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; the hilltop suburb of Trsat, home to a famous pilgrimage church, is particularly attractive. 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. Much of Rijeka was rebuilt after World War II, though a fair number of nineteenth-century buildings remain, many of them in solid ranks along the Riva.
Although Trsat is an ancient hilltop site once occupied by both the Illyrians and the Romans, the port below didn’t really begin to 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 the rather blunt “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 up 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 increasingly 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 soldier-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 port-side workshops and warehouses has become the subject of (as yet unrealized) urban regeneration schemes.