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)


Getting Ticketed – Rijeka: The Long Way Home (Traveling The Croatian Coastline #47)

My search for the best possible mode of travel between Rijeka and Split turned from a frivolous fiasco to a first class failure. Obtaining a ferry or train ticket between the two cities and avoiding another bus journey was not feasible. Ferries no longer left for Spilt and neither did trains. The logistics involved were either impossible or improbable. I walked back from the train station to the bus station with not a single ticket in hand. This served to remind me that avoiding the straightest shot between two cities in Croatia was more trouble than it was worth. While bus journeys were uncomfortable and exhausting, they always delivered me to my destination even if it was an hour or two after the scheduled time. This was the irrefutable truth that I was being forced to acknowledge. I had little choice but to go back and grovel for two tickets on the noon bus between Rijeka and Split. My focus was now on the destination rather than the journey. That did not stop me from making one more attempt to make the bus journey more palatable.

A last look – Detail from the Adria Palace in Rijeka

The Final Journey – Resigned To Fate
I summoned the courage to ask one final time whether the morning bus was still sold out. I figured this would be an exercise in futility, but there was no harm in asking. The answer to my question failed to result in a definitive no. In other words, there was still a glimmer of hope which sent my spirits soaring once again. The clerk proceeded to stare for long periods of time at her computer monitor. I watched as her eyes studied the screen with a laser like intensity. She would strike one key and then the next. I felt as though my heartstrings were being plucked, the notes went from sullen to soaring and back again with each stroke of the keyboard. Would one of these keystrokes produce tickets? Make other passengers seat assignments vanish into oblivion? Miraculously make more seats appear with a couple of clever keystrokes? Rarely have I been so enthralled with something so selfishly minor. My eyes beseeched the clerk to tell me what was happening.

I finally decided to ask. She dutifully informed me that there was one seat still available on the morning bus, but not two. Faraway and yet so close. Soon another clerk joined the one helping me. After five minutes of uncomfortable silences and tentative nods followed by vigorous shaking of the head, I was politely told that only one seat was still available on the morning bus. I secretly appreciated their efforts which made me feel better about the coming journey by bus. I resigned myself to the fact that we would be covering the same ground, on the same route we had taken on our earlier journey along the coastline. I consoled myself with thoughts of the spectacular scenery. Not to mention the fact that this would be the last long bus journey of this trip. I walked back secure in the knowledge of a lunchtime departure from Rijeka the next day.

The charm of Rijeka – An Austro-Hungarian era building in Rijeka


The Hostess – Seeking The Attention of Strangers
On our final morning in Rijeka we stayed at our accommodation until a few minutes before the 10 a.m. check out time. This was done to spite the hostess who had sent yet another email reminding us to obey the rules and regulation or face fines for unwashed dishes and so much as moving a chair out of place. I assumed that the absurdity of our hostess’s money grubbing was in direct proportion to a need to wrap herself in jewels, dress in revealing clothes and slather on loads of makeup. She was crass and comical, a vampire or victim depending on the situation. No amount of inflammatory rhetoric was spared in her unending search for ever precious kuna. No regulation could go unheeded without a penalty. She was seriously addicted to vanity as much as the trappings of money. In my one interaction with her, I saw firsthand how she sought the attention of strangers. The very definition of high maintenance, but only to herself.

After we left the apartment, I informed our hostess by text that everything had been left just the way we found it. I expected there would not be a reply until she could find a point of contention that might be monetized. Instead, I got an almost immediate reply pleasantly wishing us a safe and enjoyable journey. She also added a bit of history about Rijeka. It was a final bizarre shot across the bow, but her bullets were made of rubber rather than lead. Whatever else I thought of this woman, she was certainly one of the most memorable people. Her need to be noticed was as great as her need for money. On both accounts she seems to have succeeded. I cannot think of Rijeka without thinking of her. Sultry, seductive, and slightly spectacular, that woman was the human embodiment of her hometown.

Just desserts – Rigojancsi Cake in Rijeka

Just Desserts – The Rigojancsi Cake
With a few hours to kill before leaving Rijeka there was only one thing left to do, sample the delights of Austria-Hungary a final time. The architecture and history were well covered in buildings and museums throughout the city. I knew that experiencing the old empire would not be complete without dessert. The proverbial icing on top of the cake would come close to the harbor in Rijeka. Austria-Hungary’s rule in the city had left it with some delectable delights. These included pastries and cakes that made the mouth water. The final hours prior to departure were spent at Cacao, a coffee and cake house par excellence. For those looking for the empire’s richest legacy there was the Rigojancsi cake which can only be found in Rijeka. This Hungarian cake was familiar to me from my time in Hungary. It had been able to supersede ethnic issues, wars, border changes and a multitude of empire, kingdoms, and nations. The same could be said for Rijeka, a city to be enjoyed all the way to the last bite. 

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

Railroaded – Rijeka: End of The Line (Traveling The Croatian Coastline #46)

Finding the train station in Rijeka was much easier than finding its entrance. Starting from the bus station I walked along Kresimirova street for 10 minutes until I came to the train station. The station was in the throes of a major restoration effort which made it difficult to tell where the entrance was located. I might still be standing on the sidewalk looking for it if I had not seen someone departing from doors obscured by the ongoing work. I stepped inside to find what can only be described as a construction site. The hallway by the ticket window was crowded with a family engaging in vigorous conversation. The station could hardly even be called that from what I saw. There was no waiting area to speak of, or at least one that I could see. For that matter, there was hardly enough elbow room. The ticket sales area was cramped, claustrophobic and reeked of construction materials. This was not a promising start in the pursuit of tickets for a railway journey from Rijeka to Split. Soon I would discover that the station was not the only part of the railways in and around Rijeka undergoing renovations.

Waiting on nothing – Rijeka Railway Station platform (Credit: Roberta P)

Taking The Train – The Way It Used To Be
Rijeka’s railway station is a notably obscure destination for anyone traveling to the city. Most visitors come by bus or use their own automobile. Some foreigners arrive at the city’s airport, which is not in the city at all, but instead can be found on the nearby island of Krk. Conversely, railways in Rijeka are neither easily accessible nor readily available. This is the opposite of what one would have found long ago.  The romance of railway travel was once alive and well in Rijeka. In the late 19th and early 20th century, the development of a railway enhanced the port city’s development. Rijeka was Hungary’s main port during its time as one half of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Connecting the Kingdom of Hungary’s outlet to the sea with the Carpathian Basin was of prime importance.

