ECoC Rijeka: inauguration review

Written by
Marc Rowlands

It was always going to rain. With more annual rainfall even than Manchester – England's so-called 'Rainy City' – it was a sure-fire bet. But, though the clouds hung overhead all day, the rain was actually intermittent. And, whatever the weather, nothing was capable of dampening spirits on the day.

Tens of thousands of people were drawn to Rijeka on its Inauguration as European Capital of Culture on Saturday 1st February. Rijeka is used to big crowds at this time of year, its carnival in late February is the largest in Croatia. But, nobody could have anticipated the enthusiasm with which people from all over Croatia, Slovenia and further still, answered Rijeka's call to come and join the 24-hour party.

If 24 hours sounds like a long stint, truth be told, it was actually longer. Partying started the night before, when Rijeka wholeheartedly embraced the nationwide Night of the Museums event. All of Rijeka's museums and galleries, like those across the whole of Croatia, were thrown open for free and many of the key exhibitions of Rijeka European Capital of Culture 2020 year were on show to visitors who attended in their multiple hundreds.

Special mention simply must be given to the David Maljković: with the collection exhibition, which debuted at the Rijeka Museum of Modern & Contemporary Art on the evening. Rijeka-born and, like his home city, holding a unique perspective of history, art and beauty, nobody was perhaps better placed than the internationally-renowned Maljković to have curated this showcase from the museum's permanent collection. Of the view that the setting, presentation and cohabitants of an exhibition have a vital impact on its reception, Maljković has set about exploring the museum's catalogue in a thrilling manner. A coup for Rijeka, if you only see one exhibition in the city this year, please consider making it this one.

Wary of peaking too soon, I must confess to spending little time at the Opera reopening with internationally recognised DJ talent Mike Vale. To be honest, I went less to see the DJ than I did the building, the incredible Teatro Fenice, which has lay dormant for several years. Over 100-years-old, this 2000 capacity and now protected Art Nouveau masterpiece made for the perfect host venue at Friday's rave and Saturday's live music party. An impressive reminder of yesteryear, nothing perhaps better symbolizes the imaginative and indefatigable spirit of Rijeka than this regeneration of a building for contemporary use.

Inauguration day itself started early and, before 10am, a large international contingent were among those taken on an anti-tourist tour of Rijeka aboard a bus which passed by all of the curious and key sections of the city. They might not be your cup of tea, but the cranes of Rijeka look absolutely beautiful, inspiring reflections on the life which once surrounded them and the international, perhaps exotic cargo they once carried. If these huge cranes are built to carry such massive loads, how on earth do they build the cranes in the first place? Unlike any other city on the Croatian coast, Rijeka is a place where such questions spring to mind and, as the bus journeyed further, I found myself considering Robert Whitehead. Is there perhaps a small parallel between the life of this English engineer, who developed the first effective self-propelled naval torpedo and worked most of his later years in Rijeka and my own, a frequent visitor to Croatia and Serbia (where Whitehead's son served as a major diplomat)? He was born less than 10 minutes from my own birthplace, in Lancashire, and one of his descendants was in my very class at school.

Arriving back in the city centre before 11am, a crowd of hundreds met the morning on Korzo where, overnight, a long and detailed history of the city of Rijeka had been plastered all along the length of this beautiful pedestrianized route. In the shadow of the restored two-headed eagle, sat atop Rijeka's impressive Austro-Hungarian tower, people paced slowly along the exhibition's length learning of the internationals and invaders, royalty and rogues whose feet once fell here.

With over 70 events happening across the city on the day, it was impossible to take it all in. Live music and DJs could be heard coming from almost every bar in the city but, uniquely Istrian due to their inclusion of accordion, the joyful sounds of Rijeka-based band Kantriders held my attention for much longer than was perhaps wise at their outdoor pitch by the Croatian National Theatre Ivan Zajc Rijeka. Dignitaries would fill this theatre just an hour later, treated to world-class classical and contemporary music and opera but, hardly dressed for such an auspicious occasion, Kantriders and the food and craft beer of King's Caffe Food Pub were sufficient for this writer.

As the light faded and dusk began to settle, the rain intensified just as the centrepiece event, the Opera Industriale, prepared to unleash its expansive theatre across the whole of the dockside. But, as the rain strengthened, so did the resolve of the crowd. A cast of hundreds could be seen converging on the area, the rain-defying audience numbered in their thousands. Equipped with bells, these spectators were invited to accompany the at-times cacophonous noise issued from singers, guitars and industrial tools which resounded across the water for an hour. Perfectly expressing industrial, contemporary Rijeka, this wildly creative and thoroughly unapologetic showcase seemed to have climaxed with an angry and defiant rendition of the classic anti-fascist anthem 'Bella Ciao' but, that was before the invasion of the Zvončari.

Traditional bell ringers, some masked in animal skulls with horns and wearing huge, sheepskin capes, theses unique and wholly individual groups had been drawn from every neighbourhood in Rijeka and further still. They filtered through the crowds, dancing provocatively as the most immense firework display exploded overhead, their raining colours mirrored psychedelically in the undulating waters below.

All photos by © Domagoj Kunić, Rijeka 2020 and Marc Rowlands

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