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Croatia: The Chameleon Coast

Once a jewel of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Croatia's northern coast is an eccentric melting pot of influences. Here you'll find anarchic Rijeka and laid-back Opatija, the region's odd couple, connected by a palm-strewn promenade

By Tara Isabella-Burton
Published 21 Aug 2017, 09:00 BST, Updated 12 Jul 2021, 10:39 BST
Maiden with The Seagull statue, on the coast of Opatija

Maiden with The Seagull statue, on the coast of Opatija

Photograph by Getty Images

Vuk Ćosić has a dream for Rijeka. It involves pirates…

"Hear me out," he says, blinking rapidly, as we sit on Korzo, the pedestrianised street that runs beneath smooth Austro-Hungarian facades. "Back in the days of the Free State of Fiume" — a period after World War I when Rijeka was occupied by the poet-turned-warlord Gabriele D'Annunzio ­­— "the city made its money on piracy." Back then, Fiume — as it was known — was home to a lost generation of poets, smugglers, philosophers, free love advocates, drug addicts, prostitutes and mystics.

"We should bring that back."

Ćosić, the communications director for Rijeka's 2020 Capital of Culture programme, and an experimental artist in his own right, isn't your typical bureaucrat. He's sick of safe Capital of Culture programmes that celebrate anodyne art. That, he says, isn't part of Rijeka's historically riotous, anarchic spirit.

But pirates?

He explains: in Rijeka's harbour on the Adriatic, among the cargo ships that in the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire made the city, along with Italy's Trieste, one of the main Habsburg outposts on the coast, there lies the warship of Josip Broz Tito: the communist dictator who ruled former Yugoslavia, including Croatia, with an iron fist. One of the 2020 events Ćosić and his team are planning involves transforming the ship into a museum.

"But what if we could stage a pirate attack?" Not a real one, he clarifies, just for fun. A team of actors to 'steal' Tito's ship: a combination of D'Annunzio-era piracy and the metaphorical overthrow of a Soviet-era dictator. A chance to show the world Rijeka's poetic, rebellious spirit first-hand.

He orders me another coffee as women with small dogs parade up and down Korzo (Rijeka has inherited a languid, formal coffee culture from its former Austro-Hungarian occupiers). He shows me photographs of some of his more experimental art pieces on his phone, and details other schemes he has to celebrate Rijeka's literary visitors: D'Annunzio, James Joyce.

"I'm a cosmopolitan dude," he says, with a wink and a thick accent (earlier, he identified himself as "just your typical local guy"). "I want to bring some of D'Annunzio's energy to the present day."

The Croatia most tourists know is a relatively straightforward place: its beauty largely divorced from its history. The Dalmatian coast — Dubrovnik, Split, the island of Hvar — is wildly, even maddeningly gorgeous. But here in Kvarner, on Croatia's northern coast, the trappings of tourism — violently green mountainsides, blindingly blue sea — are steeped in an almost melancholic history.

In thrall to the Austro-Hungarian Empire — the most famous Habsburg rulers took the waters (and their mistresses) here — and variously under the influence of neighbouring Italy and the Balkans, Croatia's Kvarner and Istria regions form an uncanny cultural no-man's-land. 

In these parts, Viennese-style coffeehouses stand next to Yugoslavian-inflected kitsch (one of the most popular waterside cafes in Rijeka is located inside a former bunker); the Italianate waterfronts at Opatija and Rovinj feature Germanic thermal bathhouses. Waterfront promenades are named after old emperors — the Lungomare between the spa town of Opatija and more bustling Rijeka is officially named after Kaiser Franz Josef, the last great Austro-Hungarian Emperor. It's an intoxicating nowhere-land: Vienna with Italian weather.

But nowhere captures the riotous strangeness of the 'Austrian Riviera' — as this part of Croatia was once known — like the city of Rijeka itself. A former industrial port city, more imposing than beautiful, Rijeka's charm lies in its almost haphazard approach to cultural synchronicity.

"Everybody forgets that we too were a divided city, like Berlin," says my guide, Sandra Bandera, a former historian who came to realise that real history could be found on Rijeka's streets. She shows me the river for which the city is named — both the Italian 'Fiume' and Serbo-Croatian 'Rijeka' mean 'river'. Between the two World Wars, the city was divided at that point between the kingdoms of Yugoslavia and Italia. "Even today," she shrugs, "people wonder about me sending my daughter to an Italian school," when she grew up on the Yugoslav side. The city is unified now — a contemporary Memorial Bridge now crosses the river instead of barbed wire. "Everyone in Rijeka hated it until it won an international award. Now we all love it. That's how we are here." 

Rijeka, Sandra tells me, has its own rhythms, its own secrets. If you want to talk over a coffee, she says — and here, everybody longs to linger over a Viennese-style coffee — you first set out to do your Saturday shopping along Korzo, where you can see and be seen. "Everyone you meet will stop and ask you for a coffee", and about 10 people we passed did just that. "You'll never get a single errand done. Everybody knows that if you want to hide, you have to take the smaller streets." 

