Monday, 22 August 2011

Since Bratislava : Rijeka

Having finally prised myself from intriguing Bratislava on Friday, I'm now just finishing a very quiet four days in Rijeka. Travelling on your own can slightly take its toll and after a hectic fortnight I've been in the mental decompression chamber, getting used to being back on my tod. Or, to put it less pretentiously, I've been sunbathing and reading a lot.

Rijeka is a busy Croatian port, and smaller than I had expected it to be. Folk here seem to be always on the way to somewhere else, rather than staying here for a holiday; boats go to Croatia's coastal fleshpots of Zadar, Split and Dubrovnik, as well as across the Adriatic to Italy. It's also a very striking town. On the crest of the mountain, six Tito-era towerblocks dominate the skyline; Rijeka tumbles down the mountainside beneath these Marxist exclamation marks, an Italianate-Habsburg blend of apartments and fabulously ornate churches.

It may seem remarkable now, but for eighteen months or so in 1919-20, this city was a key issue in geopolitics. The Treaty of Versailles awarded the former Austro-Hungarian Pflaum to the newly created Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, despite the city being populated by an Italian majority. Nationalist Italians, moreover, were somewhat aggrieved by their paltry share of the spoils of the Great War, and targeted the city they called Fiume as their own. A ragtag force of small naval boats and Heinz-57-uniform-varieties of militia, led by Gabriele d'Annunzio, seized the port in the name of Italy and wouldn't budge despite the protests of the new Belgrade government, and the severe censure of the authorities in Rome.

D'Annunzio, up until then, had been best known for writing some pretty poor poetry, for a dabbling with the Futurist movement, and for a wartime exploit. This involved him taking off in an Italian bomber (defined back then as a home made birdcage, powered by two manually cranked sewing machines, with a thick rubber band as emergency back up), and somehow finding his way to Vienna, where he launched a couple of stink bombs, and a French letter filled with water, over the side, at the unsuspecting Viennese. This fourteen-hour marathon earned d'Annunzio huge plaudits in Italy and, with the initial success of the Fiume adventure, he seemed well placed to assume the leadership of the Italian irredentist far-right, to the consternation of the then little known Benito Mussolini.

The new Italian government needed little encouragement to distance themselves from the actions of a man regarded as a deranged crank by many. D'Annunzio and his irregulars were eventually obliged to withdraw, after a serious pounding of the city by the Italian navy, that he stood no chance of resisting. Nonetheless, the adventure in Fiume has since assumed something of a romantic and daredevil status for some historians, as in Mark Ledeen's account written in the late 1970s, The First Duce: d'Annunzio at Fiume. Looking at this incident more cold-bloodedly, it seems obvious that the prototype for Italian fascism received its first test in this place, and its lessons were not lost on Mussolini, who grappled his way the the leadership after d'Annunzio's subsequent disgrace in polite Italian circles. The Italians returned during the occupation of 1941-45, after which the city was incorporated into Socialist Yugoslavia. Oddly, Tito was to have his own "Fiume" moment after 1945; he occupied Trieste, gave it the Slovene name Trst, and only budged in the early 1950s when the Americans threatened to forcibly remove his troops.

The only traces these days of this Italian period in Rijeka's history is the main traffic boulevard called Fiumara, and those slatted, louvered window blinds that protect interiors from the fierce sun here. I'm writing this at 11 o'clock at night, and it is still 33 degrees. The weather has been astonishing; it only seems to get dark here for around six hours, and the sun at midday is as fierce as I've ever experienced. Rijeka, having been fully industrialised in the Tito period is these days a bit of a party town outside of working hours; Korzo and Riva streets are absolutely choked at the weekends, though I've been keeping my head down. One man I spoke to shook his head sadly and said that there had been very little work for people here in the past few years, although the town seems affluent enough.

Korzo Ulica: Rijeka's main drag

Art wise, there's not much to report. There is a museum of contemporary art here, but it is closed for a mixture of summer holidays and re-hang. This building also contains a manuscript in Glagothic script - one of the early touchstones and validators of present day Croatian identity, leading some publications to claim that Rijeka has a central place in the modern Croat sense of self, though I'm not really sure how true that is. There is an exhibition of Marcus Doyle's photographs, entitled rather unpromisingly Rijeka Souvenirs but that's been closed as well- a pity, as I like his work. The City Museum, where I had been hoping to see some more of Rijeka's startlingly rich history is, you've guessed it, also closed, though it should be open. And there's a Torpedo Museum. Yes, that's right, a torpedo museum. Apparently, at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries, Rijeka was at the forefront of torpedo research and development, but I decided to stay in the sun instead of looking at endless technical diagrams and models of long forgotten ordnance. A few menacing metal marine cigars sit rusting in the museum's grounds, surrounded by long grass.

This week's a driving week. I have to find my way down to Ohrid, in Macedonia, by Thursday, where I am booked in for the weekend as the very last few days on my holiday. So, I have an overnight in Zagreb tomorrow, a short hop of a couple of hours, then two marathon drives; from Zagreb to Kragujevac, the Serbian Detroit and home of the Yugo, for another overnight, then Ohrid the next day. Both these journeys are between 6-8 hours on roads of steadily reducing quality and safety, so I shall look forward to getting those behind me. After my final fallow weekend in Ohrid, I'll be starting work by going round Macedonia anti clockwise: Ohrid-Bitola-Prilep-Krusevo-Skopje, the capital, where I shall stay for about a week-ten days. Bitola, the week after this one, will be the southernmost point of this long trek.

Next update from Ohrid probably over the weekend.

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