Stones treatment. As someone who is used to sports massages and a bit of physio, it was a strange experience to have someone switch off the lights and drape a flannel across my eyes before sliding smooth rocks up and down my legs and prodding me in the stomach with them (I didn’t see the stones, they could have been potatoes!) but for everyone else it was a really calming and relaxing experience, and something I probably should get more practice at.
We ate dinner in the hotel’s Sophia Restaurant, (named after Sophia Loren, a previous guest from the 1970s heydays). Smoke filled glass cloches revealed beef tartare enriched with foie gras, truffle and caviar. Plates were presented, piled with tomahawk steak and Kobe beef from the Josper grill, fermented honey shallots and a delicious Red Beer sauce. It was an experience, a meaty experience!
After making the most of the extensive breakfast buffet – Champagne, fresh watermelon, warm knedle (a weighty plum filled potato dumpling) – we headed over to the old fishing village of Fazana and boarded a boat for Brijuni Island.
Covered in Bay, Myrtle, Strawberry, and Holme Oak trees the island was former President Tito’s summer residence. A communist leader for 30 years from the end of the second world war, until his death in 1980, Tito used to drive around the island in his Cadillac Eldorado from his grand house to his zoo, past his Shetland Ponies (a gift from Queen Elizabeth II) as he smoked cigars in his smart suits and entertained government leaders and film stars alike.
You can see an array of photographs depicting Tito’s decadent lifestyle in the museum dedicated to him. Next door, in the taxidermy museum you can see many of the animals were gifted to Tito for his zoo. The zoo has gone, decayed and overgrown, but one animal remains – the lonely elephant, Lanka. She turns 50 this year.
Before you leave Brijuni, pay a visit to the ancient olive tree, one of the oldest in the world, it’s been carbon dated as around 1600 years old, and it still bears fruit. Oh, and maybe have a look at the roman ruins and dinosaurs’ footprints too!
After another great dinner at Hotel Grand Brioni we headed into Pula for the evening. The city was bustling, busy with families and groups of all ages, everyone enjoying the (only slightly) cooler temperatures of the night amongst the classic Austrian and Italian architecture.
Pula’s famous Film Festival was on at the Roman Amphitheatre, people were smiling and posing for photos in front of it’s great walls. It’s the sixth largest in the world and back in the gladiator days it held 23,000 people (and a bunch of lions and panthers).
We headed to Wine City in Tito’s Park, a fortnight-long celebration of the best of Croatian wines, kind of like the British Beer Fests, but more refined, with fairy lights and nicer glasses.
One more sleep, one last breakfast, one extra knedle (for luck, not greed) and it was time to depart.
Experience the newly opened Grand Hotel Brioni Pula, a Radisson Collection Hotel, from €390 per night for a Premium Garden View Room, or €430 for a Premium Sea View Room.
For more information and to book visit www.grandhotelbrioni.com
I travelled to Pula on commission with City AM and was a guest of Grand Hotel Brioni and The Radisson Collection, along with a small group of journalists.
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