© Rijeka 2020 European Capital of Culture

Everything you need to know about Rijeka, the 2020 European Capital of Culture

As Rijeka prepares for its moment in the sun, Jonathan Bousfield appraises the 2020 European Capital of Culture.


If there’s one thing that unites the citizen of Rijeka, young or old, alternative or mainstream, resident or exiled, it’s the (often unspoken) love for the zaljev, the Gulf, the mountain-rimmed expanse of sea on which their port city is situated. Rijeka itself might have its pockets of post-industrial gruffness, but that never prevented anyone from enjoying the view. The #zaljev hashtag may not be the most trending thing on social media but it’s certainly one of the most visually evocative, with photos galore of portside cranes, cloud formations hovering above offshore islands, the grey ridge of Mt Učka, the hillside tower blocks of Rijeka itself, and more of those portside cranes. Rijeka may be grey, gritty, wet and windy, but it never lacks for poetry.

© Rijeka 2020 European Capital of Culture

Typing out #rijeckikarneval may mean a lot more work for your keyboard fingers; however, it’s the annual Rijeka carnival parade that defines the city in the eyes of most outsiders. Held every year on the weekend preceding Shrove Tuesday, it’s a genuinely massive event, with floats and vehicles from all over Croatia taking an entire afternoon to progress through the streets of a packed city centre. The finale comes with the entry of the local zvončari or bell ringers, revellers clad in animal masks and cowbells who strut, shake and wheel around in an orgiastic, trance-like ritual that goes back to pagan times.

The fact that Rijeka has such a big event in the early part of the year will provide a huge natural boost to the city’s upcoming stint as European Capital of Culture, the official programme of which is set to kick off in February 2020. This gargantuan event that has come to dominate discussion of the city’s cultural life and where it might be going in the future, especially now that the final countdown is well and truly underway. Of course, the key to Rijeka 2020’s success is that it’s not just a one-year show but introduces elements of continuity to the city’s cultural scene that can be sustained in the years that follow. Indeed, several festivals are already up and running, having been started a year or two before the big year in order to build a local audience and provide a platform for future growth. Key festival strands exploit the city’s reputation for producing urban, edgy music: these include Ciklus Furioza, a cycle of concerts by alternative bands with a strong emphasis on female performers, with gigs taking place in former industrial spaces or in outdoor venues such as the castle courtyard in the hillside suburb of Trsat. September’s Sweet and Salt gathers together the best of Croatia’s indie sounds, with one night for the guitar bands, another for the DJ-and-laptop crowd. Also in September is Porto Etno, a culinary music festival that features specialities cooked up by the city’s ethnic minorities accompanied by a feast of world music and traditional folk.

Rijeka Carnival © Marko Šteković

Another capital-of-culture project that has already opened its doors is Ri Hub, a co-working space and community centre that provides a common roof for all kinds of social and cultural initiatives. It is also the initiator of an experiment in local democracy, with citizens’ assemblies (chosen at random with due regard to a balance of age and sex) taking decisions on which cultural projects should be given the go-ahead. It’s an exercise that can continue to serve the community long after the ballyhoo of 2020 is over.

Elsewhere, preparations continue for the big cultural infrastructure projects of 2020. Restoration of the grand Baroque interiors of the Palača Šećerana (The Sugar Refinery Palace) is nearing completion; the City Museum will be ready to move in by spring of the big year. Last autumn the City Museum began work on restoring the furnishings of communist ruler Tito’s former yacht Galeb, in preparation for a thorough renovation of the craft and its eventual reopening as a floating museum. Few cities in Croatia would be willing to deal with a museum project as complex as the Galeb, such is the degree of controversy that still surrounds President Tito and the system over which he presided. Rijeka, with its combination of working-class pride and anti-establishment attitude, is better placed than most to untangle Tito’s ambiguous legacy.


© Rijeka 2020 European Capital of Culture

And finally, two aspects of Rijeka’s cultural heritage to have recently featured in the news: January 2019 saw the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Jan Palach, the Czech student who set fire to himself on Prague’s central square in protest at the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia. A group of Rijeka students had visited Prague in 1968 and had witnessed the aftermath of the Warsaw Pact invasion. When they heard about the fate of Palach, they renamed their student youth club in his honour. A pillar of the Rijeka alternative scene for half a century, OKC Palach still survives, hosting live gigs, club nights and cultural events.  Palach was particularly important during the punk and post-punk eras, when it served as incubator for the city’s burgeoning guitar-band scene. There’s a plaque honouring Jan Palach outside the venue, as well as a mural-cum-tribute to Motorhead mainman Lemmy Kilmister. Lemmy never had any links with the Palach club, but he definitely forms part of the rock-and-roll history of Rijeka, having performed in the city’s Teatro Fenice with the The Rockin’ Vickers in 1966.

One of the many bands to have performed at Palach during its heyday was Paraf, the former Yugoslavia’s first punk band, and the first band of any kind to call out the absurdities of the sclerotic socialist regime. After a couple of years of frenzied riffing they mutated into a post-punk synth-pop band, and as such represent the creative leap from one Rijeka generation to another. A 4-CD boxed set of Paraf’s collected works (Parafi: Sabrana djela 1976-1986) was released in early 2019 and constitutes one of the most typically Rijekan cultural souvenirs you are likely to get your hands on.

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