Getting a train from Riejka to other cities and towns is no longer an easy prospect. With the station undergoing the restoration work that began this year and will last through 2023, taking a railway journey from Rijeka is now difficult even at the best of times. Historically, the opposite was true. Many things have progressed since the days of Austria-Hungary (1867 -1918), unfortunately train travel has not been one of them. There is a reason that the same station has been in use since it was completed in 1891. It was built to last. Ferenc Pfaff, the chief architect of Hungarian State Railways designed the neoclassical edifice.

The station offered a highly stylized welcome to those who came from Budapest and Zagreb to the booming port city. The station was a needed upgrade over the first one constructed in 1873. Traffic to and from the city had increased to such an extent that having a larger station was an economic necessity. It became even more so after the first oil refinery in the empire opened in Rijeka’s harbor. Pfaff’s architectural vision managed to stand the test of time despite being partially destroyed in wartime. Most impressively, it outlasted the multiple regimes that took control of Rijeka. Whether the rulers were Hungarians, Italians or Yugoslavs, each of them found the station met their needs. If only the same could be said today.

Dream scenario – A train ready to depart from Rijeka (Credit: Diesirae)

Roundabout – The Overland Journey
My visit to the station coincided with it being in complete flux. I am sure that the restoration will be a boon to those who travel to or from it in the future. Sadly, on this day the station was little more than an obstacle course of construction. I was pleasantly surprised to find among the clouds of dust and general disrepair a clerk sitting attentively behind blurry glass at her computer monitor. She was professional and attentive which was quite an achievement in this less than customer friendly environment. I asked her about the train between Rijeka and Split. Sure enough, there was one going departing tomorrow. It would leave in mid-morning and arrive in the evening, an hour later than the only bus journey option. I found my heart beginning to race at the thought of avoiding another bus journey, but there turned out to be one mitigating factor that gave me pause.

There is no direct train that runs between Rijeka and Split. The journey requires a transfer at Ostarije, a place I had never heard of before. Later I would discover that Ostarije is a village with only 1,400 inhabitants. I am always up for a new adventure, but this time I was more than a little concerned. If we did not make the transfer in time, a definite possibility when traveling on a train in the Balkans, it would mean getting stuck in Ostarije for an extra day. Then we would miss a long awaited ferry journey between Split and Dubrovnik. Nonetheless, I was willing to chance it after the clerk assured me that the train would make this connection. I was almost ready to purchase tickets when the clerk informed me of a deal breaker.

The way it could be – Rijeka Railway Station

Byzantine Bus Routes – Disappointed & Disheartened
The station was not the only part of the railway undergoing restoration. The line departing from Rijeka was under repair as well. The upshot was that railway passengers would first have to take a bus for about an hour. Then they would be dropped off at a railway station to continue the journey to Ostarije. While the clerk explained this a grim feeling came over me. I had done the bus to rail thing before on a trip from Budapest to Transylvania. It involved a byzantine bus route through villages in far eastern Hungary that exhausted my patience. I did not want to suffer that ever again. A bus detour followed by a short train trip, then a transfer followed by a longer train journey was not worth the bother due to our tight schedule. Disappointed and disheartened I sullenly shook my head at the kindly and apologetic clerk. There was only one thing left to do. Dutifully march back to the bus station to purchase tickets for the Rijeka to Split bus leaving at noon the next day. That was if there were any tickets left. I was soon to find out.

Click here for: Getting Ticketed – Rijeka: The Long Way Home (Traveling The Croatian Coastline #47)


Sighs, Silence & Stoicism – Rijeka To Split: Train Station Spotting (Traveling The Croatian Coastline #45)

The trips that are the toughest often provide previews of the calamities to come before the journey has even started. This was what happened when I went to purchase tickets to travel from Rijeka to Split, a journey that promised to take at least eight hours by bus. I recoiled in horror at the thought of riding on another crowded bus for eight hours. Experiencing it once had been more than enough, twice was terrible and I imagined a third time would be the essence of insufferable. Another long bus journey was something to be avoided at all costs, that is if only I could find reasonably priced alternatives. By this point in traveling along the Croatian coast I had spent over 20 hours on buses. This type of overland travel was akin to running a marathon every third day. The compulsion to see as much of the coast as possible meant bus rides were a necessary act of endurance to be suffered with sighs, silence, and stoicism.

Down the line – Railyard in Rijeka (Credit: Falk2)

Rare Occurrences – Train Station Spotting
There were no other daily public transport options along the Dalmatian, Croatian Littoral and Istrian areas of the coast available to travelers. This was because the Adriatic Sea combined with rugged coastal terrain had historically kept railways at a distant. Those coastal cities with railheads had extremely limited services. They often involved making transfers at places that either had no redeeming value to the traveler or were logistical nightmares. This fact did not keep me from dreaming of the relative comfort a railway journey afforded. At infrequent, but memorable intervals, I would catch a fleeting glimpse of a railway station. I looked at these with a kind of forlorn longing for what might have been.

During an earlier part of this trip, I caught a glimpse of the Split railway station from the bus window. The squat, stone structure fronted by a couple of palm trees, triggered memories of an overnight railway journey that ended one beautiful, blue morning in Split. That was back when I dared to believe that the Croatian coastline was traversable by railway. Such ignorance was soon confronted by the fact that buses would have to be endured if one hoped to see the delights of the Dalmatian coasts. I ran up against the same problem all along the Eastern Adriatic coastline. It was buses or bust. A depressing, but necessary part of travel in Croatia.

Despite the fact that I knew buses were pretty much our only option for traveling from Rijeka to Split, it did not stop me from trying to find another form of transport to take us southward. This meant marching across the white hot pavement on a suffocatingly humid afternoon to find the Jadrolinjia office out along the harbor in Rijeka. There was not a hint of shade anywhere in sight, neither was the Jadrolinija ticket office. I found it inconveniently tucked inside a building where many other enterprises had pride of place. It was as though Jadrolinija did not want any travelers to find it. This was quite strange and the exact opposite of the Adria Palace, Jadrolinija’s resplendent headquarters which is also the most noticeable piece of architecture along the waterfront in Rijeka.

