Socialist Splendor: Yugoslavia’s Largest Hotel Gets a New Look
1972 was quite a year for Pula, a port and holiday resort on the Croatian peninsula of Istria. In January, a gargantuan bulk carrier named the Berge Istra, billed as the largest ship in the world, slowly slid down the ramp at the city’s shipyard. Six months later, out of town and away from the cranes, the city welcomed another bold newcomer: the 227-room Hotel Brioni, a sleek modernist edifice rising above the pine trees in front of one of the most promising coastal regions of the Adriatic.
It was perhaps the heyday of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, a nation ably led by its president and de facto dictator Josip Broz Tito through the turbulent waters of the Cold War. Tito’s Yugoslavia achieved a remarkable balancing act: a communist state that stood apart from the Soviet empire and openly welcomed Western businessmen and vacationers.
The Berge Istra was commissioned by a Norwegian shipping company, and the opening of the Brioni was timed to accommodate the types of international films arriving for the annual Pula film festival.
The name of the hotel, after the Italian word for the nearby Brijuni Islands where Tito lived and worked for six months each year, is said to have been proposed by Sophia Loren, a serial visitor to the resort.
The inauguration was marred by a stereotypical command economy: the kitchens were not finished and 150 prominent guests had to be ferried into town to eat. But by the following season there would be direct flights to Pula from New York, bringing visitors attracted by Brioni’s highly unusual casino license – the apotheosis of Tito’s ideologically contested quest for hard currency. Throughout the 1970s, all the big names came to settle: Boney M, Abba, Colonel Gaddafi.
Now fresh from a 34 million euro renovation by Arena Hospitality Group in collaboration with Radisson, the establishment is reborn as the Grand Hotel Brioni Pula.
Beneath cobalt skies and surrounded by garish green lawns, the scene is irresistibly reminiscent of those garish, overly colorful postcards of Brioni’s period pomp, when creaky local Zastavas shared the driveway tarmac with Mercedes registered in Germany and hipster beach buggies.
Step through the reception doors, however, and a very different Brioni reveals itself: airy, light and plush, with lots of blue velvet sofas, a space unrecognizable from the cavernous darkness of the 1972 original, when chunky chairs lay abandoned on a sea of dark wood. General Manager Alex Živković’s eyebrows are raised when asked which features have survived the renovation. “I think maybe the handrails on the stairs,” he finally offers.
After Tito’s death in 1980, Yugoslavia began to disintegrate, and with cogwheel tragedy. The economy was already struggling by then, and Istria – a posh vacation spot throughout a convoluted history that since the 18th century has seen it ruled by Venice, Napoleon, the Habsburgs and Mussolini’s Italy before it was ceded to Yugoslavia in 1945 – has fallen out of favor with tourists. .
Hotel Brioni epitomized decline, dropping from five stars to two in the 1980s as furnishings and fittings deteriorated. As a grim complement to this disgrace, the Berge Istra and her Pula-built sister ship both sank without a trace, mysteriously blowing up in lonely seas with great loss of life. It was a sad end to Pula’s communist heyday.
Back in 2011, online customer reviews offered scathing verdicts on the Brioni: “Avoid at all costs, unless you’re looking for time warp.” . . and I am NOT talking about retro chic. A local guide who stayed at the hotel at that time said, “You walked through the front door and smelled the smell of Yugoslavia.”
Transforming this neglected juggernaut must have seemed like an almost impossible challenge. But it was a worthwhile undertaking. The location was second to none: two acres of beachfront lawn and a shady pine forest. After 50 years, these criss-crossing oblongs of glass and white concrete were an architectural look whose time had returned. And while a close association with the dictatorship can usually deter hobby developers, Tito is still loved across much of his once fragmented nation.
It turns out that elements of the 1970s state-socialist hotel experience lend themselves to a 21st-century luxury makeover. The first is pure space: 20,000 sq m are many common areas of grand proportions and high ceilings, the most visible being the opulent lobby bar, which has – like most dining venues – a large overview of the turquoise Adriatic and its majestic sunsets.