These smaller streets are the warrens of medieval and 19th-century cobblestones that lace the old town, where baroque churches lean against narrow two-storey houses and the odd socialist structure ("what earthquakes didn't destroy here, socialism did," she quips). 

Sandra points out her favourite places: the old Governor's Palace, where the eccentric D'Annunzio reigned as de facto dictator in the 1920s; the sumptuous Habsburg palaces with their carefully sculpted facades along the seafront; and the charmingly off-kilter Bordel La Grotta on Šime Ljubića — the one-time brothel for local sailors transformed into a hipster dining spot. Vintage price lists from the building's former business decorate the walls: equal part history and titillation.

"We aren't like the southern Croatians," Sandra says. Down south, near Dubrovnik, things are unplanned, relaxed, even Mediterranean. "We remember the Austro-Hungarian Empire here." The old women who smile at me on Korzo, dogs at the end of their lead, are elegant, methodical. Things happen on time — every guide I use here is at least five minutes early.

Similarly, in the north, one eschews espresso, lingering for an americano to meditate on one's day. Sandra and I stop for several, including at the languid Samovar, where I drink Russian Caravan tea while Sandra points out pieces of hung laundry belonging to families she knows. We're looking onto the notorious 'street of bats', so named for the nocturnal nationalist political parties — dreaming of independence from the Austrians — that once held their secret meetings (stone reliefs of bats mark the spot). 

Rijeka's anarchy is contagious. Its Habsburg-era palazzos are interspersed with hidden cafes and eccentric shops — echoes of history at once recent and remote. It's all, as Sandra says, about knowing where to look. Just down from the milk-white, ornate Governor's Palace I find the Peek & Poke Museum: a makeshift collection of computers and electronics from the Soviet Union to the present day, which the ebullient Svetozara Nilović — in jeans and a Pac-Man T-shirt — shows off with equal parts nostalgia and pride. The entrance fee includes a shot of noxiously strong walnut liquor or vodka, stored in decanters by the front door; Nilović makes me down mine at about 11am before leading me in a half-waltz to the strains of Elvis Presley on the radio. 

In the heart of the old town, the Turkish House, with its yellow-and-rust facade and Ottoman arches, stands as a testament to Rijeka's historic diversity as a port city (its builder was actually Greek-Armenian). Old men with armfuls of wild asparagus — it's the season — stumble into taverns, offering to sell them to strangers.

Towards the port, the art nouveau fish market — what locals, including Sandra, call the 'cathedral of fish' — has a secret balcony. ("No locals know about it," Sandra jokes), from which you can see the sellers underneath the liberty arches, each column topped with an almost reverential relief of a lobster or fish. 

But nobody is as gregarious as the red-lipsticked proprietress at Konoba Fiume, a dimly lit historic tavern just across the street from the fish market. She recognises Sandra, looking us up and down as she pours us strong shots of fruit brandy — between her and Nilović, I'm drunk before the appetisers. She then refuses us menus and brings out the expansive maritime spread characteristic of the Kvarner region, where Italian and Mitteleuropean flavours meet. Salty juta fish soup arrives alongside, a hearty spread of squid-ink risotto, chewy lobster-doused German-style noodles, grilled fish, fried calamari and delicate Kvarner shrimp. It could all easily serve 12.

She gasps in horror when she notices I haven't finished my strudel.

"You didn't like it!"

She pretends to weep into the dish as she takes it away.

A vanished age

If Rijeka is gloriously, intoxicatingly anarchic, Opatija, its neighbour eight miles down the coast, is almost unnervingly sedate. The inventor of Valium was born here; locals like to joke that he put the spirit of Opatija into a pill. A collection of flaking art nouveau villas overlooking the Adriatic — far clearer here than in industrial Rijeka — Opatija was once the epicentre of the Austrian Riviera. Back when the Austrian Southern Railway passed through the region, connecting Vienna with the wealthy port city of Trieste (today in Italy), railway officials invested in transforming the coast into a tourist resort.

Today, Opatija feels like a sunset-dappled museum to the beauty of a vanished age. Along the waterfront promenade, old men and women shuffle or sit on benches or drink Hugo Spritz, the Tyrolian-elderflower-and-Italian-prosecco cocktail emblematic of the region's cultural liminality. Many of the old villas are today hotels or sanatoriums: their stories, too, tell of Opatija's waves of change. The grand art nouveau Hotel Imperial on the waterfront, built in 1884, was once the Hotel Crown Princess Stephanie (after the Habsburgs), before changing its name to that of the Italian Queen Elena, then, under Yugoslavia, to the Hotel Moscow, before finally settling on a less politically charged name. Posters around the town advertise local festivals — for coffee, for chocolate — with paintings of men and women in late-19th-century dress; the Viennese Empress Sisi's portrait seems to be everywhere. The old art nouveau coffeehouse has been transformed into a modern art exhibition palace, while the Swiss chalet — built in a high-kitsch style by a local wealthy merchant — has been transformed into a museum dedicated to antique postcards and Opatija's Habsburg history.