Water world – View of Rijeka from the harbor

Floating To The Bottom – That Sinking Feeling
Jadrolinjia is the company that runs ferries on the most popular routes along the Croatian coast. One would think that this would include Rijeka to Split. To my chagrin it did not. Ferries to several islands were available, but none of them went between the two cities. To makes matters that much more irritating, the clerk said, “they cancelled that ferry a few years ago”. Before I even asked, I already knew there were no ferries between Rijeka and Split, but hope had triumphed over experience for a few minutes. Unfortunately, no travel plan survives contact with reality or the vicissitudes of profit margins. After confirming there were no ferries, I walked to the bus station where I asked for two tickets to Split for the next morning. This was met with the kind of ominous silence that portends the only news forthcoming will be bad.

The kind and helpful clerk dutifully informed me that the Rijeka to Split morning bus was booked to capacity. This was bad news because the next bus did not leave until noon and would arrive in Split after dark. Knowing that long distance buses in Croatia were not exactly noted for their punctuality, meant we would almost certainly arrive in Split during the late evening. This was a less than agreeable eventuality. Instead of purchasing tickets for the later journey, I resolved to try the railway option. I knew Rijeka had a train station that I had yet to visit. Whether there was a viable (timely) route to Split, I had no idea, but it was worth a try. At this point, my wife looked at me like I was crazy. While she was up for a train journey, she was not up for a walking in malarial conditions to a train station. Besides, the chance that a train would be any faster than a bus seemed slim. Nonetheless, I believed it was worth a try.

Ready to rumble – Buses at the station in Rijeka

Derelict & Harmless – Post-Communist Contradictions
The walk to the Rijeka train station was filled with such scenes of visionary enchantment as graffiti covered warehouses in a railyard. By the looks of these monstrosities, I assumed they were last used in 1980. The buildings were ferociously, frighteningly ugly set pieces straight out of central casting for the worst of Eastern Europe. It was the kind of unsightly, de-industrialized landscape that still pockmarks post-communist cityscapes in the region. Graffiti was everywhere and on everything. It was as though a street art contest had broken out at a railway siding.

That which had not been spray painted to imperfection was covered in grime and rust. It was impressive in just how depressed it looked. Anyone with romantic visions of railway travel would be sworn off such imaginings forever after a healthy dose of this railyard. If this had been in the United States I would have feared for my life. Instead, what I saw laid bare the contradiction of so many post-communist industrial areas in Eastern Europe. They looked derelict and dangerous while being mostly harmless. I would soon be saying the same thing about Rijeka’s train station.

Click here for: Railroaded – Rijeka: End of The Line (Traveling The Croatian Coastline #46)

Staring Into The Abyss – Neolog Synagogue of Rijeka: A Spiritual Void (Traveling The Croatian Coastline #44)

In the space of just two generations the Jews of Rijeka went from triumph to tragedy. At the turn of the 20th century, there were approximately 2,000 Jews living in Rijeka (known as Fiume at the time). Today there are less than fifty. An entire ethnic group was almost completely obliterated. First the Holocaust and then communism put the death knell in a culture that had flourished for hundreds of years in Rijeka. The destruction was so extensive that it is a wonder anything was left. Despite the destruction visited on the community, there are some places where a visitor can feel the presence of Rijeka’s lost Jewish community. The most prominent of these is at the Orthodox Synagogue. Built in 1928, the modernist structure still stands today. That makes it only one of three synagogues in Croatia that survived World War II and its immediate aftermath intact. That should be cause for celebration, but the Orthodox Synagogue was not the primary house of worship for the prewar Jewish population in the city.

Status Seeking – The Grand Illusion
Orthodoxy was losing adherents, while Neolog Judaism was the faith of choice for those looking to integrate and assimilate with mainstream society in the Kingdom of Hungary. This branch of Judaism was the spiritual home of the prosperous, upwardly mobile Jewish commercial class. Many of those adhering to the faith had been transformed by the acquisition of equal rights in 1867 after the compromise that created the Austro-Hungarian Empire. They used this opportunity to gain status, build wealth and establish themselves as staunch supporters of development in the booming port city. Reformed Judaism shunned the eastern exoticism and quasi-orientalism of Orthodoxy for a more tolerant and moderate strain of Judaism. One that sought to achieve full integration into Austro-Hungarian society.

At the turn of the 20th century, the adherents of Neolog Judaism decided to put their money towards the building of a synagogue that would symbolize their newfound prestige and what they must have assumed at the time would be a permanent presence in the city. To that end, public donations were solicited and collected for the building of a grand edifice by none other than the most famous synagogue architect of the age, Lipot Baumhorn. Collecting enough money for the synagogue’s construction turned into a multi-year funding drive. Assistance was sought and procured from the city of Rijeka which donated 70 square meters of land. The Hungarian governor Laszlo Szapary contributed 2000 crowns from his private register to help fund the synagogue. Such community support was essential to its construction. Work on the large and lavishly styled structure was overseen by another native son of Rijeka, engineer Carlo Conighi. He did an incredible job, as construction started in 1902 and was completed a year later.

A Short Pilgrimage – Rediscovering Jewish Rijeka
Sadly, the dream of permanence would prove illusory as Baumhorn’s creation would only stand for forty-two years. It lived and died in tandem with the Jewish community that commissioned its construction. The life and death of the synagogue would have been lost on me if not for the information panels that now stood in its place. I happened across the site by accident one sultry afternoon. entirely due to a mix up while going to visit a museum. For some reason, I got the Rijeka City Museum confused with the Maritime and History Museum of the Croatian Littoral. The upshot was that I had almost walked to the City Museum before I realized that my preferred destination was the Maritime Museum, which just so happened to be in the opposite direction. This would mean having to retrace my footsteps until I suddenly decided that we should not walk the same route back. The new route took me up several flight of stairs that eventually led to a street with large buildings on either side.

