Rows of cumbrous cranes front the soaring apartment blocks of Rijeka (pronounced “Ree-acre”), a down-to-earth city that mixes industrial grit with a Mediterranean sense of joie de vivre. It is the northern Adriatic’s only true metropolis, harbouring a reasonable number of attractions and an appealing urban buzz. With the current expansion of Rijeka University set to radically increase the student population, this is definitely a city on the up.
Accommodation in town is limited to a handful of hotels, however, and if you want to stay in the area it may be better to aim for the Opatija Riviera to the west, an area amply served by Rijeka’s municipal bus network.
Although the hilltop suburb of Trsat is an ancient site once occupied by both the Illyrians and the Romans, the port below didn’t really develop until the thirteenth century, when it was known – in the language of whichever power controlled it – as St Vitus-on-the-River, a name subsequently shortened to “River” – which is what Rijeka (and its Italian version, “Fiume”) actually means. From 1466 the city belonged to the Habsburgs, but was awarded to Hungary in 1868 when the Habsburg Empire was divided into Austrian and Hungarian halves.
Rijeka under Hungarian rule was a booming city with a multinational population – the centre was predominantly Italian-speaking, while the suburbs were solidly Croat – and both Italians and Croatians laid claim to the city when it came up for grabs at the end of World War I. The Allies had promised Rijeka to the infant Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (subsequently Yugoslavia), prompting a coup by Italian poet Gabriele d’Annunzio – who marched into Rijeka unopposed and established a proto-fascist regime. D’Annunzio soon fell, leaving Rijeka to be gobbled up by Mussolini’s Italy.
Rijeka was returned to Yugoslavia after World War II, when most of the Italian population was induced to leave. In the years that followed, its shipbuilding industry flourished, and the city acquired its high-rise suburbs. Nowadays shipbuilding is in decline, and Rijeka’s rich stock of portside workshops and warehouses has become the subject of (as yet unrealized) urban regeneration schemes.
On the last Sunday before Shrove Tuesday, Rijeka plays host to the biggest carnival celebrations in Croatia, culminating in a spectacular parade. Much of the parade centres on carnival floats and fancy-dress costumes, although there is one authentic older element in the shape of the zvončari, young men clad in animal skins who ring enormous cow bells to drive away evil spirits. Many of the villages in the hills north of Rijeka have their own groups of zvončari, a tradition which has survived since pre-Christian times. The Rijeka parade, which normally culminates with a large party of zvončari strutting their stuff, usually kicks off at around 1pm and takes around five hours to complete. Afterwards, participants and spectators alike troop off to the Riva, where there’s an enormous marquee, in which drinking and dancing continue into the early hours.
Following World War I, Italy’s failure to win territories in the eastern Adriatic provoked profound feelings of national frustration. Italian army officers calculated that an attack on Rijeka would be enormously popular with the Italian public, and chose flamboyant poet, orator and decorated war hero Gabriele d’Annunzio (1863–1938) to lead the enterprise.
D’Annunzio marched into Rijeka on September 12, 1919, at the head of 297 volunteers – whose numbers were soon swelled by patriotic adventurers. He immediately declared Italy’s annexation of Rijeka, a deed that the Italian government in Rome, suspicious of the radical d’Annunzio, disowned. By September 1920, d’Annunzio – who now styled himself “Il Commandante” – had established Rijeka as an independent state entitled the Reggenza del Carnaro, or “Regency of the Kvarner”, which he hoped to use as a base from which to topple the Italian government and establish a dictatorship. The enterprise attracted all kinds of ex-soldiers and political idealists from Italy and beyond. D’Annunzio’s court was copiously provisioned with both cocaine and courtesans, providing these adventurous souls with added inducements to stick around.
Under d’Annunzio, political life in Rijeka became an experiment in totalitarian theory from which fellow Italian nationalist Benito Mussolini was to borrow freely. D’Annunzio’s main innovation was the establishment of a corporate state, ostensibly based on the Italian medieval guild system, in which electoral democracy was suspended and replaced by nine “corporations” – each corresponding to a different group of professions – by which the populace could be organized and controlled. The Regency was also a proving ground for fascism’s love of spectacle, with d’Annunzio mounting bombastic parades and carefully choreographed mass meetings.
Pressured by the Western allies to bring d’Annunzio to heel, Italian forces began a bombardment of the city on Christmas Eve, 1920. D’Annunzio surrendered four days later, finally leaving town on January 18, thereby ending one of twentieth-century history’s more bizarre episodes.
For three days in mid-June a former paper factory in the steep-sided gorge of the River Riječina becomes the scene of Hartera, one of Central Europe’s most intriguing rock festivals. Live music and DJ sets take place in a variety of postindustrial spaces, with the decoration of the stark halls of the factory taking a different theme each year. There’s a good mixture of top international names and local acts, and with capacity limited to around three thousand people the festival has an intimate, boutique feel. Check the website for deals on tent accommodation in the Hartera camp, and cut-price offers on hotels in Opatija.
Other major festivals to look out for include Rijeka Summer Nights (Riječke ljetne noći; July), involving classical music, drama and dance in both indoor and outdoor venues throughout the city; and Summer in the Castle (Ljeto na gradini; Aug–Sept; information from the tourist office), a series of open-air theatre performances, film screenings and pop-rock concerts in the courtyard of Trsat castle; and Impulse Festival in April, a short season of alternative rock gigs, exhibitions and music-business seminars centred on Palach club.
Top image: Kasalisni Park and Theater Building in Rijeka, Croatia © ansharphoto/Shutterstock