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”.