Many of the buildings were apartment houses that looked as though they were constructed during the period of Austro-Hungarian rule. These reminded me of similar ones found in the residential areas of the city center in Budapest. While proceeding along the street I first noticed the information kiosk telling the synagogue’s story. The panels were large, with long descriptions of text. I was interested to see what they had to say. From the information given on the panels, I immediately recognized this was a special place. Behind the information kiosk was where the Neolog Synagogue had been located. Today, there was nothing left of it. If not for the copious amounts of information given on the panels, I would not have even known the Neolog Synagogue ever existed. A hybrid photo/painting taken from a postcard image showed the synagogue with pedestrians out on the sidewalks and street in front of it. If the synagogue had still been standing today, there are no telling how many people would have made the short pilgrimage from the Korzo or Old Town to visit it.

Spiritual Resonance – A Progressive Statement
At the time of its construction there was nothing in the city like the Neolog Synagogue. The truth is that over 75 years after its destruction, there are still very few buildings today in Rijeka that could have competed with its style and aesthetics. Baumhorn’s design was an unsurpassed work of sacral art. He integrated Romanesque and Gothic architectural elements, decorative Moorish flourishes and Hungarian vernacular style into a singular structure. The whole of this design was much greater than its parts. The upshot was an astonishing example of Hungarian eclecticism. Even the building materials used were unique. The synagogue was mainly made of brick, a material vastly underrepresented in Riejka architecture at the time. The use of iron by Baumhorn mitigated issues with wide span arches. This also allowed light to flood the interior.

Reading this information helped paint a picture in my mind, one that hovered in an exalted mental space somewhere between fantasy, imagination, and reality. A service conducted in the synagogue would have had a significant emotional impact, architecture infusing spirituality with a resonance that would have left the worshiper awestruck. The synagogue was the pride of Jewish Rijeka, a truly progressive statement that enhanced the city’s architectural aesthetics. During the first half of the 20th century, it would have been impossible not to notice the synagogue for those visiting the city. Tragically, that turned out to be precisely the problem when the Germans occupied Rijeka during the latter part of World War II. In an act of cultural destruction that laid bare their vile contempt for the city and its Jewish population, the Germans mined the structure and destroyed most of it on January 25, 1944. Yugoslav Authorities had no interest in restoring the synagogue and the rubble was cleared away in 1948.

Traces of a vanished world – Site of Neolog Synagogue in Rijeka

The Face of Oblivion – An Incalculable Loss
Due to the destruction of the Neolog Synagogue, Rijeka experienced a loss of near unimaginable proportions. The only thing left was an empty space, a spiritual void in the city center. Eventually the space was filled with buildings that lacked any redeeming aesthetic qualities. As I stood reading the information panels, I tried to imagine what once was and what might have been. I could have been standing outside the walls of one of the great, early 20th century synagogues if history had taken a turn for the better. Instead, I was standing on a sidewalk in an otherwise anonymous part of Rijeka staring into an abyss. Now I knew what the face of oblivion looked like. It was all but invisible, just like the Neolog Synagogue of Rijeka.

Click here for: Sighs, Silence & Stoicism – Rijeka To Split: Train Station Spotting (Traveling The Croatian Coastline #45)

Conjuring Ghosts – Jewish Rijeka: A Sense of the Invisible (Traveling The Croatian Coastline #43)

Memorials to the Holocaust can be found across Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Some of these were created specifically to memorialize the tragedy, while others were part of the tragedy that had occurred. In the former category I often think of the electrifyingly poignancy of the Memorial of the Hungarian Jewish Martyrs at the Dohany Street Synagogue in Budapest with the weeping willow like sculpture with leaves inscribed with the names of victims. Another one that comes to mind is the Jewish Museum in Berlin. The fact that such a museum stands in the same city where so much hatred against the Jews was propagated makes the museum particularly powerful.

Sign of the times – Postcard of Neolog Synagogue in Rijeka

Surviving The Maelstrom – Preserving A Tragedy  
Foremost among Holocaust memorials are former concentration camps such as Auschwitz. It still has enough of the original structures intact to tell one of the most horrific stories in human history. While Auschwitz gets a great deal of attention and rightfully so, there are numerous concentration camp sites such as Belzec and Majdanek which were all but obliterated by the Nazis. These have little more than fragmented ruins, poignant memorials and silence that speaks volumes. There are also hundreds if not thousands of mass graves scattered throughout the countryside of the former Soviet Union where Jews were gunned down in what has become known as the “Holocaust By Bullets”, a murderous prelude to the death camps that would soon follow.

Other Holocaust memorials include sacred places that survived the maelstrom and have been restored to their former glory. One of the most riveting is the synagogue in Subotica, Serbia. It was not so much the memorial found just inside the wrought iron fence within the grounds that made the Holocaust seem so real, as it was the name plates attached to the pews that brought home to me the human aspect of the Holocaust. This was the ultimate example of how one death is a tragedy, while a million is a statistic. The completely restored Art Nouveau synagogue is quite possibly the most beautiful building I have ever been in, but that did nothing to take away from the tragedy that haunts this eclectic edifice. The individual names conjured the ghosts of lives lost in the Holocaust. Putting a name with the history and memory individualized the trauma.

All the above are actual structures or ruins that still exist in some form or fashion, but there are thousands more that have vanished without a trace. Countless synagogues, businesses, cultural organizations, and other places that were the hubs of Jewish life do not exist in any form or fashion. Coming upon one of these can be a startling experience. Perhaps it is the element of the unexpected, or the fact that nothing can be seen, but something can still be felt that makes these particularly haunting. This was my experience when by accident I came upon the area where Rijeka’s Neolog Synagogue once stood.

Collective Amnesia – An Unfathomable Tragedy
In Croatia, a rich Jewish past has been largely forgotten. Whether this is the result of indifference or willful amnesia is hard to say. Likely, it is both. Perhaps there is a feeling of unspeakable collective guilt since Croatia was part of a pro-Nazi alliance during the war. Most of the murders on Croatian territory were not carried out by the Nazis. Instead, these murderous deeds were the work of the extreme right wing nationalist Ustashe. Today there is mostly denial or silence in ignoring a part of the historical past which does not fit the national narrative. This is not uncommon in Eastern Europe and in that sense, Croatia is no exception. Sometimes this tacit policy of ignoring the past is complicated by the multi-culturalism that was such a part of the region prior to World War II. Inhabitants of cities such as Rijeka are still living in the scaffolding of a city that was built as much by Hungarians and Italians as Croats. It has taken many decades, but the history of Hungarian and Italian rule is now openly acknowledged despite the historically fraught relations between these ethnic groups.

