Doses of Dramamine – Rijeka to Split: The Adriatic Highway (Traveling The Croatian Coastline #49)

Miracles do happen, lightning strikes the same place twice and the wildest dreams come true. The bus from Rijeka to Split was ready to roll long before the scheduled time. An on-time departure seemed probable. There was even the possibility of an early departure. For a few minutes, hope triumphed over experience before reality intervened. At noon, the bus was still stationary. The time for its departure came and went with the bus drivers assigned to shepherd us down the coastline looking confused. The one providing receipts for the storing of luggage was delayed when his machine ran out of paper. This delay signaled that timeliness was not of the essence. And it also caused me no end of consternation.

The final journey – Rijeka to Split by bus

Living On The Edge – Impossible Obstacles
The bus was the second and last one leaving for Split that day. Considering the journey was scheduled to take more than eight hours, adding what turned out to be a half an hour at the start of it was extremely irritating. When boarding finally began, the growing crowd of passengers surged forward. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the bus was not sold out. This was a first in our three long journeys covering the Croatian coast. Unfortunately, everyone soon discovered that the bus company had sold the same seats to multiple passengers. This led to some edgy conversations that were as much about frustrated expectations as they were seat assignments. Thankfully, there were enough open seats to satisfy those whose seats were already filled. Despite the initially frantic enthusiasm to board once seats were claimed, low murmurs of conversation gave way to grim stoicism. 

Everyone knew what was ahead, a long and tiresome journey along the Adriatic Highway. The stunning scenery that would unfold across hundreds of kilometers of shoreline would be offset by the insanely serpentine D8 motorway. The road winds its way along a seemingly unending series of life threatening precipices and narrow, rocky defiles. Doses of Dramamine were in order, even for those with stronger stomachs. Nothing less would do for such a daunting journey. I already knew what to expect since I had done this journey in the opposite direction a week earlier. An hour out of Rijeka we would be entering a no man’s land of spectacular scenery and forbidding landscapes. This was the roughest, most rugged part of any journey along the Croatian coastline. Considering the competition that is impressive or depressive depending upon one’s perspective. It would certainly prove unforgettable for all the right and wrong reasons.

It was not long after leaving Rijeka that the dreaded curves began. The bus began to snake its way through a never ending neverland. I felt like we were chasing our own tail time and again. From the town of Kraljevica until the Maslenica Bridge nearly 200 kilometers to the south, the bus navigated an unending succession of s-curves, switchbacks on steroids and abyss hugging highway. I have no way of knowing how many times the bus made ninety degree turns, but I would put the number at well over a  hundred. To say that this journey was a combination of dizzying, withering and head spinning would not quite do it justice. On the landward side, the Velebit Mountains formed an impressive natural barrier. An awe inspiring reminder of the rugged inland areas to be found east of the Croatian Littoral. The mountains were beautiful and forbidding, they looked like another impossible obstacle in a region filled with them.

Beauty beyond measure – 15 minutes outside of Rijeka

Terrifying Beauty – On Hostile Ground
On the seaward side, the Adriatic seemed to be taunting those of us who looked out upon its serene waters with thoughts of what might have been. The scene was enchanting and maddening. If only there had been a ferry between Rijeka and Split. Thoughts of this only made the bus ride worse. On this day, anyone fortunate enough to be taking the sea route would have been enjoying smooth sailing. There was no rugged terrain to navigate, only a sheet of glass stretching to the shorelines of various islands or flowing towards an infinite horizon. I was pretty sure that everyone on board this bus would have gladly taken the opportunity to sail the Adriatic. Such thoughts only served to make this journey more difficult than it already was. Staring longingly at the sea did little more than remind me of what I was missing. I did derive a bit of solace from the fact that we would be taking a ferry from Spilt to Dubrovnik the next day, but first we had to make our way through a maze that was part natural and part manmade.

Just as on our initial journey along this road a week earlier, I was impressed by the terrifying beauty of the region. Those consummate pirates of the Adriatic, the Uskoks, came as close as anyone ever did to controlling the Littoral. Truth be told, they did not so much control it, as it controlled them. The hostile nature of the landscape molded them into ferocious warriors, ones who were feared even by their allies. Their capital of Senj was a sort of midpoint marker for the bus journey. A place to stretch the legs and for me to experience a deep and abiding empathy for anyone who lived on this forbidden shore. The town was hemmed in all sides by nature. The difficulty of traveling to and from Senj would have warned many people off the place. I imagined its inhabitants either enjoyed their isolation or were living out their lives in a sort of blissful self-imposed exile. Staying in Senj meant surviving it. There was comfort in the remote, a sort of seductive solitude with an allure all its own.

Languid look – The waterfront in Senj (Credit: SI-Ziga)

Beauty & Brutality – The Opposite of Hospitable
On this journey, Senj was little more than a bathroom break. The same could not be said for the towns and villages either north or south of it. Anyone who thinks Europe is getting crowded need not look any further than the mainland shores of the Littoral. Villages were quaint, but hardly memorable. The dream of everyone who falls in love with the Croatian coastline is to live along it. That still did not make me fancy this region. It looked the opposite of hospitable. Senj was the region’s largest population center with only 7,000 people. All the others were proverbial wide spots in the road, or put more aptly, wide spots in the coves. Tucked up against the shoreline, preserves of the hardy or foolhardy dotted the highway. They were scattered along it at regular intervals. Each of them made me wonder what it would be like to live in one of these villages surrounded by beauty and brutality.

