A visit to Rijeka

The Crossroad of Cultures

Francesca Rolandi – For most tourists Rijeka is only a transit city but I would like them to pay more attention to its complex history and traces of past that mark it.

Rijexa old picToday, Rijeka is an industrial town with oil refinery and the largest port in Croatia. Geographically, it is situated in the Kvarner Bay which separates Istria and northern coast of Croatia – making it a good strategic position. Rijeka’s Old Town was conquered by the Romans (180 BC) who founded a settlement known as Tarsatica. This settlement is recorded in the writings of Plinio il Vecchio, Roman writer, scientist and historian. The oldest remnants of Rijeka’s history are behind the St. Sebastian Church which leans on what used to be a military fort. The form of the fort can be seen by looking closely at the structure of the houses that were built in the following centuries. There is still a Roman arch which most probably also served as the fort’s entrance although it was long believed it was a triumphal arch.

Over the centuries Rijeka belonged to Rijekadifferent sovereigns. It was also an independent state and that period was marked by prosperity. Hungarians, Austrians, Croats and French ruled over Rijeka until 1867 when it came under Hungarian crown. Under Budapest rule, in 1723 Rijeka was declared a customs-free zone which meant a period of huge growth as a center of trade. The citizens had the privilege of living in a port town hence enjoying better quality of life unlike people in other towns. The population of Rijeka used many languages – Italian, Croatian, Hungarian, German as well as Slovenian, French, English, Swedish and Flemish. In the 18th century Rijeka was included in the railroad network of the Austro-Hungarian Empire which resulted in population growth. Some of the most important sites and buildings date from this period, including the Governor’s Palace, one of the most beautiful architectural creations in Rijeka. The palace suffered battle scenes too; there were fights between nationalist troops led by the Italian poet D’Annuncio who conquered the city in 1919 and declared the Italian rule over Kvarner. On December 12, 1920, Kingdom of Italy and Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes signed a Rapallo Treaty by which both of the kingdoms recognized the freedom and independence of the State of Rijeka. The document established the Free State of Rijeka which existed until 1924 and the Rome Treaty which joined Rijeka to Italy. An interesting thing is that D’Annuncio’s taking over of Rijeka was the first act of violence of Italian nationalism that would become the symbol of Italian fascism, while his rule combined extreme left-wing and extreme right-wing elements, and was the first state to recognize Lenin’s Bolshevik Russia.

Rijeka was a point where different influence and subjects met and merged over the centuries and during the period between 1913 and 1991 it was under 6 different rules: Austro-Hungarian Empire, Free State of Rijeka, Kingdom of Italy, Third Reich, Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia and, finally, Republic of Croatia. After it was annexed to Yugoslavia in 1945 certain changes occurred in the composition of population which became mostly Croatian but with strong influence of Italian culture especially in the language. For example, the main street is called “Korzo” which is an Italian term. It is in the most frequented part of Rijeka known for its “night-life” and considered to be one of the liveliest places in Croatia. The pedestrian zone of Korzo stretches parallel to the port and numerous historical sights and important buildings. Among those is the City Clock Tower with a clock dating back to the 17th century showing the right time to present day. This Tower is one of the few buildings that survived a terrible earthquake of 1750. There are many churches in Rijeka but there is one that stands out – the St. Vid’s Cathedral, protector of Rijeka. The Jesuits started the construction of the Cathedral in 1638 and it took a whole century to be built. It is similar to Santa Maria della Salute Church in Venice.

Trsat Castle is located above the city and it served as an important strategic point since the 13th century. Its current form was created in the 18th century when the Austrians reconstructed the castle after the earthquake. 538 steps lead you to the top of the castle with the church and Franciscan monastery in the end. We recommend using feet for climbing and not knees like the pilgrims have over the centuries!

On that windy, winter day we travel to Zagreb, leaving the coast behind. The mountains covered in typical Mediterranean vegetation slowly merge with the valleys and mountain climate. As we move away from the city we still see a small part of the sea while at the same time coming closer to the snow that grows thicker as we travel further inland. This fascinating climate contrast seems like a symbol of the city with various elements of cultural heritage and history which make it so magnificent.

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