Ten years ago anyone who described Rijeka as the sleeping giant of Croatian tourism would have been considered frankly bonkers. How could a post-industrial city of container ports and cranes compete with Dubrovnik’s medieval walls, or the imperial Roman heritage of Split? Mention Rijeka today, however, and the response is rather different: the 130,000-strong port city on the cusp of the Kvarner Gulf is seen as a refreshing alternative to the brochure-hogging showcase resorts elsewhere. The city’s industrial heritage is now seen as an asset rather than a hindrance, and with it gearing up to become Rijeka 2020 European Capital of Culture, there’s a palpable feeling that this is a place whose time is, if not exactly now, at least steaming into port at a rate of knots.
Rijeka has long identified itself through its industries – primarily shipbuilding, although armaments, tobacco and paper have also played a role in a grand, where-there’s-muck-there’s-brass history of welding, riveting, rolling and bailing. None of the tourism booms of the last 100 years had much of an impact on a city that was a transit hub travellers breezed through on the way to somewhere else - the beaches of Istria, or the summer-holiday islands of Cres, Lošinj and Rab.
The city has always been a hotbed of technological innovation, alternative culture, bold architecture, and a literary tradition with a distinct modern voice. It’s also one of the most culturally diverse cities in Croatia, with a long-established Italian minority and a history of immigration from all over the former Yugoslavia. Rijeka’s upcoming stint as European Capital of Culture has thrown all of this into sharp focus, allowing the city to present itself as a post-industrial success story from which others have a great deal to learn. The cultural calendar for 2018 and 2019 has already been perked up and enhanced in order to provide Rijeka with a platform for the big year itself - and to provide the city with a spread of sustainable events that will keep on going long after the European Capital of Culture 2020 shindig has come to an end.
The key infrastructure project linked with 2020 is the revitalization of the Benčić complex, a cluster of ex-industrial buildings just opposite the main railway station. Having served at various times as a sugar refinery, tobacco factory and tractor plant, this moodily handsome cluster of plaster and brick is currently being redeveloped to provide an integrated home for the city’s key cultural institutions – the municipal library, the Rijeka City Museum, and the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. The latter has moved into one of the former factory halls already, providing an early glimmer of the city’s emerging potential, not only as a city of the arts in its own right, but also as coastal Croatia’s only real rival to Zagreb in the creative energy stakes.
Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art
In a way Rijeka is an easy shoe-in for the title of “Croatian Manchester”, a hard-grafting contrarian city whose position just outside the centralized currents of national life have earned it a semi-detached yet vital place in the nation’s popular culture. It was Rijeka after all that served as the birthplace of Croatian punk – the first-ever punk concert in communist-ruled Europe was held by local band Parafi in summer 1977. The city went on to spawn so many post-punk, electro-pop and indie bands that local impresario and record producer Goran Lisica-Fox compared Rijeka to the Galapagos Islands in terms of the number of endemic musical species it produced. Somehow buzz-saw guitars and blistering melodies constitute the real folklore of the city: even today, Rijeka is the only place outside Zagreb that has a live music scene of any regularity. Rijeka’s abrasive-as-sandpaper glamour is a key ingredient in the Croatian-produced Netflix drama Novine (“The Paper”; series two is currently in post-production), whose cinematic take on the city’s housing blocks and portside cranes is spearheading the emergence of a whole new genre of Adriatic noir.
However to portray the rise of Rijeka as just another ugly-duckling story would only be telling the half of it. It is also a vivacious Mediterranean city of pavement cafés, pedestrianized promenades, evergreen parks, and even (if admittedly a bus ride away from the centre) some rather excellent beaches. Life is lived outdoors for much of the year; summer nights can be long, exhilarating affairs. And when it comes to Croatian food, Rijeka is one of the best places to eat in the country. The concept of the bistro as a place that serves good local food at democratic prices is something of an urban tradition here, and regional idiosyncracies (hand-rolled pasta, goulashes of seasonal meats and seafood) are still part of the day-to-day repertoire. Rijeka’s central market is arguably the most exciting and evocative in the whole of Croatia, housed in Art-Nouveau pavilions that stand in tribute to the city’s erstwhile commercial might. Enlivened by the glistening rainbow colours of its seafood, and the pungent cheeses and home-cured meats of the hinterland, the market is like one huge, high-quality delicatessen.
A final but essential part in Rijeka’s complex riviera-meets-reality jigsaw is provided by the resort town of Opatija, just up the coast, and near enough to be considered a luxury suburb. Opatija began life in the late nineteenth century as the Adriatic’s first planned holiday paradise, and still radiates great charm, gilded by the residual glamour of its playboy-meets-playgirl heyday. It was proximity to Opatija and its ample supply of hotels that had a dampening effect on the development of tourist industry in the city itself, as if Rijeka was ordained to remain perpetually in the shade of its swanky neighbour.
Despite being right next to the oldest and most over-written tourist resort in the country, Rijeka still has the seductive feel of something undiscovered, unfairly overlooked, or to use the buzzword of today’s travel writers, authentic. To borrow a musical metaphor, the eternal support act has finally woken up to the fact that it is actually at the top of the bill.