October 23 – November 20, 2019 (Fall)
Rijeka is not a usual tourist stay. It has none of the big hotels and fancy beaches found further down shore in Dalmatia. This is the port city, the working-class corner of the coast. But that image belies a fascinating history (in general and for us personally), a burgeoning present, and a vibrant future.
Kevin’s grandfather was born here, back when it was known as Fiume and a Free State↗ unto itself. This short chapter was bookended by fervent fighting between Italy and Yugoslavia for control of the territory, with Croatia ultimately coming away with the prize. Today it is the most important port in the country, supplying the vast interior and sitting at a historical crossroads between the Adriatic coast and Istrian peninsula.Rijeka is no longer fought over, but neither is it content with mere local importance. The city was in the midst of reinventing itself during our stay. We witnessed the preparations for their coming stint as European Capital of Culture for 2020, hopefully jump-starting a rebrand as an attractive and forward-thinking destination.
Rijeka, Reka, Fiume. No matter if you are speaking Croatian, Slovene, or Italian, the city’s name means simply, “river.” The Rječina divides the town and used to divide nations. Now it flows peacefully under Trsat Castle. Our Airbnb↗ got in on the water theme too, with a slow leak through the bedroom ceiling. Otherwise it was a perfectly pleasant stay.
The location was ideal. We had a lively market right under our window. Fantastic fresh bread and produce were just steps away. We never minded the busy din, but unfortunately failed to decipher the mystery of the multiplying rooftop toys. The Central Farmer’s Market was further away, far down between the mouth of the river and the harbor, but was worth an occasional trip for the larger selection (especially in the fish monger’s hall).
With fall in the air we wanted to savor some outdoor time. Just north of the city is the tiny fortified town of Kastav. The climb through its old center leads past an earthquake-demolished church and out the opposite side of town on to a series of hiking trails. Well-marked paths loop through the woods, often following old medieval roads that crisscross the forest. Now vehicles only enter to reach hunting lodges guarded by less-than-intimidating cats.
Exploring the forest unveils the abandoned village of Cari. Time and moss are slowly consuming its crumbling stone buildings and walls, hiding them from the inattentive eye. The terraced fields, once carefully tended, are now overgrown. Leaves crunched under our feet. It all felt very lonely. Nearby the remains of a guardhouse marked a former border with Italy. It was hard for us to imagine the quiet forest as a contested warzone.
A little higher up we found clear views over the coastal mountains and the Kvarner Gulf. During the Homeland War Croatian troops used these same views as lookout posts. They slept and ate in shallow dugouts hewn into the rock. We paid for the panoramas only with our sweat and time.
The best place to stroll closer to home was the Molo Longo. The fishing fleet and charter yachts dock along the pier and harbor. Since it juts out more than a kilometer, there was plenty of room for everyone.
Even on windy or rainy days (there are a lot of rainy days in Rijeka), the walking was nice, though the surf can get a little smelly and debris-strewn. According to our host, the fact that we had relatively few days of gloom was nothing short of a miracle. We sheltered underground when rain did get too intense, strolling through a tunnel that connected our neighborhood to St. Vitus’s Cathedral. It was carved out during World War II mostly as a bomb shelter. Some parts are occasionally used now as event venues or nightclubs, but most of the length is just empty space and rough-hewn rock.
Speaking of rocks, we were lucky enough to be in town for the Mineral Expo. What’s a Mineral Expo? Exactly what it says on the cassiterite! We admired pretty stones and fossils, then headed to the nearby Beertija (in the same family as the one we visited in Zagreb) for some admirable craft beers. They turned out to be less well stocked than our favorite brewpub in Rijeka – Flumen Pub, around the corner from our apartment. Not only do they make their own beers, they mix them together. It sounds crazy, but the Tribus, a blend of three of their house offerings, is actually better than the sum of its parts. Finally at Cont, we tried 5th Element’s Cannabeer. It lacks the subtlety of Lithuania’s hemp beers, instead tasting like someone combined pot brownies and beer in a blender. Not quite what we were hoping for.
Perhaps because of the frequently-gray skies, lots of buildings are painted a festive yellow. That includes the city’s Registry Office, where we did some genealogical digging. We traced Kevin’s family from Rijeka to smaller towns further down the coast. (We even got a small taste of Croatian bureaucracy – to purchase documents, special stamps are needed. These are only sold at one desk by one person who may or may not deign to take cash or pay attention to you at all.)
What better way to close out a day than visiting Trsat Castle? The stairs up and past Pančićev Park and churches were no joke, but the long climb is worth it for the best sunsets in the city. A Christmas market and other decorations were being assembled by the end of our stay, but we missed out on the main event. We’d have to make up for it in Zagreb↗.
But the weather still had a few unseasonably-nice tricks up its sleeve. On one especially lovely day we visited Opatija, a famous resort and spa town. It sits around the sharp curve of the Kvarner Gulf, straddling the narrow bridge between the Istrian Peninsula and the rest of Croatia. Most of the restaurants and hotels were shuttered for the off-season. But they do have a lovely waterfront walking path, and we’re suckers for those.
We started off admiring the gardens at the central park. Then we headed off of along the coast, betting each other whether we’d turn around before reaching the next town over, Ičići. Statues dot the waterfront path and there are plenty of views toward Rijeka and the islands.
And like other places around Croatia (or Montenegro, for that matter), Opatija has more than its share of street cats. Life is pretty good here.
Rijeka’s pedestrian walking street is fine at any time, but it really shines at the end of the day. The crowds thin, the lights spark on, and the street opens up for quieter strolls. Top landmarks, like the old gate and clock tower, pepper the stretch from one end of the old town to the other – roughly from Capuchin Church to the Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin. A countdown clock on the main plaza ticked away minutes to the new year, kicking off the 2020 Capital of Culture celebration (spoiler alert: 2020 had other plans).
In the end, Rijeka just clicked for us. The city felt busy but not stressed. “Lively” says it best. We saw buildings Kevin’s grandfather grew up in, and places he remembered and told us to look out for. We took a day trip to Trieste↗, Italy, where grandpa studied and his brother lived for many years. It isn’t often we get to stay places with so much family connection. It put this place in sharper focus, making it feel more tangible and memorable. But for a few twists of history, one of us could have been born here. For now we’re just happy we got to visit, but who knows what the future will bring?