Rijeka, Northwestern Croatia
The bus ride was thankfully short to Rijeka (Ree-eck-a), but still necessitated headphones to drown out the woman who had been sat in the aisle and had spent the ride scrolling through her contacts, calling people, and yelling at them. Jeeze.
I enjoyed the mountainous countryside and noticed lots of interesting farming practises as well as several well-built hunting blinds in the sides of fields. Hunting is so different in Europe than it is in Canada or the US. I wondered what it would be like hunting in Croatia as we drove by the deer blinds.
Another chaotic departure from the bus left us staring at our new temporary home. We were on a busy street, looking at elegant and beautiful, but worn old-world architecture; I already liked the feeling of it.
Many of the buildings were painted a certain type of yellow, something I hadn’t seen anywhere else, but which I absolutely loved the look of.
We checked in at a hostel down the street, then were sent to our apartment just around the corner. Spacious, contemporary, clean, and super comfortable; it was our best place yet!
I must say, the twelve pieces of “inspiring” word art were a little much though.
The seven flights of stairs to get us to the fourth floor apartment were going to be an issue coming home drunk though, I chuckled to myself.
We took a stroll through the main promenade, then down to the docks to find some lunch.
Rijeka is an operating port city and much of its industrial nature can still be seen at the docks, where big cargo ships get loaded and unloaded close to the downtown area.
We stopped in at Bistro Mornar, a seafood spot like many of the other restaurants in the area. We were sat inside and a waiter immediately attempted to coerce us into buying a whole fish out of the display case, which seemed expensive and like too much food (although I was still tempted!).
Instead, we ordered a fried calamari and french fry dish that a lot of people in the restaurant were ordering, a fish soup to share, and a 1/2 kilo of mussels, clams, and scallops (sold in 1 or 1/2 kg portions) in a white wine sauce.
The fish soup came out first and was amazing! Simple, with chunks of fish, mussels, and with a bit of rice, celery, carrots, onion, and parsley, all finely minced; we just loved it.
Our mains came out next; the squid and fries were crispy, salty, and delicious, but the shellfish blew our minds!
So tender, so fresh, so perfectly cooked, and the sauce was rich and so delicious. Wow!
All the seafood spots seemed to be similarly priced; a touch expensive for the area, but much cheaper than at home.
Strolling back to the main promenade, a wide pedestrian street lined with designer shops and cafes, we grabbed a seat outside under the huge umbrellas provided as it looked like it was about to rain.
We grabbed an espresso and a spritz each and sat back to people watch.
The rain started to come down and people fled the streets, but we got to watch a big wedding party procession come through, replete with an accordion player squeezing away with an open umbrella jammed through the strap to cover him as he played.
Once the rain let up, we strolled around town, which was quite small and accessible. We grabbed a beer at the Celtic Bard, but it was pretty dead, so we moved on.
Kathy wanted to change, so we made our way back towards the apartment. I went into the Book Bar across the street and ordered an espresso and a spritz and did some writing, enjoying the young serious crowd and the 90’s American music.
One thing to be aware of when travelling through this region is that everyone smokes. Like everyone. It’s much like it was in Canada in the late 80’s or early 90’s. In Rijeka you can also smoke inside bars, so if you’re sensitive to smoke, this could be an issue.
To battle it, I just temporarily relapsed into smoking for the trip, which made it more enjoyable. Probably not wise, buuuuut it was fun.
Kathy joined me and we had another drink before moving on. We decided to grab a bite, but didn’t want anything heavy. I’d noticed a kebab place called Chili Kebab next to the bus station, so we went there and ordered a kebab “sve” or with everything, to share.
Much like a donair, the shaved kebab was served in a wrap. I also asked for it spicy, but there was a touch of miscommunication and the guy pasted it with super spicy hot sauce. It was delicious, but pretty fiery. Kathy, who has come around to spice in the last few years and can use sriracha with abandon, needed to order a coke to wash it down. Despite the hellfire, it WAS nice to eat something actually spicy, which I’d been missing a tiny bit on this trip.
After our snack, we decided to walk to it off by strolling the breakwater that paralleled the city.
