Pirates of the Adriatic – Senj: Refugees & Reprobates (Traveling The Croatian Coastline #48)

The stretch of coastline I was traveling between Zadar and Rijeka had once been the preserve of a famous band of outlaws. If they ever make a “Pirates of the Adriatic” movie than it will almost certainly be filmed in Senj. During the 16th and 17th centuries, this town was the de facto capital of the Uskoks. The very name struck fear into the hearts of the Ottoman Turks and Venetians. Even by Balkan standards, the Uskoks were an especially fearsome lot. Ruffians and refugees, brigands and bandits, independent individualists and malevolent maniacs and the Uskoks were a breed apart.

The winding road brought us to Senj, the first decent sized town we had seen in hours. The forbidding and wildly beautiful stretch of coastline between Zadar and Rijeka had a hell for leather harshness.  Historically this had made it a difficult place for human habitation to take hold. Even today, this stretch of coastline is sparsely populated. It is most notable for a terrible beauty. The area offers little respite to travelers. The sun blazes, the sea is mostly inaccessible.  As the bus stopped in Senj, I could not help but think this was rather ironic. The town was once a place to be avoided at all costs. Four hundred years ago, it had been home to a cast of dangerous characters whose livelihood was spurred by depravity and thievery. Only the toughest survived Senj. No wonder the Uskoks made it the epicenter of their world.

Remember the Uskoks – Nehaj Fortress (Credit: Bvlahov)

The Embattled Shore – A Force of Ferocious Nature
The bus emptied within a couple of minutes as passengers sought relief from the dizzying journey they had endured up to this point. Senj was good for a bathroom break and a history lesson. I made a mental note that one day I would have to return and visit Nehaj Fortress, a 16th century defensive construction that was the town’s most notable landmark. From the highway it could easily be seen. I imagine that those who came to Senj by watercraft would not have looked at the Fortress with the same sense of enchantment that I did. They would have been fearful at what lay within the fortress’ impregnable walls. The fortress still made a formidable impression, looking like it could still be used in warfare rather than in its current iteration as a museum. The fortress’ fine condition as viewed from the roadway was a reminder to passersby that it had never fallen in warfare. It was also a physical representation of the Uskoks, who after being expelled from the stronghold of Klis by the Ottoman Turks fled to Senj and made it the capital of piracy during the 16th and 17th centuries.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the Uskoks were as close to a force of the most ferocious nature in human form that has existed in Europe during the last 500 years. Their exploits struck fear into the hearts of those who dared oppose them. Specifically, the Ottoman Turks and Venetians. Since the land around Senj was too unforgiving for agriculture, the Uskoks lived off banditry and so did Senj. While the Uskoks were used by the Habsburgs to fight the Ottomans in this area to a standstill, they spent a great deal of their time plying the coastline of the eastern Adriatic in watercraft that could maneuver at great speed. These boats were used to plunder shipping that came anywhere close to their domain. While the Uskoks were never great in number, estimates put them at a few thousand at most, they were able to terrify their enemies. Anyone unlikely enough to be captured by them could hope for slavery at best, a tortuous death at worst.

Independent individualist – Illustration of an Uskok

Bloodlust & Banditry – Pillaging Their Way Into History
The Uskoks used extreme violence on their foes. Those who rose to the highest ranks in their hierarchy were known to be among the most violent. They would nail turbans on to the heads of captured Turks. Tearing out the heart of a captive and roasting it over an open flame was not beyond the Uskoks. Bloodlust rituals were favored by these exotic military warriors or so the Venetians had everyone believe. More than a few Venetians fell into the hands of the Uskoks, some of whom lost their heads, others their hearts. Venetian shipping was plundered to the point that they opened a propaganda offensive against the Uskoks. Often lost on those shocked by the Uskoks’ unique combination of bloodlust and banditry, was that they were products of their environment. The Uskoks had originated from Croats and Bosnians who had been run off their lands in the Neretva River delta by the Ottomans. Other refugees from Herzegovina and Dalmatia who had suffered the same fate soon joined them. They guarded a semi-permanent military frontier that was marked by raids and lethal acts of violence.