Exit any elevator to guest floors and a gaping landing strip opens; in 1972, these areas were the domain of Soviet-style “floor matrones”, employed to look after guests – and watch over them. As a symbolic evolution, the matrons have given way to unstaffed “butler’s corners”, glass booths where customers can buy craft gin and luxury handbags on an honesty basis.
Job-creating overstaffing was a reliable feature of the communist hotel system, and with a rather service-centric orientation, the new Brioni has taken over: at 1.2 employees per guest, the hotel’s ratio is everything. quite at the top of the industry.
The rooms themselves are more modestly proportioned, larger than the originals only because the balconies leading to them have now been reclaimed behind full-width glass doors. Air conditioning may have done away with the practical necessity of a balcony, but that definitely socialist penchant for fresh air and wholesome vigor remains a notable trait. In the shimmering Adriatic, beyond the Brioni’s slender 60-metre infinity pool and a rocky foreshore adorned with cascading sun terraces, a flotilla of paddleboarders strike elegant yoga poses in perfect synchrony. There is a large gym, supervised by a former professional footballer.
More compellingly, the ethos of spa therapy espoused by so many communist resorts is fully honored. Luckily, that doesn’t include being bludgeoned and hosed down by austere orderlies in a white-tiled room, according to the Spartan archetype.
The glass-walled indoor pool is a smart, seamless upgrade from the Brioni’s slightly municipal original, and the surrounding facilities embody the high-end, high-tech wellness — a more compelling Roman-inspired vibe that settled in Pula, adorning it with the splendid amphitheater that still hosts the city’s film festival. Beyond the usual saunas and steam rooms, there’s a salt wall, an ice fountain, and a four-stage “water paradise” multi-sensory shower experience. Gemstones feature heavily, from jade, pearl and diamond infused creams to massages with hot quartz stones and opal gems.
Indeed, a winning vibe of cheeky bling permeates the Brioni. Hallway walls sparkle with Swarovski crystals, polished marble and brass are used with abandon, and there’s plenty of gold in the food — even at the remarkable breakfast buffet, where pastries sparkle with gold topping. Contemplate this sumptuous smorgasbord and spare a thought for whoever took this tragic customer review photo of their soggy cornflakes 12 years ago, stark and alone on a crumpled paper tablecloth.
At Sophia Steakhouse, the most glitzy of the house’s three restaurants, the tasting menu is presented with ceremonial panache by a team of black-clad staff, removing huge smoke-filled glass funnels from kobe beef tartars before smothering them in truffle shavings. One can’t help but wonder if this vibe was curated with the Russian guests in mind. “We expected them to be 15% of our business,” says Živković, with a sigh of regret.
Remaking a communist hotel for the benefit of ultra-rich Russians may seem ironic, but in some ways it has always been that way. Like most of his ilk, Tito was hardly averse to extravagance. On Brijuni Island, the Marshal drove around in a metallic green Cadillac convertible – now kept in a plexiglass box outside his lavish former residence.
The museum inside, meant to showcase Tito’s shrewd geopolitical maneuverings, offers unintended photographic glimpses into a gilded island way of life. There he is in a speedboat with Ho Chi Minh, playing pool on a full-size table with Queen Juliana of the Netherlands, feeding the elephants that Indira Gandhi donated to her private zoo (one of them is still in residence).
Looking out from a lounge chair by the pool, you can just make out the southern tip of Brijuni Island, looking at the horizon to the right. Brioni’s reinvention is a triumph of daring, a joyous and brash act of defiance that swims against the tide of boutique hotels, minimalism and restraint.
In doing so, he taps into the cultures and ideologies that have shaped Istria, where Austro-Hungarian pastel mansions overlook streets labeled in both Serbo-Croatian and Italian. Germanic professionalism and expertise, Latin joie de vivre and a communist ruler’s innate sense of power and majesty, harnessed to attract a new generation of spendthrift visitors.
Tim Moore was a guest at Grand Hotel Brioni Pula, a Radisson Collection Hotel (grandhotelbrioni.com). Double rooms cost from €390 per night
Check out our latest stories first – follow @ftweekend on Twitter