Jews in Croatia are in an altogether different realm. For starters, approximately 80% of Croatian Jews were murdered during the war. Most of those who survived found the postwar communist state of Yugoslavia not to their liking. Around half of the Croatian Jews who survived the Holocaust emigrated to Israel. Those who stayed behind largely assimilated into the larger population, becoming Yugoslavs or Croats. By the turn of the 21st century, approximately 500 Jews were left in Croatia. To put it another way, Croatia’s Jewish population had dwindled by 90% since the end of World War II. In a darkly ironic twist, the Jews of Rijeka suffered at the hands of the Italian Fascists and then Nazi Germany. Yugoslavia got control of Rijeka near the war’s end. In 1991, the city became part of a newly independent Croatia. The latter has inherited the history of Rijeka’s Jews for better and worse, Unfortunately, when it comes to the 20th century, that history starts with great triumphs only to end with unfathomable tragedy.

Heady Days – The Look of Success
The history of Jews in early modern Rijeka begins during the period of Habsburg control. The Jewish community rose right along with the port city. While a Jewish presence had been recorded in the area going all the way back to Roman times, it was the designation of Rijeka (then known as Fiume) as a free port in the second half of the 18th century, followed by its designation as Hungary’s main port in 1776 that brought more Jews to the city. After they were given full rights in Austria-Hungary beginning in 1867, Rijeka Jewish population secured their growing foothold in the commercial enterprises that were causing a boom in the local economy and associated development.

These were heady times for Rijeka’s Jews. No longer a despised minority, their self-confidence and economic power grew in tandem. It was not long before the community decided that they should solidify their presence in the city with a large synagogue. This was one way of representing their success in Rijeka. It would also show that they were here to stay, or at least that is what they believed. Historical events would later prove that the opposite was true.

Click here for: Staring Into The Abyss – Neolog Synagogue of Rijeka: A Spiritual Void (Traveling The Croatian Coastline #44)


Rescue Mission – RMS Carpathia & Rijeka: Preserving Life & History (Traveling The Croatian Coastline #42)

Croatian and Italian immigrants poured into the United States during the early 20th century. One of the main ports for their exodus from the Austro-Hungarian Empire was Rijeka (then known by its Italian name of Fiume). Between 1904 – 1912 approximately 37,500 immigrants a year traveled from Rijeka to New York. The overwhelming majority of these made the transatlantic journey on steamships of the British owned and operated Cunard Line. One of these ships, the RMS Carpathia came into service during that time. It had started out plying the route between Liverpool and Boston, but in 1904 the Royal Hungarian Sea Navigation Company (also known as Adria) contracted with the firm to transport immigrants across the ocean.

The RMS Carpathia was soon making regular roundtrip journeys between Rijeka and New York. The ship was altered to increase the carrying capacity from 1,750 to 2,450 passengers. 2,200 of these would travel in third class with dorm style accommodation. To operate the steamship and service the passengers took 300 personnel. Many of these were Croatians. For instance, when the Carpathia made its most historic journey in mid-April 1912, 76 of those working aboard the ship were Croatian. They were traveling on the return journey from New York to Rijeka when an unintended date with an historic destiny took place.

Preserving life and history – Life vest used by Titanic survivor at Maritime and History Museum of the Croatian Coast in Rijeka

First On The Scene – Setting A New Course
On April 14, 1912, the RMS Carpathia was three days into making a return journey from New York to Rijeka. The ship was not nearly as full as it had been on its initial journey to New York. There were 725 passengers onboard, 150 of whom took first class accommodation. 525 of the passengers were returning to Austria-Hungary. The ship also had quite a few Americans onboard who were traveling overseas on holiday. The Carpathia planned to make scheduled stops at Gibraltar, Naples, Genoa, and Trieste before arriving back in Rijeka. At the same time, the supposedly unsinkable Titanic was making its inaugural journey from Southampton to New York. The ships were not due to cross paths, though they would be relatively close to one another. The major difference was that the Carpathia would be avoiding the iceberg laden waters, one of which would lay the Titanic low.

That is exactly what had happened when Harold Cottam, the RMS Carpathia’s wireless operator received the Titanic’s distress signal. When he first reported this to his superiors, they did not take the news seriously. Cottam then took it upon himself to awaken Captain Arthur Rostron in his private quarters. Cottam assured Captain Rostron that the message was real. The captain took immediate action, changing the Carpathia’s course, setting sail for the coordinates where the Titanic was sinking. Rostron ordered that every effort be made to increase the speed of the ship. The Carpathia covered the 58 nautical miles (67 miles/107 kilometers) between the two ships in three and a half hours. This was no simple undertaking as the Carpathia passed into the same treacherous waters where icebergs lay in wait. One wrong move could have seen it meet the same fate as the Titanic. At 4:00 a.m., the Carpathia arrived where the Titanic had sunk several hours earlier.

The lifesaver – Postcard of RMS Carpathia in 1912

A Titanic Discovery – Saving The Survivors
The Carpathia immediately began to take on Titanic passengers who had been able to escape the sinking in lifeboats. For the next five hours, the Carpathia took on 712 survivors, among these were 3 Croatians (another 30 Croatians died in the sinking). An all hands on deck spirit took hold of everyone on the Carpathia. Passengers offered food, blankets, and other vital assistance to the Titanic’s survivors. If not for Cottam and Rostran’s actions, many fewer would have survived. The scenes aboard the Carpathia were emotionally traumatic as many survivors stayed on deck to scan the icy waters for signs of loved ones. As the sun began to rise over the icy waters, the reality of what had occurred set in. Many more died than were saved. Death estimates run to more than 1,500 who lost their lives in the North Atlantic.

