In the late 19th century, when the Austro-Hungarian empire reached its apex, the Habsburgs made this town of dazzling vistas and rocky beaches one of the hottest spots in Europe. Opatija was the place where royalty took their holidays and Isadora Duncan took her lovers.
Wealthy socialites built Secessionist and neo-classical mansions on the rocks above the sea, or stayed in hotels of imperial elegance. Unlike most Croatian resorts, where a tourism infrastructure was added on to an existing settlement, Opatija was purpose-built for tourists – rich ones.
Before 1844, Opatija was nothing but a fishing village with 35 houses and a church. Higinio von Scarpa then built opulent Villa Angolina, named after his wife, and surrounded it with a menagerie, an exotic garden and influential guests. The villa, with its neo-classical interior featuring trompe l’oeil frescoes, now hosts jazz and classical concerts, as well as exhibitions.
The property was bought in the 1880s by the chief of the regional railway board. Soon Opatija was being successfully promoted as an overland getaway destination for a certain class of European, catered for by opulent hotels being built at the same time. An accent on health tourism – spa baths and seaside vigorous walks – kept this clement resort busy year-round. Mahler, Puccini and Chekhov were among the visitors.
This legacy lingers in the stunning architecture, Viennese-style coffeehouses and Central European atmosphere, kept alive by the large number of Austrian tourists. Pricey Opatija has traditionally drawn wealthy, conservative visitors, who prefer seaside strolls to raucous nightlife. But there is a local young contingent, coming from Rijeka and elsewhere along the coast, who keep the late-night bars and the town’s disco busy. And the modern-day counterparts of fin-de-siècle spa establishments in the shape of ‘Wellness’ and boutique hotels are opening along the riviera, attracting a trend-conscious clientele. Meanwhile, few other Croatian towns can boast the gastronomic quality offered by adventurous young chefs who have made Opatija and neighbouring Volosko their base – in this part of Croatia, Opatija rules the roost where contemporary cuisine is concerned.
The resort is deliberately arranged on a steep hill facing the sea, offering fine views of the Bay of Kvarner. Further vistas and several beaches can be found along a 12-km-long Lungomare, the shaded promenade that follows the rocky coast here. Stretches of rocky beach are fronted by towering villas, some abandoned and others converted into luxury hotels. Further stretch the quieter, pebbly shores of Ičići and Lovran, before Medveja, with its own attractive shingle beach.