When someone in Pula told me there was 'nothing to see' in Rijeka, I knew at once I'd like it. Experience told me that such warnings tended to be the product of rather unimaginative perceptions of what a city ought to offer visitors rather than an accurate assessment of its character. I wanted to visit Croatia's third-largest city on the Adriatic coast for two reasons: industrial heritage and its fascinating 20th-century experience.
In the early 1900s, Rijeka was a 'corpus separatum' within Austria-Hungary, but when the Hapsburg dynasty disintegrated in the closing weeks of the first world war, the city was claimed by both the Kingdom of Italy and the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, its population being roughly half Italian and half Croatian. Eventually, an international force of British, Italian, French and US troops entered the city, the fate of which came up for discussion at Versailles.
In the interim, a force of Italian nationalists led by the poet Gabriele d'Annunzio seized control of Rijeka, an initiative met with a degree of local enthusiasm. But the war-weary Italian government had no intention of getting embroiled in another conflict, so the poet established an independent state, the Italian Regency of Carnaro. When Italy and the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes agreed to the creation of the 'Free State of Fiume', d'Annunzio declared war on Italy but was bombed into submission (by other Italians) during the Christmas of 1920.
The 'Stato Libero di Fiume' only covered 11 square miles, including a 'corridor' linking the new state to Italy. It gained full sovereignty and international recognition, with US president Woodrow Wilson even envisaging Fiume as a base for the new supra-national League of Nations. The 'Autonomists' beat Italian nationalists in elections held in the spring of 1921, thus consolidating its status. Thereafter it issued postage stamps, one of the internationally-recognised symbols of statehood.
But even stamps could not paper over obvious cracks, both ethnic and ideological. When the fascists assumed control of Italy, they put heavy pressure on the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes to sign the Treaty of Rome (not that one), which formally dissolved Fiume in January 1924 and divided it up. Italy got most of the spoils, while the future Kingdom of Yugoslavia was fobbed off with a few northern villages. Fiume's government went into exile.
Travelling in the area around a decade later, the English writer Rebecca West described Fiume as having 'the quality of a…bad headachy dream'. Although its original character was 'round and sunburnt and solid, like any pompous southern port', it had 'been hacked by treaties into a surrealist form'. In 1945, the exiled government returned with the intention of re-establishing the Free State. Josip Tito, however, had other ideas, and following another treaty, Fiume – now to be known as Rijeka – was incorporated into Croatia, itself part of the new (federal communist) Yugoslav state.
During a few days in the city, I was able to discover traces of these many different Rijekas or Fiumes. The latter name now exists only on manhole covers and in retro pub signs, while the modest city history museum includes bill posters (in English) informing citizens of Italy's disingenuous promise to 'recognise the complete liberty and independence of the State of Fiume and undertake to protect them in perpetuo'. Next door was the old Hapsburg governor's palace, now a creaking maritime museum but once the administrative centre of the 'corpus separatum' until the first world war.
About half an hour's walk from my Airbnb, meanwhile, were the intriguing remains of a torpedo launch station, built during the Italian interregnum of 1924-45 and active until the 1960s (see photo at top of page). It was in an earlier building on this site that the English engineer Robert Whitehead (fun fact: one of his great-grandchildren was a von Trapp family singer) launched and created the first successful torpedo, thereby revolutionising maritime defence. The authorities had made a token effort to keep people like me out, but a gap in a fence enabled access. As I took some atmospheric photographs, a thunderstorm rumbled in the distance.
The following day, I spent a sunny afternoon exploring further industrial heritage in Rijeka, which once again bore traces of an eventful 20th century. The Rječina river used to mark the border between the Free State of Fiume and the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, and after 1924 between that multi-ethnic country and Italy. Today, on either side of the river (both now part of the same country) stand dozens of large factory buildings, most now abandoned and therefore an urbexer's (urban explorer's) dream.
At the far end of Ruziceva ulica (street) was Hartera Terasa, which once employed more than 1,000 people to produce fine cigarette paper which was exported all over the world. Founded when the city was part of the Kingdom of Hungary, it endured and thrived throughout the later Hapsburg and Yugoslav periods, and by 1991 – when Croatia became an independent state – was the second-largest manufacturer of cigarette paper in Europe. But the subsequent war, as well as political and economic upheaval, led to Hartera's bankruptcy in 2002.
I got in through a small gap in a boarded-up doorway, although this had clearly been nailed into place just a few hours earlier as there had been an electronic music event the previous evening. Indeed, the detritus from this non-paper-making activity was still fresh – beer bottles and rudimentary decorations. Nearby buildings were more easily accessible but just as interesting, all of them looking – like Hartera – as if they had only ceased activity earlier this century.
I read later that there are moves to preserve and perhaps convert factory buildings like Hartera into a cultural centre, although it would take a lot of money and attention. There are similar (but firmer) plans for Galeb ('Seagull'), a ship I found rusting in Rijeka's harbour. This was once Marshall Tito's official yacht, which in March 1953 sailed up the Thames and moored at Greenwich, the communist leader having been invited to visit Churchill and the new Queen Elizabeth. Tito had famously 'broken' with Stalin and would later become a key player in the Non-Aligned Movement.
Graffiti was ubiquitous in Rijeka, including a profane play on words: 'F*** EU'. According to opinion polls last year, the 'Human Wall' party is now Croatia's second-biggest political force, its leadership regularly calling for 'exit' from both the European Union and NATO. Croatia only joined the EU in 2013, although it had applied for membership a decade earlier. A dispute over coastal territory with Slovenia had delayed the accession process, yet further proof that this corner of the Adriatic is constantly in flux.