Without the invasion of the Ottoman Turks, the venality of the Venetians and the Habsburg strategy of (deliberately) underpaying the Uskoks, they would have never existed. Those who felt their harsh hand in warfare might have taken some time to reflect on their own role in creating such a lethal force of resistance. The culmination of this rabid banditry was the so called Uskok War precipitated in 1615 by the Venetians to finally bring a semblance of order to a calamitous situation. In the Treaty of Madrid that followed, the Habsburgs and Venetians agreed to accommodate each other’s needs. For the Uskoks, this meant the end of their depredations as the Habsburg authorities agreed to resettle them further inland. The Uskok’s rapacious reign in Senj ended, but they have not been forgotten. Nehaj Fortress stands as a testament to their skills in defending themselves against anyone who dared to cross their path. 

Beyond imagination – The Kvarner Gulf

Transition Zone – Mitteleuropa On The Adriatic
Reading about the Uskoks kept me distracted long enough to ignore all but the final stretch of the journey between Senj and Rijeka. We were now entering a cultural transition zone that stood between Dalmatia and Istria. The Latinizing influence of the Venetians gave way in the past two centuries to central European influence. The area is one of the least trafficked by tourists along the Croatian coast. That is such a shame because the ride into Rijeka was a revelation. The Kvarner Gulf stretched out before us, a giant body of placid water of cools greys, soft silvers, and luminous blues. The worst of our serpentine bus journey was behind us, but the beauty would continue.

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

Commanding Heights – Trsat: The Refuge of Rijeka (Traveling The Croatian Coastline #37)

Climbing to the top of Trsat was exhausting and exhilarating. After scaling all 538 steps of the Petar Kruzic staircase I was breathless. This was not only from the climb, but also the spectacular vistas of Rijeka, the Adriatic Sea and Rjecina River gorge. It would only get better upon a visit to Trsat Castle. When I found my wife in Trsat, she was as fresh faced and carefree since she had wisely chosen to take the bus up to these commanding heights. Our walk to the castle only took a couple of minutes. It consisted of a light stroll over smooth walkways. Trsat was a delight on this day. While Rijeka seethed in the summer heat, Trsat was cooled by refreshing breezes. It was easy to see how it had become a refuge for citizens of the city.  

Look out below – Trsat Castle

Family Ties – The Frankopans
Trsat Castle was not what I thought it was going to be. And that turned out to be one of the reasons I would highly recommend it to anyone staying in Rijeka. I thought there would be an entrance fee, but I was pleasantly surprised to find out otherwise. Anyone who made their way from Rijeka to the castle was free to climb around the towers and ramparts unhindered.  I thought it would be filled with empty rooms, it hardly had any rooms to speak of. I thought there would be exhibits with the usual dry recitation of history. There was nothing of the sort. Anyone who wanted to know its history would have to look elsewhere. I did do this after our visit. The castle’s history was synonymous with two names, the Frankopans and Laval Nugent, an Irish mercenary.

The Frankopans were by far the most glorious group of people ever associated with Trsat. Their name was as legendary throughout the region as it was obscure everywhere else. The Frankopan dynasty was one of the most powerful forces in Croatia from the 11th through the 17th century, but the history of Trsat as a fortress predated them by well over a thousand years. The site on which the castle now stands is believed to have been where an Illyrian hill fortress once stood. After the Romans conquered the area, they manned a fortress in the same spot. It allowed them to control access to an important road that led to points further north and east within the empire. The Romans called the site Tarsitica, not to be confused with the military town of Tarsitica, the ruins of which can be found in Rijeka’s Old Town.

The Frankopans acquired the site in the 13th century and set about building a stout defensive work. The family originated from the island of Krk and gained favor, land, and wealth through their friendship with King Bela IV of Hungary. The Frankopans had helped provide refuge for Bela when he had to flee the Kingdom of Hungary to avoid the Mongol horde. He never forgot their hospitality, providing them with extensive property allotments. Their family’s power continued to expand as they acquired or constructed one stronghold after another. The Frankopans helped lead the resistance against Ottoman encroachment on Croatian territory. It was only with the family’s demise in the 17th century when they were involved in an anti-Habsburg plot that their property holdings were confiscated. Trsat subsequently fell into disrepair, made much worse by a terrible earthquake that struck the area in 1750.

Standing guard – Dragon sculpture at Trsat Castle outside Nugent mausoleum

Loyal Soldier – The Irish Connection
The savior of Trsat Castle appeared in the 19th century, improbably he was an Irishman by the name of Laval Nugent von Westmeath. Born in Ireland, Nugent was a military man whose career would play out in Central and Eastern Europe. His family had been in the service of the Habsburgs for quite some time, including a great-grandfather who had been Governor of Prague. Nugent would join the Habsburg military ranks in 1793 at the tender age of 16. He began climbing the career ladder not long thereafter and would continue to do so during a long and storied career that was well over half a century in length. He fought with distinction for the Habsburgs in a wide range of conflicts from the Napoleonic Wars to the Hungarian Revolution.

