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.