After taking on the survivors, Rostran then made a critical decision to have the Carpathia travel back to New York. Before the ship could do that, it had to carefully make its way past numerous icebergs. The journey to avoid these and get on course to New York took several hours of tense navigation. Four days later, on the evening of April 18th, the Carpathia sailed into New York Harbor amid heavy rain. Waiting for the ship was an estimated crowd of 40,000 who had heard about the tragedy and Carpathia’s role. The survivors would finally set foot on land, where they would soon be well on their way to recovery. Meanwhile, Josip Car, an alert Croatian waiter on the Carpathia, made the decision to collect and keep a life vest left behind by one of the survivors. The Carpathia’s personnel were given credit for their rescue efforts and would later be awarded medals. Rostran was lauded for his poise and courage.

Final farewell – RMS Carpathia sinking in 1917

Accidental Tourist – Vested Interests
As for the Carpathia, it would make the return journey to Rijeka. It continued in service until the First World War broke out. In 1917, it was while by a German U-boat in the Atlantic while traveling as part of a convoy. While the Carpathia ended up in a watery grave like the Titanic, the life vest procured by Josip Car was saved for the sake of posterity. In 1938, Car donated the life vest to the Maritime and History Museum of the Croatian Coast where it would stay in storage for many decades before finally being put on display in the museum. This was where I found it during my visit to Rijeka. There are only five known life vests from Titanic survivors left in the world. The only one of these five in Europe is on display at the Maritime Museum. I was astonished to discover this, as well as the Carpathia’s close connection to Rijeka.

While the Titanic is one of the most famous tragedies in history, the Carpathia’s rescue journey often gets lost in the shadows. Its story is almost as intriguing as that of the Titanic. If not for the Carpathia, there would have been few survivors to tell the Titanic’s story. The same goes for the life vest displayed underneath glass at the museum in Rijeka. It is an incredible feeling to know that a Titanic survivor wore this vest on that fateful night so long ago. Just as astonishing is the relative anonymity of the life vest and the story of Josip Car’s preservation of it. Seeing the life vest while reading about the RMS Carpathia and Car’s exploits was a once in a lifetime bit of serendipity. The life vest filled me with wonder, fear, dread, and gratitude, connecting me to an event I only knew from books and movies. The artifact was as real as the tragedy it represented. It was an unforgettable moment in an historic event marked by so many of them.

Click here for: Conjuring Ghosts – Jewish Rijeka: A Sense of the Invisible (Traveling The Croatian Coastline #43)

The Reach of Rijeka – Waterborne: The Maritime and History Museum of the Croatian Coast in Rijeka (Traveling The Croatian Coastline #41)

After going to over a hundred museums in Eastern Europe during the past decade, I rarely look forward to the experience anymore. I feel like it is an obligation, rather than an aspiration. In this context, a museum visit becomes an act of endurance rather than enlightenment. I had no idea what to expect when my wife and I entered the city museum of Rijeka. I felt a sense of trepidation upon entering the splendid neo-Renaissance Governor’s Palace with its stately white stone façade. It has been my experience that museums found within such beautiful buildings usually cannot compete with the grandeur or glamor of these. Splendid structures create an expectation that can be hard to achieve. Couple that with the deluge of items and information usually found within museums and the experience can be unsatisfying.

I find the best museums are open air ones that are not even considered museums. For example, Rijeka’s Old Town was a museum for me. It had ancient (ruins of Tarsatica), medieval (Leaning Tower) and modern (buildings from the 18th century forward) architecture on display. The squares were exhibit halls revealing the structural story of the city’s development. For those who have the time and inclination to learn more about Rijeka, it can be transformed before their very eyes into a series of exhibits on a citywide scale. Mystery gives way to discovery as the past is revealed in all its complexity. This is all anyone could hope for when they visit a museum, whether the usual kind or one of their own making.

A palatial residence – Maritime and History Museum of the Croatian Coast in Rijeka

Saving Grace – A Titanic Struggle
For a visit to a museum to be memorable, it must capture not only a visitor’s interest, but also their imagination. For instance, seeing Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s bloodstained tunic at the Austrian Military Museum in Vienna, brought home to me just how recent his assassination occurred. The tunic showed wear, but it still looked like something that could have been worn within living memory. Suddenly, the assassination and the world war it led to seemed disturbingly real. My expectations were exceeded by the fact that I never expected to see the tunic. At that moment I realized just how strange it was that the bullet holes on the fabric led to millions of more bullet holes and deaths all around the world. The memory of that moment will stay with me forever.

I did not have expectations of a similar experience occurring at the Maritime and History Museum of the Croatian Coast in Rijeka. I expected a dry recitation of the Adriatic Sea’s influence on Rijeka and the region, along with some mildly interesting artifacts which might detain me and my wife for an hour at most. The only thing I wanted from the visit was to learn more about Rijeka’s relationship with the sea. Little did I know that the museum was home to a world class artifact, a singular reminder of the most famous seafaring disaster in history. It is not often that the Titanic gets mentioned in the context of Eastern Europe. It is even rarer for anyone to mention the RMS Carpathia, a ship that helped save hundreds of lives from those clinging to life after the Titanic sank. The Carpathia also helped save something quite unique, the most famous museum artifact to be found in Rijeka today.

(Ready to set sail – The RMS Carpathia in Rijeka (Credit: fortepan.hu)

Looking Outward – A Global Perspective
Rijeka and the sea are inseparable, to think of one without the other is unimaginable. The sea opened paths to commerce and trade that brought Rijeka into contact with the wider world. Rijeka’s world expanded to stretched across oceans and wash up on the shores of distant continents. Rijeka was destined by geography to look outward. The hinterland east of Rijeka has always been difficult to traverse. The city is hemmed in by rugged terrain. The upshot was that its seafront became a conduit for people to be carried away to distant destinations or people and goods to be brought into what amounted to a mini metropolis by the late 19th century. Unexpected arrivals and long planned departures were a way of life in Rijeka. It was the main port that Croatians and many others from southeastern Europe used to emigrate to the United States or Canada.

There were also steamships which traveled up and down the coastline, making multi-day journeys among Austro-Hungarian ports. And of course, there were ships involved in trade that crisscrossed the Adriatic, exporting resources and importing goods. Rijeka (then known as Fiume), like Trieste further to the north, was open to the world. It was much less insular than other cities in Austria-Hungary. Its economic vitality depended upon it. The city’s life force came from the sea, the port its beating heart, the shipyard its soul, the investors and bankers providing capital were the blood flowing through its veins.