The breakwater was quite long and took us over an hour to walk it. Kathy bet I couldn’t climb the stone wall, so I obviously had to prove that I could, only losing a small amount of skin in the process. Totally worth it.
On the way back, we heard music, and eventually came up to a live band playing music to a crowd.
We’d been hearing music from across the water, some sort of European crooner, but on this stage was a punk/ska band and actually not bad. Turns out there was a festival going on that week, with lots of free live music!
We stopped to watch the show and Kathy left to go grab a beer. A little while later, she came back with two large beers and said they were free… what the hell?! What a city!
We watched the band (and the crowd, which was full of parents rocking out with their kids) for what seemed like a very long set, super enjoyable, then strolled back towards our apartment.
We stopped for one last drink, then thought we’d get some late night drunk food as it was around 1am.
Searching around, we couldn’t find anything open except for McDonald’s and Burger King, which wasn’t ideal. Weird that a town with what seemed like a big drinking culture didn’t have late night food. Still, I definitely needed something to eat before bed. McDonald’s was packed, so Burger King it was.
I worked at Burger King as a teen and if you’d told me I’d be “enjoying” it in Croatia 25 years later, I would have thought you were crazy. Come to think of it, if you’d told me two days before that I’d be “enjoying” Burger King in Croatia, I would have thought you were just as crazy.
It… wasn’t good. It did do the trick though, and acted to soak up some of the beer I’d drank. If only I’d had food to cook at the apartment – I feel that my homemade late night drunk food has become next level.
After a great sleep, we got up in the morning and went to the market. Quite large, there was a section for flowers, a section for fruit and veggies, and indoor sections for meat and for fish.
There was amazing looking fruit everywhere; watermelon, strawberries, cherries, apricots. We tried to convince a few vendors to sell us smaller portions than a kilo, or a massive half of a watermelon, but mostly got “no’s”. We did manage to get a couple apricots to snack on luckily.
The fish market was absolutely amazing. So much ridiculously fresh fish and seafood. I nearly wept at the torture that was walking through there without buying anything to cook. Man. The things I could have done with that fish!
We ended up buying some dried venison sausage from a vendor, as well as some sliced Croatian prosciutto and spicy salami. It was all super delicious, and kept us snacked up for the next few days.
Needing to get out of there before I literally (yes, literally) exploded from not buying any fresh ingredients to cook with, we grabbed an espresso, then headed for the Stairs.
The Petar Druizic Stairway is a stone staircase leading from Rijeka to the Trsat settlement which includes the Trsat Castle and the Church of Our Lady of Trsat. It has 561 steps and is a bit of a challenging climb, though definitely doable. It was quite hot the day we did them, so we were completely drenched in sweat by the time we reached the top. Still better off than the pilgrims who do the steps on their knees though, I’d bet.
The story behind the staircase is somewhat entertaining. One story we read goes that the Devil approached some priests and said that he’d be willing to build the steps (much needed by the townspeople) if they promised to put a tavern at the top. After much deliberation, the priests prayed to God who said no worries, take the deal, but build a church at the top instead.
The devil was outraged, and to get back at the priests, mixed up the stairs so no one could ever properly count them again. Pretty weak on the Devil’s part if you ask me. Ironically, there is now a tavern just past the church at the top of the stairs.
The Wikipedia story, different than the one we read in town, goes like this: the Franciscan monks made a deal with the devil that if he built the stairs, he could have the soul of whomever walked up them first. The tricky monks sent a goat up first (who, I assume is burning in hell for eternity, poor goat) which enraged the devil SOOOO much, that he mixed up the stairs so that no one could ever count them, EVER! Is that really all you got devil? The article then goes on to say that there are exactly 561 steps.
Reaching the top, drenched in sweat in the 35 degree heat, I felt that they got it wrong and that the punishment was just the stairs themselves.
Still, it felt great to get some exercise.
We went and checked out the Trsat castle around the corner, which had free admission. It provided amazing views of the city (and of a massive storm rolling in), a cute cafe, and some interactive art and history stuff.
Due to the oncoming inclement weather, we hurried through, then walked 15 minutes to our lunch destination, and what would prove to be our best meal of the trip – Konoba Tarsa.
