The city of Rijeka is not what most people have in mind when they think of vacationing in Croatia. After all, it’s mostly an industrial port city (Croatia’s largest) which unlike the more popular spots along the country’s Adriatic coast (I’m talking about Split, Zadar, Trogir and Makarska) hosts more tankers than yachts and concrete towers vs. castles. Despite this, Rijeka has some interesting history and plenty of cool things to see and do. Let’s take a closer look.
History of Rijeka
The history of Rijeka goes back over 2500 years when area surrounding the hilltop of Trsat (now a suburb of the city) was inhabited by Illyrian tribes. The Illyrians were replaced by the Romans who themselves fused into the Byzantine Empire until the arrival of slavic tribes from the eighth century onwards. The town remained relatively underdeveloped until the 13th century when it was known as St. Vitus-on-the-River. The name was later shorted to “Rijeka” which simply means “river.”
In 1466, Rijeka was annexed into the Austro-Hungarian Empire and ruled from Vienna until 1848 when administration of the city was given to local Croatians to rule (under the aegis of the Austrians, of course). However in 1868 the city was given to their Hungarian co-rulers to run, much to the dismay of the local Croatian population. This though wasn’t a complete bad turn of events as economically, Rijeka blossomed under Hungarian rule and became a truly cosmopolitan port city inhabited by Croats, Italians, Hungarians, Serbs and Bosnians.
Interesting events in the life of Rijeka followed after World War I. The 1915 Treaty of London promised the Dalmatian coast to the Italians – minus the city of Rijeka – for becoming allies in the Great War against the Germans. However as often happened in history, both Great Britain and France reneged on their promise at the war’s end in 1918. The Italians were furious and demanded Rijeka for two main reasons: one, as consolation for parts of the Dalmatian coast that they had been promised but would not be getting and two, because the city itself had an extremely large (possibly even a majority) Italian population. The Brits and French refused to budge on this and held that the city and other parts of the newly formed state of Yugoslavia should remain independent of Italian influence. Ultimately the Italians took matters into their own hands and invaded the city (unopposed actually) in 1919 and established a pro-fascist government under a certain Gabriele D’Annunzio. The Italians were forced to leave in 1921 only to return the following year after Mussolini rose to power in Italy. Mussolini, not trusting the Allies, chose to side with Germany and ultimately shared their defeat at the end of World War II, at which point Rijeka and the rest of Dalmatia went to Yugoslavia. Most of the Italians after the war decided not to their chances with the new, anti-Italian Yugoslav government and left for Italy and henceforth Rijeka went back to becoming a city that once again was inhabited primarily by Croats.
The years following World War II were not particularly good for Yugoslavia or Rijeka as the city’s once prosperous shipbuilding industry went into rapid decline. Rule under the Communist government of Josip Broz Tito was mediocre at best and though he did try to promote a strong business culture and private enterprises, mismanagement and corruption stifled any measurable prosperity for the city and its people.
Today however the city of Rijeka has regained much of what it lost during the Cold War years and is again one of the Adriatic’s primary shipping areas.
Things to See and Do in Rijeka, Croatia
Ok, so perhaps two of the best things to see in Rijeka are technically just outside of the city. For practical purposes though, we’ll count the suburb of Sušak as an extended part of the city.
How about a special two for one? That’s what you get when you visit Rijeka’s scenic overlook-suburb of Sušak. This place features not just one, but two of the area’s star attractions: Trsat Castle and the Church of Our Lady of Trsat.
Overlooking central Rijeka below, Trsat Castle looks more like a dungeon than any place you’d actually want to consider living in. The foundations of this fortress go all the way back to Illyrian times. When the Romans arrived, they further expanded the fortress and used it as a base. Not being a very significant area, the Romans abandoned the area (or were forced out as their empire crumbled) and the fortress fell into disrepair. Centuries later an aristocratic Croatian family, the House of Frankopan, renovated what was left of this structure and turned into the castle that we know of today.
An earthquake in 1750 severely damaged the fortress and it fell into once again into disrepair until 1811 when during the Napoleonic Wars it was again used as a small base for Austrian troops securing the area from the French. Today though, Trsat Castle is a popular tourist spot where people go to hang out, especially in the summer. There is a also a relatively decent restaurant located in the castle’s former courtyard.
Church of Our Lady of Trsat
No medieval castle is complete without a church and boy, does Our Lady of Trsat deliver. Legend has it that the Virgin Mary and her brother Joseph miraculously flew here and lived here for three years until it was safe for them to head back to the Holy Land. Though most outside of Croatia have never heard this story, the site grew in popularity until the a church, the Church of Our Lady of Trsat, was built, apparently on the spot where Mary and Joseph had been living. The original church was built in the 15th century but was badly damaged during an earthquake. The present structure dates from the 19th century and features a beautiful icon of the Virgin Mary that was sent to the church as a gift by Pope Urban V. The icon itself has been draped by it’s own presents, mostly necklaces and trinkets, from faithful pilgrims over the years. At the side of the church is Franciscan monastery that contains many artworks created and donated by many who claimed that their prayers have been answered by the Virgin Mary. A visit to this place is highly recommended.
Korzo is Rijeka’s main shopping and nightlife area. It is also the home of one of the city’s main landmark’s, Gradski toranj, also known as the City Tower. The City Tower once marked the place where Rijeka met the sea, before landfills claimed more of the waterfront for the city in the 18th century. It is now the gateway to the Old Town of Rijeka, home of St. Vitus’s Church. If while in Rijeka you want sip on some good coffee (found in many of the cafes located here) and people watch, this is the best place to be.
Cathedral of St. Vitus
Named after Rijeka’s patron saint, the circular-shaped Cathedral of St. Vitus is most famous for the cool stuff inside of it, including a large gothic crucifix that supposedly bled when a gambler threw stones at it in anger for placing losing bets. The story goes that the gambler was swallowed up by the earth for this particular outrage with only his hand remaining. Along with the crucifix, you should also see the stained-glass windows and baroque alters of the church which are also particularly nice.
Governor’s Palace and History and Maritime Museum
Close to St. Vitus’ Cathedral is the Governor’s Palace. Once the home of the Hungarian governor of the city, it’s now a museum dedicated to man’s obsession with the sea. There are plenty of model ships and aqua equipment along with historical artifacts from the Roman and medieval times. The building itself is also interesting for those who are interested in gaudy architecture.
Natural History Museum
If you’ve still not had your fill of museums after putzing around the Governor’s palace (see above), head on over to the Natural History Museum. The main focus of the museum is local history but they also have several exhibitions dedicated to geology, paleontology, plant life and also the sea. The stuffed sharks that are on display are really cool.
Capuchin Church of Our Lady of Lourdes
This church was built on the 50th anniversary of the apparition of the Virgin Mary in the French town of Lourdes. Though a relatively new structure, this is probably one of the best-looking churches in the area as both the interior and exterior are artistically awesome.
Petar Druzic Stairway
This stone, 16th-century 538 step stairway is both exciting and arduous to climb. It was part of the way that pilgrims used to take on their journey to Church of Our Lady of Trsat (see above). Along the way are a few chapels dedicated to various saints and some stops for pilgrims to rest. The the climb is highly recommended if you have the energy to make this sacred little journey.
And there you go, all that you need to have a great time in Rijeka, Croatia!
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