Tourists have been coming to Rijeka since the 19th century when Croatia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Rich aristocrats spent their summers here, building opulent villas in the Hapsburg style.
They were attracted by the cobalt waters of the Gulf of Kvarner, with forested mountains tumbling down to the sea, and the port of Rijeka provided cultural sustenance. It’s been reborn in 2020 as this year’s European Capital of Culture with more than 600 events planned.
13km west of Rijeka, Opatija was a tiny fishing village until it was discovered by the Viennese rich and famous. Villa Angiolina, built in1844, was the first to host distinguished European aristocrats, and the building of the Vienna-Trieste railway brought in the rest. Russian Tsars, kings from Romania and Sweden, even Isadora Duncan, all flocked here and built their own beautiful belle époque villas.
You can see many of these from the Lungo Mare which runs for 12km along the seafront from Volosko in the east to Lovran in the west. It lined with grand hotels and you pass through beautifully manicured gardens and, although there’s not much sand here, the sea is crowded with bathers. Sunsets are particularly good, so sip a cool drink on the terrace and wallow in the elegance of the resort.
Krk is Croatia’s largest island, with a population of around 20,000, and attracts hordes of tourists in the summer, although it’s surprisingly easy to get away from them.
Krk town was founded by the Romans and still has parts of their old walls and gates, and the Frankopan castle was built in the 12th century. Its streets are too narrow for cars, so the centre is a charming pedestrian labyrinth stuffed with craft boutiques and restaurants.
10km away, on the Eastern side of the island, perched on a cliff overlooking the sea, is the medieval village of Vrbnik. It claims to have the narrowest street in the world, just 43cm wide, but the real attraction here is the food. Tastings are available at various places around town, but Nada is one of the best. They also have an excellent restaurant where you can sample not just their white but also their sparkling Prosek and Bradija red.
At the southern tip is Baska, an attractive resort set on a glorious bay. I take a hike along the “moon trail” path over stark limestone hills, dotted with stone pens still used for corralling and shearing sheep. I’m lucky enough to see a couple of rare Griffon Vultures, extinct in the rest of the country, and only found in these islands.
I can’t leave without visiting the 12th century St Lucy church in Jurandvor just nearby. Here, in 1851 a huge stone tablet was discovered in the paving, weighing 800kg and dating from around 1100. It’s inscribed in Glagolitic script, the oldest form of Slavic writing, widely used from the 9th to the 16th century. It has the first written mention of the word Croatia so it’s an apt place to end my visit.