‘Come out and stay for a week’, said friend, ‘it’s lovely here in September, the scenery and food are terrific and there’s a spare bedroom in the apartment’. Intrigued, and tempted, Anna Hyman headed for Croatia and the beautiful region of Kvarner.
It was raining as the Croatian Airlines plane touched down at Rijeka Airport; the rain coming down in torrents. ‘Honestly’, said friend, ‘it’s not usually like this, I was on the beach this morning it was so warm’. Through the car’s steamed up windows I caught glimpses of a rain lashed coastline and people struggling to keep umbrellas aloft. In fairness by the evening as we walked into the little town of Lovran, carefully negotiating round the large puddles the rain had almost stopped. Nevertheless I was glad I had brought a rain jacket with me.
Cautiously the next morning I opened the shutters and peered out. Between the houses I could see a sparkling blue Adriatic sea doing its best to rival the clear blue sky. We had breakfast in the sun on the little terrace.
Walking the Lungo Mare
‘Ok’, said friend, ‘the plan for today is we will follow the Lungo Mare into Opatija, it’s about eight kilometres. We can stop en route for coffee and have lunch when we get there and take the bus back’. The Lungo Mare (also known as the Franz Josef Promenade) turned out to be a narrow waterfront promenade which wound its way between beautiful fin de siècle buildings and gardens on one side and the sea, rocky beaches and little coves on the other. It was beautiful.
The Lungo Mare was built between 1889 and 1911 when the Opatija Riveria was one of the favourite holiday resorts of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy and society of the day. Opatija was one of the most fashionable of resorts noted for its health giving qualities amongst the wealthy Viennese who flocked there to escape the winter cold of Vienna.
It appears that the Rivieria’s popularity began in 1844 when a wealthy merchant from Rijeka bought some land and built a villa, which he named Angiolina after his wife (today it houses the town museum) and began inviting his friends to stay. Close by is a pretty garden where over 150 different species of plants from all over the world have flourished in the mild climate. Also close by is Villa Amalia; one of its noted guests was Isadora Duncan, the famous American dancer. In close proximity is the Hotel Kvarner. The Kvarner is thought to be the oldest hotel on the eastern Adriatic coast dating back to 1884, once a sanatorium, today it is a luxury hotel with a glittering Crystal Hall used for concerts such as the annual Festival Kvarner and the glamorous Viennese Ball led by a contingent of dancers from Vienna.
The promenade actually extends an extra four kilometres to Volosko, but we took the bus back to Lovran and spent the afternoon exploring this attractive little town.
Lovran, its name is taken from the many laurel trees, dates from the 7th century, making it one of the oldest settlements on the Riviera. At its heart it is quaintly picturesque with narrow, cobbled streets and alleyways weaving in and out of ancient houses, restaurants, a few shops and galleries and leading to a tiny town square dominated by a medieval bell tower and church. Outside the medieval walls are elegant Austro-Hungarian villas partly obscured by the lush vegetation of olives, laurels, magnolias, vines, cherry and chestnut trees. Lovran is noted for its high quality chestnuts (maruni), cherries and asparagus.
As it turned out I did get to see the delightful little fishing village of Volosko at the other end of the Lungo Mare. This popular little resort, noted for its fine restaurants, is not far from Rijeka, Croatia’s third largest city and also its largest port.
Whilst there had been several prehistoric settlements on the surrounding hills, it was the Romans who realised that the mouth of the river Rijecina opening onto the Adriatic sea, with an abundance of fresh water springs and fertile soil, would be the ideal site for a port. How right they were.
Its path through history has frequently been difficult but today it is a thriving city with an historical heart with a number of interesting buildings and museums. The oldest building is probably that known as ‘the Old Gate’ close by St Sebastian’s church. It is thought to be the gateway to an ancient fortress; once upon a time the old city was much closer to the sea. Today the buildings close to the water’s edge stand on reclaimed land.
The main street, the Korzo, however, is right up to date. The entire street is a free wi-fi zone and much loved by residents and visitors alike. It’s a great place to promenade, or sit at a street café, to see and be seen. An earthquake in 1750 destroyed much of the city so most of the buildings standing today date from that period.
It is hard to believe from wandering round the centre of Rijeka that it is very much an industrial city. One of its industrial claims to fame is that this was where the torpedo was invented in 1866
Rijeka, is also home to an abundance of fountains and one of the most fascinating of markets. Two of the covered markets date back to 1880, the fish market from the beginning of the 20th century. These ‘must see’ markets are open daily until 2pm, noon on Sunday. On sale with fish are different types of meat along with wonderfully fresh fruit and vegetables and other goodies.
The fortress that looks down over Rijeka is Trsat Castle, one of the oldest fortifications on the Croatian coast. It’s a popular spot especially in summer when open-air concerts and other events take place.
And so to Krk…
There are over 1000 islands in Croatia, if you count rocky outcrops as islands, of which 718 are recognised as islands – the rest are islets and reefs.
The island of Krk, in fierce completion with the island of Cres as to which is the larger, is connected to the Kvaner shore by a bridge built in 1981. It took four years to build and in its day was the largest arch bridge in the world.
Some 20,000 folk live on this very pretty island that is some 60km north/south and 40km east/west, along with a serious number of sheep some of which provide the milk necessary to make the island’s delicious cheese.
Also on the island is the international Rijeka airport, plus number of small villages and towns along with Krk town. It is a delightful town with ancient city walls, a fortress (well-worth visiting), many examples of ancient Rome, plus narrow, cobbled streets and lots to see and do.
Archaeological remains can be traced back to Neolithic times and for years Krk was a Roman stronghold, later to become part of the Venetian Republic under the control of various strong patrician families. In 1430 one of the families took the name of Frankopan and became one of the chief ruling families of Croatia. But political intrigue was to get the better of them and in 1671 the entire family was sentenced to death. Krk was one of the most strategic of the Frankopan towns and their well-preserved castle is the scene of many of today’s cultural and historical celebrations.
There are some terrific shops in Krk selling everything from souvenirs to quality goods alongside delis stocked with local specialities. In some of the shops visible beneath your feet are remnants of ancient Rome – like Memento Venerem in A. Mahnić St built on top of the ruins of the Venus Temple. The same thing happens too in some of the restaurants and bars such as Volsonis where you walk down into history to the pool tables in the second century basement.
…and also to Cres
We took one of the ferries to Cres. It is a hilly island with narrow twisting roads, so driving has to be slow and cautious.
As our time was limited we contented ourselves with the promise that next visit we would allow longer. But we did see what we had partly come to see, for soaring over our heads were two of the rare griffon vultures that have made the island home.
We also had time to explore the tiny hill top village of Beli. It is one of the oldest settlements on Cres and is quite enchanting: a huddle of houses linked by uneven stone, narrow paths that every now and again offer views over the surrounding countryside and sea. At the foot of the hill a 10 minute walk away we found the sheltered tiny pebbly beach and one or two beach kiosks.
Our drive to and from the ferry took us through the Tramontane Forest; with its many kilometres of trails and hiking paths, a great place for walkers. Every now and then we had glimpses of dry stone walls or the ruins of old houses. There is a spiritual feel to the forest and the island which was tangible even through the windows of a car.
Apart from seeing some more of the island’s old towns on the next visit I would love to see the lake. Lake Vrana is a large freshwater lake its surface located above and its bed located at 74 metres below sea level.
There just has to be another visit to Kvarner – there are still more inland hilltop villages to be explored; pretty towns to be visited; swims in the warm Adriatic; and of course more of the region’s excellent restaurants that served such fabulous meals made from the fresh, local produce to be discovered.