Founded by the Romans, and Habsburg from the 1400s, Rijeka fell under Hungarian control in the late 1700s. The landlocked Magyars built a new harbour, Baroque landmarks and sundry industries, including the world’s first torpedo. Much of the city had been destroyed by a devastating earthquake in 1750, so that most monuments predating this year were wiped out; hence the consistently Baroque look in Rijeka’s Old Town.
Fiume, as Rijeka is still known to Hungarians, had no indigenous Magyar population. When their legitimacy was challenged in 1868, the Hungarians switched papers on Emperor Franz Josef at the signing ceremony, and a majority Slav population endured 50 more years of rule from Budapest. As a result of the indignation expressed in the influential local newspaper ‘Riječki Novi List’, displaced Dalmatian intellectuals stirred up a groundswell of opinion which resulted in the Declaration of Fiume 1905, a call for a united land of South Slavs. It failed but it helped spread the notion of ‘Yugoslavia’, one that would come to fruition after World War I.
With the collapse of the Habsburg Empire after the war, the Hungarian governor fled his magnificent palace, and in marched Italian patriot, pilot and poet Gabriele D’Annunzio with 200 soldiers to proclaim ‘Fiume’ as Italian and his own state. Mussolini’s men took Rijeka a year later, the Germans in 1943. Rijeka industrialised under Tito, rusted in the 1990s, but recent developments – a motorway from Zagreb, the road bridge from the nearest airport on Krk island – are bringing change. Rijeka remains the northern Adriatic’s main hub of transport and commerce, and as the centre of social and cultural life too, it possesses a palpable year-round buzz.