Many cities celebrate Mardi Gras. Rio, Venice and New Orleans have long been known for their pre-Lenten processions, a tradition harking back to medieval Europe, pagan rites and the casting out of winter.
Around this region, these rituals are also historically linked to the threat of invasion by the Turks, a deep-rooted fear woven into the communal psyche for much of the last millennium. Elsewhere in Croatia, most notably the remote island of Lastovo, locals burn effigies and throw fireworks at fez-bearing figures. This being Rijeka, though, the history is a bit more convoluted.
With Rijeka’s deep-water port coveted by both Venice and Vienna, and the town full of medieval intrigue, the city authorities banned the wearing of masks, at carnival or any other time, in 1449.
Rijeka Carnival, © St. Valter
But Rijeka has always had a rebellious streak. Isolated groups continued the tradition over the centuries before, in 1982, with a nod to history and an eye for a party, three of them decided to revive the concept of a city carnival. Lako ćemo, Pehinarski feštari and Halubajski Zvončari donned masks and paraded through the streets around the time of Mardi Gras, attracting a few hundred friends and curious onlookers.
Pretty soon, these numbers had run into the thousands and the groups into the dozens. In 1995, Rijeka was included in the Federation of European Carnival Cities. By 2001, there were well over 100 groups and organisers had to limit numbers. More than 100,000 visitors still flock here in February, transforming Rijeka from port to party zone, focus falling on the main parade along the Korzo.
So what’s it all about?
The first thing to know about the Rijeka Carnival is that it’s more than just the Rijeka Carnival, the showcase procession that takes place on the Sunday before Shrove Tuesday. The season starts in January, with the presentation of the master of ceremonies, Meštar Toni, and the election of the Carnival Queen, who oversee proceedings during the course of the event. Leading local celebrities also gather in the Governor’s Palace for the annual charity ball.
Apart from the main procession, the most popular part of Rijeka Carnival is the Children’s Parade, involving local schools and nurseries, and youngsters from around Croatia and the region.
The Sunday march at Rijeka's Carnival, © Petar Fabijan
Then comes the Sunday march. The second thing to know about the Rijeka Carnival is that it doesn’t just involve locals dressed up in weird costumes, making random clanging noises. These bellringers, zvončari, are divided into scores of different groups, each coming from a different part of the Rijeka area, each with its own tradition, costume and ritual.
Harking back to the first modern-day carnival of 1982, the Halubajski Zvončari hail from Halubje, at the western end of the Kastav region. These are the ones whose masks most typify the carnival, bizarre animal heads with horns and red tongues. Dressed in sheepskin offset by striped shirts and white trousers, they carry one big bell and a mace, a custom echoing the times when these zvončari would go from village to village, warding off potential invasion from Turk or Tartar. The folk costume was added to UNESCO's list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2009.
The Zametski Zvončari come from Zamet, between Rijeka and Kastav, who model their look on vikings, with a red bandana and large antlers on their sheepskin helmets. Following behind a flag, they walk by crisscrossing one another, each ringing the large bell he carries.
Dating back centuries, the Grobnički Dondolaši were originally Grobnik shepherds, armed with the wooden rattles, škrebetalnica, at carnival time. ‘Dondolaši’ refers to their bells, doodle. Employed by well-to-do landowners to protect their cattle, this group is well versed in making a racket to scare off predators.
Bellman at Rijeka Carnival © Petar Fabijan
Other groups have other hallmarks. The Griški Krabunosi come from a wine-growing area and made their masks from whatever they could find lying around their cellars. They also put music to the fore – although the group’s motto, ‘The uglier the better’, leaves the onlooker in no doubt as to their fearsome reputation. The Munski Zvončari from the twin villages of Vele Mune and Male Mune near the Slovene border stand out because of their hopping march, the paper roses on their hats and the fact that they include women in their group. The Pesniki see off the dreaded winter with dancing and merriment, their group from Crni Lug traditionally featuring an accordion player, their parties tending to go on the longest and latest.
Once in Rijeka, groups gather to set off at noon. The parade then follows a set route, taking its own sweet time as it passes along the Korzo where the bulk of the crowd throngs. The last group to pass by are usually the Halubajski Zvončari, a few hours after nightfall. A puppet, the Pust, is then burned in ritual fashion, which is the signal for everyone to get down and start partying. DJs set up on the Korzo, and in many bars and clubs, the festivities continuing long into the night.