The 1911 Baedeker’s Guide to Austria-Hungary, an indispensable primary source of the empire less than a decade before its demise, provides some telling tidbits on the state of Rijeka in the early 20th century. There were no less than three harbors, the Free Harbor, the Petroleum Harbor and the Porto-Baross for the trade of timber. The massive influx of immigrants looking for better economic prospects in North America could stay in purpose built lodging. The accommodation was able to hold up to 3,000 would be immigrants at any one time. Tobacco and torpedo factories were close to the waterfront. Rijeka’s port facilities were teeming with activity, the city booming with development and its citizens enjoying the fruits of their labors. It must have seemed like anything was possible. Unfortunately, tragedies could be just as common as triumphs.

A major development – Rijeka in the early 20th century

Distress Signal – An Unforgettable Journey
The world washed up on Rijeka’s shore every day. The tide pulled its commerce and many of its people out to sea each day. Some were going to work as sailors, others were saying goodbye to their hometown for the last time. In an increasingly globalized world, Rijeka became interconnected with ports in both its near and not so near abroad. This meant Rijeka could be touched by events that happened far from the port. This also meant its native sons could become involved in events that they would never have dreamed of. Anytime a ship that called Rijeka its home port went out to sea, the chance of its contact with events both near and far increased exponentially. Those ships that made regular journeys between Rijeka and New York were making history on every journey. This was mostly due to their transportation of immigrants to Ellis Island in New York Harbor. Yet there was a case when history of a very different nature was made as the RMS Carpathia moved into treacherous waters to answer the distress signal of the Titanic. The journey it undertook would turn out to be unforgettable.

Click here for: Rescue Mission – RMS Carpathia & Rijeka: Preserving Life & History (Traveling The Croatian Coastline #42)



The Leaning Tower – Rijeka: On Tenuous Foundations (Traveling The Croatian Coastline #40)

I talked with an old friend not long ago who took a trip to Italy. Among the sites he visited was the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa. I am quite sure if it was not for the Leaning Tower he would not have travelled to Pisa. Even though this historic city has many other architectural and cultural wonders worth taking the time to visit, the Leaning Tower is a magnetic draw that tourists from around the world have fixated upon. The Tuscan city has become synonymous with its famous Leaning Tower. It is a spectacular set piece, if not to say an outright spectacle that many feel must be seen, to be believed. Half a million tourists every year enter the tower for a closer look. Another six million visitors come annually to the square in which it stands. The sheer novelty of the tower will keep the masses coming well into the future.

Close quarters – The Leaning Tower in Rijeka

Crowd Control – The Unknown City
I have never really fancied a journey to Pisa, the place is much too famous for my liking. Fortunately, I was able to discover another, relatively unknown leaning tower by accident while traveling along the Croatian coastline with my wife. I saw the Leaning Tower in Rijeka while visiting the Old Town area of the city. Not many people have seen or heard about this architectural oddity. By Croatian coastal standards, Rijeka is the one place that almost always gets overlooked. Its reputation as a downtrodden, deindustrialized port city that has never been able to recover from its glory days during the 20th century helps keep visitors away. The city averages around 150,000 visitors a year, a paltry sum when compared to other cities and towns along the Croatian coast.

Even its own leaning tower has not done much to elevate the city’s reputation. Tourism statistics bear this out. Comparing Rijeka to Pisa may be like comparing apples to oranges, but it is still instructive of Rijeka’s inability to attract visitors.  Consider for each person who visits Rijeka, three and a half climb up the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The number of visitors who go to see Rijeka’s own Leaning Tower is likely a very small portion of those who visit the city. It is on the eastern fringes of the Old Town, in a not so heavily trafficked area. There are no signs or interpretive material announcing the Leaning Tower. Guidebooks give it cursory coverage with a few sentences at most. Perhaps that is why suddenly becoming aware of it while taking the Free Tour in Rijeka, made it that much more memorable.

Tilting towards the past – The Leaning Tower in Rijeka (Credit: Грищук ЮН)

Giving Way – Tenuous Foundations
To the naked eye, Rijeka looks like a stable city, at least from a structural standpoint. That is deceptive because parts of the city center are built on tenuous foundations. Beyond where the old southern wall of the Old Town once stood is the pedestrianized Korzo. This wide streetscape was where the shoreline of the Adriatic once washed up against medieval and early modern Rijeka. That means the many buildings and streets which are located south of this area are built on what was formerly the sea. The Adriatic has been pushed back for now, but one day it could reclaim much of Rijeka. That is if the old natural curse of the Croatian coastline, earthquakes, does not cause a cataclysm first. With all this in mind, it is not hard to see how Rijeka’s tremulous foundations have led to a leaning tower.

The Leaning Tower in Rijeka was completed in 1377. While this date acts as a starting point, the structure has undergone numerous overhauls since that time. The most recent one restored it to look more like its original Gothic iteration. Just as the tower has undergone a series of changes, so too has the Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary to which it has been loosely attached. While the church has a visibly Baroque style, the Leaning Tower both literally and figuratively stands as a singular monument from the Late Middle Ages in the Old Town. Because of the close quarters in which the Bell Tower is confined, it can be hard to notice its subtle tilt. Engineering studies have shown that the tower leans 40 centimeters.

The towers subtle tilt is due to a couple of factors, the most important of which is that its foundations have been slowly eroded by the Lesnjak Steam which runs beneath it. In addition, the area in which the Leaning Tower was constructed had been a heavily developed area during Roman times. The area included thermal bath facilities that used underground heating mechanisms. There have also been numerous earthquakes, including a particularly nasty one in 1750 that certainly have not helped matters. Combine all the above with aerial bombing during World War II and it is something of a miracle that the tower is still standing.