Nugent was the quintessential loyal soldier who was rewarded for his service by appointment to Field Marshal in 1849. Nugent spent the latter years of his life in Croatia which he considered to be his adopted homeland. To that end, he purchased multiple properties in Croatia which had once been owned by the Frankopans, among these were Bosiljevo and Trsat Castles. Both played a prominent role in the last years of his life. Nugent facilitated a Neo-Gothic restoration of Trsat. He also had a family mausoleum constructed which is guarded by the fabulous Dragon of Trsat sculpture. When the Irishman died at Bosiljevo in 1862 he was still considered a member of the Habsburg military. That meant he had served for an incredible 69 of the 84 years of his life. Nugent’s remains were transferred to the mausoleum at Trsat where they remain today.

Rijeka from the ramparts – Looking outward from Trsat Castle

Priceless – Refinement On The Ramparts
Trsat Castle was as visitor friendly as any castle I have ever visited. We were free to roam at will around the site.  The vibe was laid back, a sort of summertime resort set in the shadow of history. Because of this, it was difficult to view Trsat Castle for what it really had been prior to the 19th century, a formidable defensive work that controlled access in and out of the Rijeka area. Whomever held these heights, had land access to the city under their control. Seeing visitors lounging around at a café close to the battlements was sublime. The highlight of the castle was climbing the restored round tower and looking out from the ramparts. These fragments of what had once been a formidable fortress offered spectacular views of Rijeka, the Rjecina River Gorge, and the Kvarner Gulf.

It was worth the effort it took to climb every step of the way to Trsat. While the castle was not entirely intact or historically accurate, the restoration had been tastefully done. The setting was so unique that it could not help but attract tourists and citizens of the city far below. I envied those who can seek refuge at Trsat Castle on a regular basis. The castle has that rare quality of being refined and elegant, without being pretentious. Inviting and open to everyone, the only cost to enter was the effort expended to get here. Some things you cannot put a price on, Trsat Castle turned out to be one of them.

Click here for: Walking On Water – Rijeka: A Miraculous Discovery (Traveling The Croatian Coastline #38)

Seduction In Broad Daylight – Opatija: Maiden With The Seagull (Traveling The Croatian Coastline #30)

From the bus window, Opatija was a blur of fantastical fin de siècle. Its villas were covered in a full spectrum of vibrant colors. The town was like an early 20th century picture postcard that had been transformed into technicolor. Cypresses, pines, and palms added a splashed of the super-natural to the scene. It was idyllic in the extreme. If the world had not contrived to commit suicide in 1914 there might have been many more Opatija’s still standing along the shorelines of Europe. For here was the old aristocracy making its last stand, fading into an endless succession of radiant sunsets that lit a faraway and oft forgotten resort. A fabulous pre-1914 European set piece that had somehow survived into the present. There was beauty and melancholy in Opatija, everywhere I looked.

Watching & waiting – Maiden with the Seagull in Opatija (Credit: Ronnie Macdonald)

The Kvarner Gulf – Silver Spangled Seascape
The road from Pula to Rijeka took us along the edge of the Kvarner Gulf, a shimmering expanse of the Adriatic that was fringed by mountains covered with forests in the area around Opatija. At certain junctures, the gulf looked like the world’s largest lake. This was deceptive. The gulf stretched further than the eye could see. It took in a large swath of coastline that was home to some of Croatia’s largest and most populated islands such as Krk and Cres. The gulf was overlooked by much of the coastal tourist traffic. It did not have the cachet of Dalmatia or Istria which made me love it that much more. Earlier on this trip I had seen it for the first time. The sun transforming the water into liquid fire, a hypnotic slow burn of silver spangled seascape that entranced me with its everchanging and infinite iterations magnified by rays of kaleidoscopic light. This was seduction in broad daylight. 

My first impression of the Kvarner Gulf was informed by profound puzzlement. All I could think was how could anyone overlook such a large body of beautiful water surrounded by a stunning landscape and bordered by a shining city. The only answer I could come up with is that the ceaselessly spectacular nature of the Croatian coastline renders the Kvarner Gulf something of an afterthought. There was really nothing wrong with this unless you worked in the local tourist industry. The Gulf and especially Opatija still get its fair share of visitors who come to enjoy the bucolic climate and stroll along its famous promenade. On this trip I did neither, but it did stop me from trying in vain to see from the bus window Opatija’s most famous female. A woman who has stood at the point of a promontory for decades on end waiting patiently for a loved one that the sea swallowed.

