While Croatia has experienced a tourism boom, its third-largest city has forged its own unique path, building on its coastal location and can-do attitude to welcome a wave of businesses – big and small.
Dean Lalic spreads his arms wide, beatific grin firmly in place, as he gazes across Kvarner Bay to the city of Rijeka, shimmering in the heat on the other side of the turquoise water. His gesture, and the scenery, both speak volumes. “I am doing what I love, in the place that I love,” he says, with satisfaction. Then his earpiece crackles and it’s back to business. He’s still smiling as he motions for everyone in the shady garden to keep quiet during another take.
Lalic is working as the location manager for the second series of period drama Hotel Portofino. Set in a collonaded, yellow-washed Habsburg-era beachfront villa, with stars such as Natascha McElhone and Anna Chancellor sporting 1920s dress, viewers might be surprised to discover that this is not, in fact, the Italian Riviera, but the outskirts of a Croatian port city, some 400km to the east. International film and television production companies have been among the first businesses to cotton on to what Rijeka and its surroundings have to offer.
“So many people are now working in film – not just in production but everything from catering to lighting and location scouting,” says Lalic. “Because of all the foreign productions coming here, people in Rijeka can have a full-time career in the film industry.”
Despite its many positive qualities, Rijeka has somehow managed to evade the international recognition enjoyed by other Croatian cities, such as the coastal beauties Split and Dubrovnik, and the capital, Zagreb. This is partly due to its heritage as a centre of industry, rather than tourism. But the turbulent history of Croatia’s third-largest city has also given it outsider status within its own country.
As its mayor Marko Filipovic points out, Rijeka has been part of no fewer than seven different territories, including the Roman and Napoleonic Empires. In the past century alone, it has been an independent city-state called the Free State of Fiume, annexed by Italy and occupied by Germany before becoming part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and finally gaining independence with the rest of Croatia in 1991.
The legacy is a city that has much in common with its northern neighbour, Trieste. Here, Habsburg elegance meets Italian café culture along the main pedestrian drag, the Korzo, while the centre is flanked by docks, shipyards and utilitarian Yugoslav-era housing blocks. Hiking in the forested hills above Rijeka is as popular a post-work option as a dip in the sea – both, ideally, followed by a leisurely aperitif overlooking the Adriatic. Unsurprisingly, the people of Rijeka feel that they are not quite the same as other Croatians.
“The connection with the sea helps us to be more open,” says the mayor. “There are 30 different national minorities all living in harmony here. Increasingly, people see this as an area where they want to live, work and spend their holidays.”
All of these qualities came together when Rijeka served as the European Capital of Culture in 2020. The pandemic might have diminished the opportunity for the city to showcase its charms to the rest of the continent but Rijeka 2020 still served as a reorientation for the 21st century – much needed after the bruising decades following independence saw the decline of many of the industries that had sustained the city in the Yugoslav era.
Rijeka’s authorities are keen to capitalise on the perception of a city on the move by making it easy for entrepreneurs to set up shop. Its start-up incubator programme offers eight months’ worth of business development, contacts and advice free of charge. The most promising businesses also get financial rewards, while a three-week “start-up lite” course offers a tune-up for those in need of a refresher. The city is also converting the power plant of an old paper mill into a hub for technology and creative start-ups, which should be ready by the end of next year. Jana Sertic, the head of Rijeka’s Entrepreneurship Department, says that she has been fielding enquiries from dozens of countries.
“We’ve had 70 different nationalities from the beginning of this year,” she says. “One guy came from Mexico at the start of the year and he’s still here eight months later. He’s in IT but we also currently have lots of people working in creative industries.” Everything from furniture production to gin distilleries are finding a home here.
Who lives here? Artists, shipbuilders and entrepreneurs.
Is business booming? Nautical tourism, naval engineering, shipping and pharmaceuticals.
What’s missing? An international school.
How do I get here? Fly to Rijeka International Airport or get the train.
And the cost of living? Reasonable. One-bedroom city-centre apartments are less than €500 per month.
