There may not be many virgin territories left. But there are places that reinvent themselves every few decades. The result? Visiting them feels like stepping into a new world. One such destination in Croatia is the city of Rijeka. This industrial and cultural jewel of the North Adriatic has a rich history and a vibrant buzz. It is home to 130,000 residents, but still an uncharted territory for foreign travelers.
This is all about to change as Rijeka becomes the 2020 European Capital of Culture (ECC). The designation will coincide with a host of exciting festivals and events. For now, let this seaport with a part Austro-Hungarian and part Italian flair entice you with its subtle charms.
Visiting Rijeka is like having a chat with a quirky party companion. Within moments, you will feel drawn in and compelled to peel one layer of its history after another. For example, you’ll find out how the city was always sandwiched between large empires and each wanted a slice of it. This meeting and clashing of powers made it into one of the most multicultural hubs of the Adriatic.
You’ll see Rijeka as an open city—or as the locals love to say “the city that flows.” No, there won’t be any ethnic quarters. Diversity will break out from people’s world views, languages and traces of historical turns. You will sense this fusion in the city’s layout, its rituals, and the achievements of its citizens.
The Geography of Rijeka
The 17-kilometer Rjecina River flows through a dramatic canyon to meet the Adriatic Sea. The city moves along and expands with it. To the north, the riverbanks display the once monumental industrial complexes. By the time the sea comes in sight, the Rjecina forks in two: the Deal Canal and the estuary of its natural riverbed. This delta-shaped spot is like a canvas where colors of the past and future merge. Here was the border between Yugoslavia and Italy that divided the city into the Croatian Sušak and the Italian Fiume. They united only in 1947 under Yugoslavia’s Prime Minister Josip Broz.
Across from the delta, Rijeka’s coastline is a busy hub for ships. Many set sail for the first time from the city’s ship building docks. This strong connection with the sea has made Rijeka into a meeting point of people, capital and ideas.
The Austro-Hungarian center of Rijeka also flows with history. The main street, Korzo, pours with people who meet friends for coffee or bump into a familiar face on their daily rounds.
The Rituals of Rijeka
Visiting the market is a daily must; small scale shopping is a social ritual. With bagfuls of the fresh daily catch (seafood doesn’t get any fresher than here), locals stop for marenda—an early lunch of fried fish paired with wine.
Once a year, the famed Rijeka Carnival offers people to let off steam. The buzz of the closing Parade is intoxicating. More than 10,000 masked merry-makers march through the city’s arteries, firing up visitors with cheer. The unique pre-Christian character of the carnival is well preserved too. Especially in the UNESCO-protected tollers from Halubje group of men wearing sheepskin and stylized animal masks. They ring heavy bells strapped around their waist to announce the fertile spring season.
Half a year later, a profoud Catholic ritual takes place near the medieval Trsat Castle. Uphill, the Shrine of Our Lady of Trsat is where Mary’s Nazareth house appeared to the believers in the 13th century. Since then, masses of pilgrims have visited the church on August 15 (the Assumption of Mary). The full pilgrimage includes climbing around 600 stone steps from the city center.
An Industrial Turn for the Cultural Treasure
Among Rijeka’s biggest cultural potentials is the outstanding industrial architecture. These stunning buildings now provide the possibility to echo the bygone days of glory with a repurposed roles. But come 2020, they too will get a new lease on life. The launch ramp of the first self-propelled torpedo and the Hartera paper factory are the real jewels.
Now you can learn about Rijeka’s leading innovation at the awesome exhibition Torpedo of Rijeka—First in the World. It depicts the weapon’s history through real specimens, weaving in biographies of its makers Ivan Lupis and Robert Whitehead. There is even an opportunity to take part in the battleship championship by the launch ramp.
The revival of this old game, started by the local amateur group, is an original way to give industrial heritage the prominence it deserves. They also organize paper plane flying to liven up the Hartera factory. Before closing down, this giant producer exported cigarette paper worldwide.
Now it’s time for the old lady to change her frock and dazzle smart travelers with her cultural skills. You should hurry to make her acquaintance before the rest of the world is asking for her hand.
-Rijeka is a 90 minute drive from Zagreb.
-The exhibition Torpedo of Rijeka is open April 1-Dec 1 2017 (12PM-6PM).
-For a great marenda, try Volta and Fiume taverns.
Andrea Pisac writes offbeat stories about Croatia at Zagreb Honestly and for other travel publications. Follow her on Twitter.