The calmness explained

In 1963 this drug was released and became astonishingly popular: between 1969 and 1982 it was the most prescribed drug in America, with over 2.3 billion tablets sold in peak year of 1978 … and  Leo Sternbach, the man who discovered Valium, was born in Opatija to Hungarian parents. Now, that might certainly explain the air of relaxation about the town, were I to completely discount the fact that it was off-season and what few tourists that were left (with the exception of my good self) were well into their dotage.

Harboured as I was just beside the lungomare, I had ample time each evening to wander the promenade and get a feel for the town. I decided that I would never want to visit at the height of summer. There were just enough tourists around for it to be bearable. I can well imagine that trying to navigate the 12-km stretch of sea-frontage would be nigh on impossible in the summer months. As it was, I had to step aside occasionally to avoid a tour group, but for the most part, it was pleasantly populated. Just enough to make it alive, and not too many to make it uncomfortable.

IMG_7473 (597x800)IMG_7477 (600x800)Like Copenhagen and the little mermaid, or Budapest and the little princess, or Brussels and the mannequin pis, Opatija, too, has its statue – the maiden and the seagull. As the story goes, back in 1891, a certain count Arthur Kesselstadt and his wife drowned at sea. His family erected a statue of Madonna Del Mare on the reef to guard his soul. The original Madonna Del Mare was moved to the Croatian Museum of Tourism in the Villa Angiolina (some say by the Communists, but what would I know…) and a replica placed outside St James´s Church. The Maiden was erected in its place in 1956 (and, to my mind, is a definite improvement) and only recently did people discover who had modelled for sculptor Zvonko Car – a secret that had been kept for 55 years.

IMG_7487 (800x600)IMG_7484 (600x800)Just around the corner, more or less, in one of the many parks to be found in the town, I came across an interesting mural referred to by the guide herding the group in front of me as the town’s pop-art exhibition. It was an odd mix of characters, many of whom I didn’t recognise, either by face or by name, but I was pleasantly surprised to see a likeness to James Joyce amidst them all. Apparently he regularly took tea on the terrace of the Hotel Imperial. That man certainly got around. Other famous guests included  Chekhov, Puccini, and a post-tonsillitic Gustav Mahler.

I can see the attraction – the grandeur of the hotels and villas, the fresh seafood, the temperate climate, and the floral-tinged sea air. And while I didn’t see anyone famous during my sojourn, and doubt very much that modern-day Optaija is a refuge for the rich and famous, I thoroughly enjoyed my few days by the sea.

When the wheel stops turning

What if I were to build a house in the middle of nowhere … would people come and be my neighbours? How long would it take before there was a hamlet? Weaned on the Little House on the Prairie, I’ve long had a fascination with the origins of places, how they started, and who was the first person ever to build in what now might be a sizeable metropolis. The one who began the begun…

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In Opatija, a town in western Croatia, that man was Iginio Scarpa. A man of means from the neigbouring Rijeka, Scarpa built Villa Angiolina in the mid-1800s. In 1872 the railway came and some ten years later,  Friedrich Julius Schüler, the boss man at Southern Railways, started building the grand hotels and villas that are still there today.

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Walking up and down the promenade that separates the Adriatic from the town itself, these once single-family homes are a reminder of what life was like back when the Opatija was a holiday destination for the rich and famous (Austrian Emperor Franz Jozsef was a frequent visitor apparently.) All boast a clear view of the water and it doesn’t take much imagination to add some parasols and posh-frocked ladies to complete the picture. It’s like stepping back in time.


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The first thing that hit me was the smell – salted air tinged with laurel. It’s beautiful. Its beaches might be concrete slabs laden with sun lounges and umbrellas, a tad reminiscent of Malta, but the water is clear and fresh and the fish swim right in to the shore. The prom is lined with cafés and restaurants and the tourists (from what I can gather) are mainly German-speaking. With an above-average Cosmopolitan hitting my glass for just under €5, you’ll not find me complaining about prices.

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Situated as it is within easy reach of other towns along the Adriatic, Opatija’s promenade is part of the 12 km lungomare that connects the town of Volosko and Lovran. It’s less than 100 km from Trieste in Italy, and Ljubljana in Slovenia isn’t that far either. The possibilities loom large.

Opatija has a tameness about it that might be more to do with it being slightly off-season than anything else. Yet this is what I came for: the feeling that time has stopped, that the wheel has stopped turning long enough for me to catch my breath… that and the seafood!

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