Just to the west of Rijeka, the Opatija Riviera (Opatijska rivijera) is a twenty-kilometre stretch of sedate seaside resorts lining the western side of the Kvarner Gulf. Protected from strong winds by the ridge of Mount Učka, this stretch of coast became the favoured retreat of tubercular Viennese fleeing the central European winter. At the centre of the Riviera is the town of Opatija, whose nineteenth-century popularity made it the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s answer to the Côte d’Azur. The Habsburg ambience survives in some attractive fin-de-siècle architecture, the best of which is in the dainty town of Lovran, just southwest of Opatija. There’s an abundance of good accommodation throughout the Riviera, although private rooms and pensions tend to be cheaper in Lovran than in Opatija.
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Longest established of the Kvarner Gulf resorts, OPATIJA is very much the grande dame of Croatian tourism. It was the kind of town that sucked in celebrities from all over Europe during the belle époque, an era that lives on in Opatija’s fine Austro-Hungarian buildings and neatly clipped parks. The resort continues to be patronized by central Europeans of a certain age (there are times when you can walk the length of the seafront without seeing anyone under 45), although recent years have seen an influx of younger holidaymakers from Russia, Ukraine and further east. Opatija’s proximity to Rijeka ensures a regular influx of weekend trippers throughout the year, when the town’s famous shoreline promenade can be jammed with strollers. Top-quality seafood restaurants have taken off in a big way in Opatija, especially in the fishing-village suburb of Volosko, turning the town into a major target for gastro-pilgrims.
The town is a long thin hillside settlement straddling along the base of Mount Učka. At its centre is the Slatina beach, a concrete lido surrounded by cafés and souvenir stalls. The main street, Maršala Tita, runs past some grand examples of fin-de-siècle architecture, although the seaside promenade of Šetalište Franza Jozefa offers a far better way of exploring.
Opatija was little more than a fishing village until the arrival in 1844 of Rijeka businessman Iginio Scarpa, who built the opulent Villa Angiolina as a holiday home for his family and aristocratic Habsburg friends. In 1882 the villa was bought by Friedrich Schüller, head of Austria’s Southern Railways; having just built the line from Ljubljana to Rijeka, he decided to promote Opatija as a mass holiday destination and the town’s first hotels (including the Kvarner, Krönprinzessin Stephanie – today’s Imperial – and Palace-Bellevue) soon followed. Opatija quickly developed a Europe-wide reputation: Franz Josef of Austria met Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany here in 1894, while playwright Anton Chekhov holidayed at the Kvarner in the same year. A decade later Isadora Duncan installed herself in a villa behind the Krönprinzessin Stephanie and was inspired by the palm tree outside her window to create one of her best-known dance movements – “that light fluttering of the arms, hands and fingers which has been so much abused by my imitators”.
Hiking on Mount Ucka
Hiking on Mount Ucka
Dominating the skyline above Opatija and Lovran is the long, forest-covered ridge of the Učka massif, which divides the Kvarner region from central Istria and is protected as a Nature Park (w pp-ucka.hr). It is accessible by road from Rijeka via a route running over the northern shoulder of the mountain, which passes a turn-off to the 1396-metre summit of Vojak on the way. Rather than driving to Vojak, however, the best way to enjoy Učka’s wooded slopes is to walk. Paths are well marked, and the Učka map (25Kn), available from the tourist offices in Opatija and Lovran, is an invaluable guide.
Lovran is the starting point for the most direct hiking route up the mountain – the ascent takes around three and a half hours. A flight of rough-hewn steps begins immediately behind Lovran’s old centre, leading to the small Romanesque Chapel of St Rock on the edge of the village of Liganj. Join the road into Liganj for a couple of hundred metres, before heading uphill to the right through the hamlets of Dindići and Ivulići – semi-abandoned clusters of farmhouses and moss-covered dry-stone walls. From Ivulići it’s a steady two-hour ascent through oak and beech forest before you emerge onto a grassy saddle where an expansive panorama of inland Istria suddenly opens up, revealing the knobbly green and brown forms of the peninsula’s central hills; the peak of Vojak is another twenty minutes’ walk to the right. At the top, there’s an observation tower, TV mast and splendid views of Rijeka and the spindly form of Cres beyond. An alternative ascent, which takes about fifty minutes longer, starts just behind the Medveja campsite and ascends to the village of Lovranska Draga before climbing steeply up a wooded ravine to join the main path from Lovran.
From Vojak, a path descends north to Poklon (1hr), where you meet up with the old Rijeka–Istria road. There’s a terrace offering another view of the Kvarner Gulf here. On Sundays, bus #34 from Opatija climbs as far as Poklon once a day, making this a good starting point from which to tackle Vojak if time is short. From Poklon, you can work your way southeast back to Lovran (roughly a 2hr walk) by a downhill path which ultimately joins the main route you came up on.