In honour of the fact that I’m just back from my first ever cruise with Katerina Line around the beautiful Kvarner coast and island region of Croatia, I introduce a short series called Ships at my Fingertips.
It may not be picture postcard pretty but Rijeka, which provided me with my first experience of Croatia, has plenty of fascinating, rather dark, history and a lively charm. Disaster, despotism, destruction and departures: Rijeka has seen it all over the years.
Several of its interesting claims to fame are a touch macabre. For instance it became the birthplace of Fascism, when invaded by Italian Nationalist poet Gabriele d’Aunnzio in 1919 who later inspired the career of Mussolini.
It’s also the home of the torpedo. British engineer Robert Whitehead was recruited to run the factory in 1866, after initial prototypes were based on constructing a giant catapult (honestly!). There are plans to transform the factory into a visitor attraction in the future.
Mos interestingly, it was also one of the main ports where emigrants to the United States departed from. Those, from all over Eastern Europe, who found their passage to the new World included New York Mayor Fiorello La Gaurdia (you may recognise the name from the airport) and Tarzan actor Johnny Weiss Miller.
The ships played an even more momentous role in history when one of them was used to rescue survivors from the Titanic, because they just happened to be nearby ferrying emigrants across the Atlantic at the time, and in fact Rijeka’s City Museum still has one of only five existing life jackets from the boat.
Things to do in Rijeka
Not to be missed is a stroll along the Korzo, the city’s main promenande running parallel with the marina. Like every town centre I saw in Croatia, it’s a friendly, bustly, family orientated street with decent shopping. A good place to stop for a coffee and chocolate dipping croissant is Fillodrammatica, a bookshop-cum-cafe.
Locals and their young children mill about at all hours, stopping for some street popcorn and catching up on the latest at one of many pavement bars and cafes. Wandering the streets at night is a pleasure, no riots or drunken disorderly behaviour- except a little from my fiance, who is convinced that the Iron Maiden covers band we can hear blasting out from a rooftop bar somewhere throughout the night is actually the daughter slaughterers themselves.
Nearby is what remains of Rijeka’s Old Town (much was destroyed in WWII) with its leaning tower, and more recent patchwork red tile roofs and ostentatious 19th century Austrian architecture, many with charmingly crumbly and peely facades.
TourIST Bus (see what they did there?)
For just 50 Kuna (around £6) the open topped bus is a good value way to visit both Opatija, along the beautiful Opatija Riviera which hugs the sweeping coastline for miles, and Trsat Castle, which is otherwise a steep old hike.
The audio is accidentally amusing, seemingly recorded by a bored Australian and his lower voiced brother (or is it the same guy on Mogodon?) It has a comically unsynchronised narration, a little reminiscent of the the Two Ronnies’ Mastermind sketch. But don’t let that put you off. It’s a good value way of seeing most of what both towns have to offer in a few hours.
Possibly the most bizarre castle I have ever visited. Squat, round and medieval in origin (like the author) it has been much adapted over the centuries, as you’ll see from the squat Neo Classical Roman columns and an African nude statue. It used to house a very good museum apparently.
These days it’s home to a cafe with an impressive look out over the city, the gaping gorge below, coastline and canals. It’s only from this vantage point that you fully appreciate the massive scale of this – very much working – industrial city.
The area nearby is worth a stroll too. Trsat, the oldest part of Rijeka, doesn’t look especially old. The streets were pin quiet on a Saturday afternoon in peak season and there is an interesting mish mash of buildings. By the bus stop there’s an vaguely Futurist looking building housing a car parts shop and a cafe, like a docked Starship Enterprise.
Nearby, at the top of the grassy hill where you might expect the castle to itself to sit, there’s an imposing church, with rows and rows of empty seats outside in preparation for a summer recital of some description, and a newly built conference hall with an interesting, wavy patterned red roof.
Stop for a top value pizza and ice cream at Guardian, which has cute scroll menus and is a good place to watch the world go by while you wait for the bus back down the hill (if you’re lazy like me!)
Where to Stay
I was a guest of Hotel Bonavia and am pleased to recommend it whole heartedly. Although marketed as a business hotel, it really is perfect for a short stay in the city, being steps from the Korzo and within short walking distance to everything worth seeing.
If you can afford it, it’s worth plumping for one of their suites on the 6th and 7th floors, which have elegant dark rattan furniture, spacious bathrooms with copious toiletries, and best of all, wrap around balconies with fantastic views of the city and the Kvarner bay. When we had to check out stupidly early at 4.30am to make the airport shuttle bus, they even prepared us little takeaway lunches in place of the breakfast we obviously had to miss. That was a first for me.
See more of what they have to offer, including some stunning hotels in Dubrovnik on their new blog.
Their fine dining restaurant, Kamov, named after a prominent Croatian playwright and satirist who died before his time, is well worth your kunas. They’re rightly proud of the hotel’s reputation for its fresh green pasta, which apparently has attracted Italians and other travelers to come hundreds of miles to sample it, and the Champagne Risotto, topped with crisp, succulent curls of fresh sea bass was quite possibly the best I have ever tasted.
Getting there by train
It’s fairly easy to get to Rijeka – and thus the Kvaner region & islands nearby – by train. There are direct trains daily from Ljubljana taking under 3 hours and an extra 6 hours from Munich. Or you can come via the capital Zagreb, which takes around 5 hours.
Next stop: all aboard for Opatija and the cruise journey itself.
This trip was taken for a forthcoming book I’m working on called Great Boat Journeys of the World. Through this project I hope to be sampling cruises offered by Azamara and other small scale, luxury operators.