Loyalty & loss – Postcard of the Madonna del Mare in Opatija

Keeping Watch – Loyalty & Loss
For all the tranquil beauty of the Kvarner Gulf, there is something mesmerizingly deceptive about it. On this day, the water was a sheet of glass polished by the sunlight. It was an entrancing sight, one that could lull the naïve into believing the gulf was harmless. The truth was more disturbing. Storms often roil the waters, helping make it one of the rainiest areas in Croatia. Thus, it is not surprising that the gulf has claimed its fair share of victims. The most historically resonant of the tragic incidents where holidaying in Opatija turned to horror, involved Count Arthur Kesselstadt, his wife, and their son. The couple drowned in the gulf during a storm. The lone survivor was Georg, their son who barely managed to escape the clutches of death.

Such an incident would almost certainly have been forgotten if not for the fact that Kesselstadt’s family sought to memorialize their lost loved one. To that end, they had a statue erected on a promontory in Opatija to help assuage their grief. Known as the Madonna Del Mare or Madonnina, it was created by an Austrian sculptor at the behest of Kesselstadt’s family. It kept a vigilant watch over the waters where Kesselstadt and his wife disappeared in the hopes that one day they might return. The vigilant Madonna lasted from the 1890’s through the 1950’s until it was badly damaged by inclement weather. Today the sculpture can be found in the Croatian Museum of Tourism housed at the Villa Angiolina in Opatija.

The Madonna Del Mar’s replacement, “Maiden with the Seagull” was installed in 1956. The work of Croatian sculptor Zvonka Car who hailed from further down the coast at Crikvenica, the sculpture was modeled after a local woman who spent many hours posing to ensure it was as lifelike as possible. The maiden stands with a seagull perched upon her right hand while she gazes out at the azure waters of the Gulf. The sculpture has famously become associated with Opatija and rightfully so. It conveys the proper mix of duty, faithfulness and melancholy, intensely human traits that allow the viewer to identify with the maiden. The sculpture is sad and uplifting, romantic and tragic, filled with hope and longing. A universal symbol of loyalty and loss.

Burning of the world – Sunset on the Kvarner Gulf (Credit: Ziga)

The Joy of Expectation – Watching & Waiting
I hoped to see the Maiden with the Seagull standing at her perch on the promontory despite being confined to a bus. I peered out the window scanning the brief slivers of seashore that would appear and then disappear behind the villas and hotels. The maiden was nowhere to be seen. Just as I looked in vain for her, she looked in vain out to the sea. The fact that the person who she waited for has yet to arrive, never kept the maiden from watching and waiting. The same could be said of my yearning to catch a glimpse of the maiden.  Just because there was only a slim chance of seeing the maiden from a bus window, did not keep me from trying. Hope springs eternal, it gives our lives meaning, it makes grief tolerable. The joy of expectation can mitigate sorrow and loss. I never did see the maiden, but I have not given up hope. If she can last for so long by the seaside, then there is hope that one day I will see her. At least that is what I want to believe.

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


Window Shopping With Old Money– Opatija (Traveling The Croatian Coastline #17)

Rijeka was supposed to be a teeming, uber industrialized port city. It was all those things, but also much more. My first sight of Rijeka came several kilometers south of the city looking across the Kvarner Gulf. It was a toy town to the naked eye, a sort of urban mirage that mimicked a miniature model. it was as though someone had stacked Legos on a stretch of land fronted by the sea. Rijeka’s towering concrete apartment blocks, the skyscrapers of Titoism, looked like they were part of an overgrown Potemkin village when seen from a distance. A spectacular seascape sidled up to the city, while the Ucka Massif rose in the background. The bus journey down into Rijeka was more akin to a rollercoaster ride than a motorway. The highway looped back on itself at times as the bus attempted to navigate the rugged terrain. Nature’s bounty made me long for an outdoor excursion rather than an urban one.

