Clanking cowbells stuffed the air as about two dozen zvončari paraded via the village of Rukavac, simply west of Rijeka. To me, they appeared like pagans from a Grimm’s fairytale: shaggy woolly gilets, these bells hanging spherical their waists, and heads adorned with towering flower-covered hats. Exaggerating their gait to make the bells jangle, they shimmied and bumped their hips towards one another as they waved carved picket figures with a considerably menacing air. Over the course of a 25km procession, they have been right here to banish evil spirts and herald the approaching of spring. Carnival had come to city.
Croatia map
Villagers round Rijeka, Croatia’s largest port, really feel satisfaction in direction of their zvončari, who’ve been carrying on this custom for a number of hundred years. They’re additionally fast to level out that their bellringers, not those at Rijeka carnival, are the originals. Nonetheless, most individuals nonetheless affiliate zvončari with the nation’s greatest carnival, which this yr has been effervescent alongside since late January and can finish with a parade on 23 February. This shall be when 1000’s of masked individuals in elaborate costumes, go alongside Rijeka’s fundamental pedestrianised road, Korzo, joined by floats poking enjoyable at political and celeb targets.

Zvončari in Rukavac. {Photograph}: Adam Batterbee
In 2020, although, the carnival has a rival for consideration, as a result of Rijeka (together with Galway) is European Capital of Tradition. The primary programme kicked off on 1 February with a lavish waterfront ceremony specializing in town’s previous as an industrial powerhouse – that at instances sounded just like the love baby of German heavy metallers Rammstein and Einstürzende Neubauten having a tantrum. “Stunning and provocative, that’s what Rijeka does finest,” a buddy, who cherished the present, advised me afterwards. “Horrible – too industrial and noisy,” mentioned one other. Whereas the ceremony divided opinion, the looks of 400 zvončari united all within the crowd, as did the spectacular fireworks.
What additionally hit the precise observe, regardless of the rain, was the celebration ambiance all through town centre. I walked previous dozens of stay performances: rock, jazz, classical. Phases had been arrange in squares, on quaysides, in a tunnel, even within the temple-like indoor fish market. It gave me a style of what’s to return this yr, with literary festivals (together with one celebrating the quick story, in collaboration with Hay Pageant), indoor and outside artwork installations and exhibitions, rock and classical music live shows, and an opera and theatre programme on the metropolis’s Italian-style Croatian Nationwide Theatre.

Fireworks in the course of the opening ceremony of Rijeka because the European Capital of Tradition 2020. {Photograph}: Antonio Bat/EPA
Many guests overlook Rijeka of their rush to achieve islands within the Kvarner Gulf – Krk, Cres, Rab, Lošinj – or neighbouring Istria. However multicultural Rijeka has a method of beguiling with its Habsburg structure and legacy of being a part of the Austrian empire. Italy as soon as dominated right here too, abandoning traces in delicacies, structure and dialect. The Maritime and Historical past Museum of the Croatian Littoral is a former governor’s palace designed by the identical architect who created Budapest’s ornate parliament constructing. It was an excellent place to attempt to get a deal with on Rijeka’s centuries of complicated historical past. Additionally, it’s not usually you’ll get to have a look at a lifejacket worn by a Titanic survivor – particularly for an entrance payment of simply 30 kuna (£3.35).
A couple of minutes from right here, Peek&Poke is a geek’s heaven of I classic know-how and devices in an endearingly quirky and overstuffed museum. Subsequent, I crossed the Rječina River in direction of a stone staircase main as much as one of many metropolis’s most picturesque viewpoints. Trsat Fortress, which dates from the 13th century, provides grand views over Rijeka and the Kvarner Gulf. It’s free to wander around the fort’s tower and grounds, and it’s only some minutes’ stroll on to the huge gardens surrounding Trsat’s Franciscan monastery.

Rijeka’s indoor fish market. {Photograph}: Adam Batterbee
Korzo is town’s hub, with cafes that unfold alongside the marble road whereas swish Habsburg palaces (and the odd Tito-era addition) tower above. Slim facet streets result in squares with extra cafes and retailers, the rotunda-shaped St Vitus Cathedral and even some Roman ruins. The big glass-covered terrace of Konoba Primorska provides a style of the area’s gastronomic mishmash: squid-ink risotto, sauerkraut and sausages, grilled sardines with chard and potatoes, and at costs decrease than elsewhere on the Adriatic coast (dishes from £3.35).
The Riva waterfront promenade attracts strolling crowds, as does the Molo Longo concrete pier, however whereas there are pebbly and concrete seashores close to Rijeka’s port, many desire to take a 30-minute bus experience west to the Opatija Riviera. I took one take a look at Opatija’s marriage ceremony cake-like 19th-century villas and accommodations and noticed why this was one of the best place for a seaside repair. The Habsburgs turned this elegant, laid-back place into their very own riviera in the course of the gentle winter months, a course of chronicled on the Croatian Museum of Tourism within the city’s landscaped gardens.

Volosko, close to Opatija, Croatia. {Photograph}: Adam Batterbee
I completed by following the 12km Lungomare (the Capital of Tradition celebrations embody an artwork path alongside it) that hugs the coast from fairly Lovran previous Opatija and to the fishing village of Volosko. It’s simply probably the most pleasurable walks alongside the Adriatic coast. Each Lovran and Opatija are sharing Rijeka’s reign as tradition capital, together with 25 different neighbourhoods. It’s going to be one hell of a celebration.
• The journey was supplied by the Croatian Nationwide Vacationer Board, with lodging at Rijeka’s Lodge Continental (doubles from £76 B&B) and Lodge Ambasador in Opatija (doubles from £75 B&B). Particulars of rail journey to Rijeka at hzpp.hr and of coach/bus journey from European stations at arriva.com and Flixbus For extra data see visitrijeka.eu, kvarner.hr and croatia.hr
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