Rows of cumbrous cranes and rusty, sea-stained tankers front the soaring apartment blocks of Croatia's largest port, RIJEKA (pronounced "Ree-acre"), a down-to-earth industrial city which is the major ferry terminal along the Adriatic coast and an unavoidable transit point if you're travelling through the region by bus. Rijeka is far from beautiful, but it is the northern Adriatic's only true metropolis, mustering a reasonable number of attractions and an appealing urban buzz, while the hilltop suburb of Trsat, home to a famous pilgrimage church, is particularly attractive. Accommodation in town is limited to a few (mostly run-down) hotels, and if you want to stay in the area it may be better to aim for the Opatija Riviera to the west, an area amply served by Rijeka's municipal bus network.

 

Some history

Although Trsat is built on an ancient hilltop site which was occupied by both Illyrian and Romans, the port below didn't really begin to develop until the thirteenth century, when it was known — in the language of whichever power controlled it - as StVitus-on-the-River, a name subsequently shortened to the rather blunt "River" - which is what Rijeka (and its Italian version, Fiume) actually means. From 1466 the city was an Austrian possession, a prosperous port which remained under the direct control ofVienna until 1848, when Ban Jelačić brought it under Croatian administration. Rijeka became a bone of contention between Croatia and Hungary in the latter half of the nineteenth century, after the city was claimed by Budapest on the grounds that the Hungarian half of the Austro-Hungarian Empire should possess at least one outlet to the Adriatic. In 1868, an agreement between Croatia and Hungary –which was to have left the fate of Rijeka open to arbitration – was due to be signed by the Habsburg Emperor Franz Josef but, in a notorious piece of trickery, an additional clause presenting the port to Hungary was literally pasted in at the last moment without the Croats' knowledge.

Rijeka under Hungarian rule was a booming industrial port with a multinational population – the centre was predominantly Italian-speaking, while the suburbs were increasingly Croat – and both Italians and Croatians laid claim to the city when it once again came up for grabs at the end of World War I. The 1915 Treaty of London had promised Dalmatia – but not Rijeka – to the Italians as a reward for joining the war on the Allied side, a promise that Britain and France were unwilling to keep come 1918. The Italians demanded Rijeka as the price for giving up their claim to territories further south. In a plebiscite of October 1918, the city's inhabitants voted to join Italy (most of Rijeka's Croatian population actually lived outside the municipal boundary in the suburb of Sušak, and so were not represented), but the Allies remained firm, garrisoning the port with an Anglo-American and French force as a prelude to handing it over to the infant state of Yugoslavia. In September 1919, however, the Italian soldier-poet Gabrielle d'Annunzio marched into Rijeka unopposed and occupied the city, establishing a proto-fascist regime which endured until January 1921. He was eventually forced to leave by an embarrassed Italian government, and February 1921's Treaty of Rapallo declared Rijeka a free city. Despite this, Rijeka was once again taken over by Italy following Mussolini's accession to power in 1922, an act which theYugoslav government grudgingly accepted in the hope that it would deflect Italian territorial ambitions from the rest of the Adriatic.

Rijeka was returned to Yugoslavia after World War II, when most of the Italian population was induced to leave. In the years that followed, Rijeka's traditionally strong shipbuilding industry flourished anew, and the city acquired its high-rise suburbs. Rijeka's status as an economic powerhouse took a tumble in the immediate post-independence years, when the shipbuilding industry collapsed and the city's once-strong merchant fleet was sold off vessel by vessel. With traditional sources of employment drying up and a new post-communist business culture emerging to fill the gap, it's a surprise to discover that Rijeka is still a town with solid socialist leanings. In contrast to Adriatic cities like Zadar, Split and Dubrovnik, most of the streets still carry their pre-1991 names: as well as squares and boulevards dedicated to Žrtava fašizma ("Victims of Facism") and President Tito, there's even a Setalište XIII divizije or "Promenade of the Thirteenth Partisan Division" – the idea of battle-hardened guerillas strolling along its dull grey length is delightfuly absurd.


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