For residents, new and old, the most visible legacy of Rijeka 2020 is the creation of a cultural quarter within a complex that was once a sugar refinery. The more than €33m investment includes the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, the Civic Museum and the Civic Library. Visitors from further afield arrive at the beautifully renovated main railway station opposite the complex.
All of this development is reinvigorating the creative sector in the city, says Davor Miskovic of the independent arts and culture organisation Drugo More. “John Law, who co-founded the Burning Man festival, was our guest here and he was astonished by the city. He said, ‘That’s how San Francisco could be but isn’t any more,’” says Miskovic.
“Rijeka doesn’t have too much polish – it still has that punk aura – and I hope it will keep this,” he adds. “It has the right balance between comfortable and uncomfortable features, which keeps a city interesting.”
While the new infrastructure has made the city more attractive to potential residents and businesses, Rijeka’s strategic location on the Adriatic is driving the largest investments. Danish shipping giant Maersk is the senior partner in a 50-year concession on Rijeka Gateway, a deep-sea container terminal capable of hosting the world’s largest cargo ships. Some €350m is going into the project’s first two phases, with the first arrivals due in 2025. Rail links will take goods across Europe, with the aim of challenging the ports in Italy’s Trieste and Koper in neighbouring Slovenia. On signing the concession agreement last year, Morten Engelstoft, ceo of Maersk’s apm Terminals subsidiary, said that “Rijeka Gateway will become an important spot on the port logistics map.”
“The connection with the sea helps us to be more open. There are 30 different national minorities all living in harmony here”
There’s also investment at the harbour along Molo Longo, the tranquil breakwater that stretches for almost 2km along the Adriatic. German shipyard Lürssen has taken over a large chunk of the passenger-terminal building to serve as its engineering centre. It opened last year, employing about 100 experts in superyacht and naval vessel design, most of them naval architects and engineers.
Managing director Teuta Duletic, a graduate of Rijeka University’s Faculty of Engineering and a naval architect herself, sets the tone, which is more Silicon Valley than Croatian Rust Belt. “By coming here, Lürssen is supporting a brain gain,” says Duletic. “A lot of the families who moved to, say, Norway or Germany have seen a sound and prosperous company come here and they want to be back in their home town. It’s well-connected: you can travel for business, go to the islands or go skiing within 20 minutes in the winter.”
The Lürssen family has taken a controlling stake in Liburnia Riviera Hotels, which offers accommodation along the Lungomare promenade that winds through the beachside suburbs. The family is also part of a €50m joint venture with local company aci to create a marina with berths for more than 250 yachts. This tilt towards nautical tourism isn’t to everyone’s taste, according to Drugo More’s Davor Miskovic, but Rijeka’s direction of travel seems clear.
“Tourists will come but it won’t be a classic city for tourism. It’s a very cool city, different to the rest of Croatia”
The city’s formerly scrappy beaches have now acquired bars, offering everything from DJ sets to lectures alongside sundowners. And there is nothing shabby about the Hilton Rijeka Costabella Beach Resort and Spa, which opened last year and has not only a private pebble beach but one of the three Michelin-starred restaurants within striking distance of the city (Croatia only has 10 overall).
Nebo offers panoramic views across the Adriatic from its fifth-floor dining room but chef Deni Srdoc’s ever-changing 11-course tasting menu is the star attraction. He develops dishes that bring out the best in his pan-Croatian ingredients, from goose with cherry and pine needles to octopus with beetroot and chickpeas. He’s excited about being part of Rijeka’s bright future. “The mindset is moving forward. It’s excellent that Rijeka is not throwing away its industrial heritage but incorporating it with tourism. We saw this during the Capital of Culture.”
That neatly sums up Amna Sehovic’s shop, tucked away in a narrow street off the Korzo. She makes upcycled bags and jewellery at Sta Da?!, which is also a Rijekan idiom meaning, more or less, “for real?!”. She is convinced that whatever happens here in the next few years, Rijeka will remain just that. “Tourists will come but it won’t be a classic city for tourism,” she says. “It’s a very cool city, different to the rest of Croatia. We’re punk rock.”
These days that attitude comes with a side order of Michelin stars, movie stars and superyachts. Even so, Rijeka rocks.