I pass from display case to display case, looking at each sepia photograph: the villas, the grand hotels on the waterfront, the statues that gaze onto the sea. Nothing has changed.

At dawn, I go for a run along the waterfront, between the sleekly modern Remisens Hotel Admiral (where I'm staying) and the fishing village of Volosko. I pass the medieval abbey of Saint Jacob, nestled by the sea, the expansive grounds of the belle epoque Villa Amalia and Villa Angiolina — now museums — with their richly sculpted gardens: blooming with Japanese camellias, the symbol of the town. To my left, the woods rise into the hillside along the marked Carmen Sylva footpath: erected in honour of the mysterious Carmen herself — the pen name of queen and poetess Elisabeth of Wied — after her husband, Carol I of Romania, got lost in the woods.

Every street here, it seems, has a story.

That intoxicating feeling of nostalgia continues throughout my trip along Croatia's northern coast: from the Kvarner region into Istria, closer still to the Italian border. One morning I cycle along the Parenzana trail — a wildflower-dotted footpath that, a century ago, was the site of the imperial Vienna-Trieste railway. I start in the hamlet of Grožnjan, known equally for its artisans and truffles, where I drink coffee on a terrace overlooking olive orchards. The proprietor doesn't bother charging me for my cappuccino; I seem to be his only client that day. Two hours later, I pass the ruins of the old 19th-century train station — overgrown with weeds, flowers and dotted with the asparagus that seems to be everywhere this week (an old man is here, too, picking them). I can see nothing but green across the valley; in the distance, I can just about make out the spires of a medieval church: just another village I have not seen, just another set of stories I have not yet learned.

I make my way to the restaurant Toklarija nearby. Located in a 600-year-old olive mill, its fire roars while the wooded ceiling beams seem to crack under the weight of the surrounding stone. The restaurant is a monument to Istrian slow food: here peasant dishes (roast beef, farm-fresh goats' cheese, asparagus soup) are reimagined as a four-hour, extravagant haute cuisine experience.

It's all presided over by the effortlessly courtly Nevio Sirotić, who brings me tart, sour-plum-tinged Teran red wine, lemony Malvasia and chocolate cake. Outside, it's thunderstorming; each bolt of lightning seems to shake the stone. Inside, the fire crackles.

On my last day in Croatia, I make my way to perhaps the most historically significant of the northern coast's many islands: Veliki Brijun, which is a 15-minute ferry ride from the quiet town of Fažana. This island was a Roman settlement, once, then a Byzantine one; ruins dot the water, and beneath the broken archways of a sixth-century church, two wild deer scamper. Later, towards the end of the 19th-century, the island became, like Opatija, a getaway for wealthy Habsburg pleasure-seekers: a centre of Viennese culture (the villas today are government-owned, all rented out as hotels). But it's Veliki Brijun's more recent history that has brought me here today: it was the beloved summer-resort of Josip Broz Tito, and the island doubles as a dubiously elegiac monument to his regime.

Tito famously loved animals — several foreign dignitaries gave him rare fauna as gifts. Some remain in the island's safari park but most can be found at the island's most uncanny sight: a Soviet-era museum devoted to Tito's taxidermy tributes, including dubious lynxes and slightly discoloured ostriches. Upstairs, a Soviet-era exhibition, not updated since the fall of communism, pays an unambiguous tribute to Tito as a great leader (and animal lover). It's like so much else in the region — a little eccentric, a little bizarre, frozen in time. But it's impossible to look away.

As I leave the island, I pass the aviary, where Tito's white parrot, Koki, still lives. In her fifties, now, Koki has seen how Brujini has changed — and how it hasn't.

"Ciao," she squawks in Italian, before switching to Croatian. "Zdravo."

The sun is high overhead. The ferry is departing soon.

"Ciao, Zdravo, Ciao," Koki keeps squawking as I go.


Getting there & around
Croatia Airlines and Ryanair fly to Rijeka, from Heathrow and Stansted respectively. Croatia Airlines and British Airways serve Zagreb from Heathrow, while Monarch flies there from Gatwick and Manchester.
Average flight time: 2h 25m.
Buses run regularly between Opatija and Rijeka. However, it's advisable to rent a car as many other nearby towns are hard to reach by public transport.

When to go
The tourist season in Croatia gears up
in late April, attracting peak crowds in August and gradually tapering off through September and October.

Where to sleep
Hotel Lone, Rovinj.

More info

How to do it
Harry Shaw has a seven-night Opatija & the Croatian Coast trip from £299.95 per person, including return coach travel, two nights' B&B en route and five nights' dinner and B&B in Opatija at the Hotel Imperial.

Follow @NotoriousTIB

Published in the September 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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