The beauty of it all – 15 minutes from Rijeka

Rough & Real – Reconsidering Rijeka
I immediately began to wonder why no one ever mentioned the landscape surrounding Rijeka. It was quite an introduction to what was supposedly one of the more industrial cities in Croatia. My perspective changed once our bus arrived in the city, it was as though we had fallen from heaven back into reality. Rijeka was a brash, loud, noisy place. There was none of the languid pace to be found among the masses of rubbernecking tourists in Dubrovnik or Zadar. The idea of strolling was anathema on Rijeka’s sidewalks, everyone was walking with a purpose. Rijekans looked like they were hurrying to an appointment. In other words, this was a working city. I was elated that we would be returning to Rijeka for several days after our visit to Pula. From what little I saw of Rijeka, it was going to make for a fascinating contrast with all the other places we were visiting. Rijeka was not on the tourist circuit, which from the looks of it was quite a shame. The city looked rough, gritty, blue collar and quasi-socialist, the kind of place that did not care what other people thought of it. Indifferent to outsiders’ thoughts, Rijeka was a love or leave it proposition, on this day we were trying to do both.

Rijeka’s bus station left a lot to be desired. It was difficult to even figure out where the station was located. Our bus pulled in to drop off and pick up passengers. The station, if it could be called that, looked like a large parking lot surrounded by congestion. Despite this, I found the bus stop at the station satisfactory. There was a free toilet within a short walking distance of where our bus was parked. Oddly, this toilet was not part of the station. Getting to it required crossing one of the city’s busiest streets. On the way back to the bus, there was a Mlnar, a chain of bakeries that was quickly becoming my favorite for breakfast and lunch on this trip. The stop in Rijeka only lasted 15 minutes, but it was enough to satisfy everyone’s needs. Now the final stretch of our journey to Pula started. We soon left the bustling city behind and were back in the world of Croatian coastal tourism. As a matter of fact, we were about to travel through where it all began.

The Ideal Spot – Villa Amalia in Opatija (Credit: Henry Kellner)

Blinded By The Past – An Opatija State of Mind
Until the mid-19th century, Opatija (Abbazia in Italian) was just another fishing village along the Kvarner Gulf. Little did its inhabitants know that it was on the cusp of a major transformation when Rijeka businessman, Iginio Scarpa constructed the Villa Angiolina as a palatial holiday home for his family. The Villa was also open for use by the many aristocratic acquaintances of Scarpa. In 1882, the villa was purchased by Friedrich Schiller, head of the Southern Railways for Austria. Schiller decided that Opatija would be the perfect place for the upper and middle classes to spend holidays by the seaside. This was at a time when modern tourism was beginning to take hold in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Soon lavish hotels began popping up all over Opatija, many of these still exist today.

I saw several hotels and a plethora of turn of the 20th century villas as the bus slowly made its way through the town. There was a paradisiacal feel to Opatija with its villas, hotels and palm trees closing in on the waterfront. Anyone looking for the glories of Austria-Hungary would do well to start here. Aristocrats and the moneyed class spent their holidays at Opatija. Rubbing shoulders with the famous and frivolous who descended on the town throughout the year. Due to the excellent climate, Opatija was promoted as an escape from the harsh winters that beset Austro-Hungarian lands in Central and Eastern Europe. Unlike so many other fin de siècle places in former imperial lands that I have visited, Opatija still looked to be doing a fine trade. Its many mansions were splashed out in an eye popping array of pastel colors. Sure, there were some of the usual concrete communist constructions blighting the town, but the vibrancy of Opatija was so illuminating that it blinded me to any of the later excesses.

The place to be – Early 20th century advertisement for Abbazia (Opatija)

Finding Love – Romance In The Air
Viewing Opatija from the bus made me feel like I was window shopping with old money. It would not have surprised me to see an archduke or archduchess throw back the shutters from one of the multi storied villas and exhale the history each of those aristocratic inspired confections held within their walls. Emperor Franz Josef and Empress Elisabeth wintered here. So did Crown Prince Rudolph and his wife Stephanie before death pounded the final nail to the ill fated coffin that was their marriage. Long before Archduke Maximillian was shot in Mexico or his wife Carlotta went mad, they were hanging out with the smart aristocratic set in Opatija.

Anton Chekov, a man who knew a great deal about tragedy, also spent time in Opatija. And why not? The weather was good, the women were sophisticated and beautiful, the men well educated and smartly attired. There are very few places from pre-World War One Europe that still give the feel and flavor of the fin de siècle, Optija is one of them. I imagined getting off here and never leaving. Holing up in some grand hotel and writing novels of lost love affairs of those who have come and gone in Opatija. I knew by my love at first sight that romance was still in the air at Opatija.

Click here for: An Architectural Affirmation – Pula: The Arena (Traveling The Croatian Coastline #18)