Click here for: Land of Extremes – The Karst: That Other Croatia (Traveling The Croatian Coastline #50)

A Mutiny Waiting To Happen – Rijeka: Capital Of The Croatian Littoral (Traveling The Croatian Coastline #31)

Dalmatia and Istria get most of the publicity when it comes to the Croatian coast. That has a great deal to do with the remarkable cities and towns that can be found scattered along the coastlines of each region. Dalmatia includes Zadar, Split and Dubrovnik, while Istria has Opatija, Pula and Rovinj. Visiting either of these tantalizing trifectas can take up an entire two week vacation. Perhaps that is why the stretch of coastline and islands between Istria and Dalmatia so often gets overlooked. Known as the Croatian Littoral, it is rugged, sublimely beautiful, and overlooked by many foreigners. Some define this region by what it is not, rather than what it is. In other words, the Croatian Littoral is neither Dalmatia nor Istria.

This is a shame because doing so overlooks the many delights to be found there. The Littoral includes such islands as Cres, Krk, Losinj and Rab. Yet each of these idyllic settings lives in the shadow of the Littoral’s largest urban area, the gritty port city of Rijeka. It contains over half of the Littoral’s population and acts as the hub from which the entire region’s economic, political, and cultural life emanates. Because Rijeka plays such a large role in the Littoral, it has also come to dominate perceptions of it. Many of those perceptions are misguided, as I would find out during a three day stay in the city with my wife.

Hungarian inspired – The Croatian National Theater

Positively Budapestian – The Remaking of Rijeka
Perhaps the Croatian Littoral would be better known if it was easier to access. Rijeka and much of the Littoral has its back up against a wall. That is because the Vapela and Velebit Mountains soar along the Littoral’s eastern flank. It is hard to imagine just how rugged the terrain is around Rijeka until you ride a bus, car or train down into it. The city’s core is set on just about the only flat space to be found in the area. And as the city expands outward it begins to crawl up the steep hillsides. Space is at a premium, to the point that the city’s airport is way outside of city limits on the island of Krk. There is simply not enough room for an airport in Rijeka. While the waters of the Bay of Rijeka were preternaturally calm on the day of our arrival, it offered a stark contrast to the surrounding natural wildness just beyond the city.

Then there was the city itself, a noisy, manic clattering of movement. The sedate charms that can be found in many Croatian coastal communities have nothing in common with Rijeka. This made me unspeakably happy. I immediately fell in love with the grit and grime, the energy and electricity that infused every inch of Rijeka’s traffic laden streets, shadowy urban corridors and stately Old Town. Not to mention that there was something positively Budapestian about the city center. Much of the architecture had a similar grandiosity to that found in the Hungarian capital. This was not a coincidence. Rijeka (then known by its Italian name of Fiume) was Hungary’s port during the Dual Monarchy. As such, the Hungarians built up the city center in their image.

On the waterfront – Rijeka as seen from the harbor (Adria Palace is center left)

The Hungarian Influence – Punching Above Their Weight
The Hungarian presence in Rijeka was never large. In the last census taken in 1911, one out of every 14 inhabitants in the city were ethnic Hungarians. Italians outnumbered them six to one and Croatians four to one. Nonetheless, the Hungarians made their mark on the city. Their period of rule coincided with both a population and building boom. Between 1880 and 1910 the city’s population doubled. Investors poured money into the city, developing the port as a hub of commercial enterprise. The authorities endowed the city with enough impressive structures that the Hungarian influence can still be seen today. Such buildings as the Croatian National Theater and Palace Modello owe their construction to the period of Hungarian rule.

The most significant building from the Hungarian era is the Adria Palace, a Baroque Revival confection that now houses the headquarters of Jadrolijina, the main Croatian ferry service. The multi storied edifice was one of the first buildings in the city to catch my eye. It would have been just as at home in any of the Empire’s major cities. Constructed in 1882 for Adria, the first Hungarian shipping company, the building sports a wealth of statuary based on different seafaring personnel. It also has four statues that symbolize the different continents (Europe, North America, Africa and Asia) where Adria’s ships would be making ports of call. The palace gave the impression of wealth, majesty, and elegance. It was quite the statement, one that stood up to the historical test placed upon it by the many regimes that came to rule Rijeka during the 20th century. They co-opted the building rather than demolish or replace it. This was a case where architecture transcended ideology.

Architectural aspiration – Modello Palace in Rijeka

On The Waterfront – A Working Man’s Paradise
Despite its impressive cityscape and spectacular natural setting, Rijeka does not have a good reputation. Part of that is because the city lacks the languid charms that pervade other Croatian coastal communities. Rijeka is an in your face kind of city. Whereas most coastal communities caress visitors, Rijeka is just as likely to deliver a gut punch. It is primarily a working port rather than one harboring yachts and pleasure craft like those found in Zadar and Dubrovnik. A blue collar, pro-socialist aesthetic was born out of those who worked in the shipyards. It was the kind of place where historically, a mutiny was waiting to happen. The city is a working man’s idea of paradise. It continues to be Croatia’s busiest port, just as it once was Yugoslavia’s. Even so, the Port of Rijeka is still a shadow of its former self during the 20th century.

While it averages about 12 million tons of cargo each year, that is only 60% of what it was forty years ago. Rijeka has managed to survive the downturn, but not without loss of jobs. It is a tough town that has endured countless tough times. From what I could see, the city is well on its way to recovery. Of course, many scars are invisible, especially to the eyes of unsuspecting tourists. Deindustrialization took a mental toll on the inhabitants. Coupled with the loss of guaranteed employment for Rijeka’s working class after the collapse of communism and the upshot was economic crisis. The same process had been repeated throughout former communist countries. In Rijeka the damage was widespread, but that did not keep the city from a veneer of prosperity. I could hardly wait to learn more about the de facto capital of the Croatian Littoral.

Click here for: Time To Kill – Tarsatica: The Destiny of Ancient Rome & Modern Rijeka (Traveling The Croatian Coastline #32)