Still standing – The Leaning Tower in the evening (Credit: Грищук ЮН)

Limited Potential – Perception & Reality
Unlike the Leaning Tower of Pisa, there is no public access to the tower in Rijeka. The best any visitor can do is stand in the square surrounding the tower to ponder the oddity of this manmade wonder or blunder depending upon your perspective. One of the things I noticed while shooting photos of the tower from multiple angles was that the more I looked at it, the more it seemed to be leaning. My eyes, as well as my mind, were playing tricks on me. If I had not been told the tower was leaning, I would have never known it. Perception was reality until I was told otherwise.

Unfortunately, the Leaning Tower in Rijeka has limited potential for development of tourism. Whereas one look at the Leaning Tower of Pisa communicates to the viewer its precarious slant, the less than stout foothold of the one in Rijeka is difficult to discern. The novelty of the tower makes it a worthy attraction. One that should be marketed to visitors, but I doubt anyone would travel to see it. Fortunately, there are many other impressive sights in the city which together make for a memorable visit. The Leaning Tower in Rijeka just so happens to be one of them.

Click here for: The Reach of Rijeka – Waterborne: The Maritime and History Museum of the Croatian Coast in Rijeka (Traveling The Croatian Coastline #41)


A Not So Old Town – Rijeka: Uncovering The Unseen (Traveling The Croatian Coastline #39)

Rijeka’s Old Town pales in comparison to others that can be found in cities along the Croatian coast. Its historic core is fragmented, the product of a violent history. Specifically, in World War II terror rained down upon Rijeka numerous times. The Allied aerial bombing campaign made it a prime target due to its harbor and port facilities. Rijeka survived but not exactly intact. Rebuilding meant adhering to the ideology of post World War II Yugoslavia where Tito and communism were triumphant. The same concrete constructions that blighted so many Eastern European cities still hover over the city from the hills rising above it. On the Rijeka Free Tour, we would discover that much of the Old Town was rather new. Functionalist and other modernist architectural works dot the area. Because of this, anything that has managed to survive from the pre-World War II era in Rijeka is noticeable and well worth seeing.

The modern & the medieval – Present collides with past in Old Town Rijeka

Symbolic Value – The City Clock Tower
Our guide Sinjan pointed us in the right direction throughout the Free Tour. This was apparent when 15 minutes into the tour we were strolling along the Korzo. He stopped the group just outside the City Clock Tower which is the most famous entry point into the Old Town. The lavishly Baroque exterior of the Clock Tower has an arched gateway at ground level that allows pedestrians to pass in and out of the Old Town. It is an inviting way to transition from new to old in a matter of seconds. The Clock Tower has all the monumental accouterments one would expect from such an exalted structure. These include symbolic representations which represent important aspects of the city’s history.

Many things may have changed in Rijeka since the beginning of the 20th century, how could it be otherwise since no less than eight governments (Austria-Hungary, the Italian Regency of Carnaro, the Free State of Fiume, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and Croatia) have ruled over the city during that time. This withering array of polities attempted to imprint themselves on the city’s physical landscape. Symbolism was paramount in these impositions. Interestingly, it is the oldest of those polities, Austria-Hungary, which has had one of the longest lasting effects upon the cityscape. A striking example of this can be seen by a relief of Emperors Leopold and Charles VI on the City Clock Tower.

It was Leopold I who helped orient the city toward maritime trade as a matter of Habsburg policy. He also granted the city its unique coat of arms, a double headed eagle. Unusual for this common heraldic symbol, the eagles both are shown facing the same way. The coat of arms was also prominently displayed on the City Clock Tower’s façade. While as a city symbol it is three and a half centuries old, the current sculpture on the City Clock Tower only went up in 2017. An earlier one that had been atop the tower’s dome was altered by Italian soldiers following World War I. They decapitated one of the eagle’s heads because of its Habsburg symbolism. Fortunately, the eagle has risen again and looks as good as ever. As for the portrayal of Emperor Charles VI, it was he who gave Rijeka free port status, setting in motion the development of commerce that would eventually lead to it being one of the premier ports along the Eastern Adriatic shoreline.

Ancient & justified – Roman ruins in Old Town Rijeka

Traces of the Past – Denigrated & Disregarded
The City Clock Tower stood on the location of an old town gate, thought to have been here as far back as Late Antiquity. As we entered the Old Town, I noticed right away that much of it was modern with traces of the past. The preservation instinct was something that had been lacking in Rijeka for many decades For many this is a drawback, but I found it fascinating. Piecing together the past in a modern environment can create a historical mosaic. Sinjan was up to the task. Besides an obvious visit to the ruins of the Roman military town of Tarsatica Principia, he offered us tantalizing tidbits of what remained hidden to all, but the most historically minded Rijekans. While viewing Saint Mary of the Assumption Church and Rijeka’s own Leaning Tower, Sanjin turned our attention to the unseen.

This area along the eastern fringes of the Old Town was where the public thermal baths were located during Roman times. Beneath a record shop located in a non-descript modern building, archaeologists had discovered the hypocaust, a floor space that was used for heating the baths. Since it lays beneath the foundations of a privately owned building, hopes that it will be revealed anytime soon are just that. Sanjin used the hidden hypocaust to talk about the lack of a historic preservation ethic in Rijeka. He believed this stemmed from the communist years when the focus was building a brave new world rather than preserving the past. The past was denigrated and disregarded. Ironically, now that communist Yugoslavia is history, it will be interesting to see whether its history will similarly be disregarded.

An old town – Apartment building in Rijeka

Lost In Time – Forming An Opinion
Sinjan deftly led us out of the Old Town’s serpentine streets toward the Rjecina River where he showed us an image of the same place. This had been the interwar border between Italy and Yugoslavia. What looked like an innocuous watercourse had once been the dividing line between two nations at odds. It would not be long before they were at war. The river never flowed with blood, but it might as well have because it symbolized a disagreement that would ultimately be settled by violence. It was hard to believe something so natural as the river could be used to demarcate an artificial border. The border did not last, while the Rjecina quietly kept flowing. It was a humbling moment, one lost in time and recovered before our very eyes with the help of an image Sinjan held in his hand. His words provided information and interpretation. He left us to form our own opinions of Rijeka’s rich history. If those opinions are anything like the one that I formed of Sinjan’s tour than they will provide me with a great deal to think about for many years to come.  

Click here for: The Leaning Tower – Rijeka: On Tenuous Foundations (Traveling The Croatian Coastline #40)