This was an historic restaurant with a massive fireplace (not lit thankfully), lots of fun antiques on the walls, and a cool old world European feeling.
The waiter was very accommodating and friendly, and let us order without following the appetizer, first plate, second plate, dessert rule like you’re supposed to in this region.
We ordered a fish soup, an octopus salad, a truffle and prosciutto pasta with homemade regional noodles, and a wild boar ragout with homemade gnocchi, as well as a litre of white wine, a plate of pickled chili peppers, a shopska salad, and some homemade sour cherry schnapps as a digestif. Yeah, it was a lot of food, but still not as much as you’re expected to order if you follow the rules!
Everything was insanely good.
The fish soup, similar to the one the day before, but a little finer was so flavourful and tasty. I really want to learn how to make these Croatian fish soups.
The octopus salad was what seemed like an entire octopus, cooked perfectly, chopped, and tossed with some fresh veggies and a vinaigrette; so so so so SO good.
The truffle pasta was the best pasta either of us had ever had, and the boar ragout was dreamy.
It all came up to 70 euros, or about $100 Canadian. Ridiculous. The salad and wine alone should have cost that much.
We rolled out of the restaurant and spent some time strolling through the hill top neighbourhood, enjoying the backyard gardens and fruit trees (I may have stolen a cherry or two from over walls) and identifying cool plants like wild fennel and figs.
The steps down were much easier (take that devil!) which was good because we were stuuuuffed.
We had time to go to a museum that afternoon, but felt way too fatigued. Instead, we sat down in the square and got espressos. Kathy eventually left to check out some clothing stores, and I stayed put and did some writing, hiding under an umbrella from the rain.
I loved hanging out in the pedestrian areas and squares, but the music was so bad. Bland Euro beats with awful high pitched (and frankly untalented) female singers, belting out inane nonsense; all at very high volume and in the afternoon. Does anyone actually like this stuff?
“Do you want to be my boyfriend? Love love love. Do you want to be my boyfriend? Love love love.” Unce unce unce unce, unce unce unce unce, and so on.
I’m very open to different types of music, and I love (love love) an extremely wide range of it, but this stuff, especially at 3pm in the afternoon? Come on. Some jazz or something lighter would have been nice… even some well crafted European EDM or the equivalent!
Maybe that’s just my old man coming out. *Shakes fist*
Once the rain let up, we went back to the apartment and laid around for a bit (for the first time this trip!), enjoying some bed salami, which is perhaps the best way to enjoy salami.
Seeing some sun pop out around 6pm, we got into an Uber and left for the beach, not too far away. There are several beaches in Rijeka; this particular one was a sheltered cove at the bottom of a staircase with a pebble beach, beautiful blue water, and a beachside bar.
Judging that it was safe from thieves, and having brought the bare minimum of belongings, we went for a swim in the cool water; super refreshing after such a hot day.
Kathy suggested swimming out further, but I hesitated, not knowing anything about this area and remembering the jellyfish I’d seen in nearby Trieste. On a previous trip to Mozambique, I’d been hit hard by jellyfish while treading in deep water, which is hard to forget.
Just then, a small fish bit her leg, eliciting a yelp/scream, and that was the end of the swimming further out discussion.
We relaxed on the beach for a while, grabbed a beer at the beach hut, then Ubered back to the apartment.
We mentioned to the driver that we were surprised that everyone we’d talked to in Croatia so far knew English, and he said that knowing English was like winning the lottery when tourism started there ten years ago, so everyone learned.
Definitely made travelling easier.
We got dressed, then strolled out to find some late supper at a seafood place that I’d seen a website recommend. When we arrived we were the only people there, despite the fact that all of the other restaurants were full. Hmm.
We ordered some appetizers and the waiter said they were out of all of the apps on the menu except for two, so we politely got up and left.
Not having the energy to find another new restaurant that wasn’t full, we found ourselves back at the first place we’d visited when we arrived in the city.
With eyes bigger than our stomachs, we ordered a fish appetizer plate with salt cod spread, smoked and pickled anchovies, smoked tuna, and smoked mussels, along with cool little pickled chilies, as well as a shrimp pasta and a stuffed squid dish.
Once we’d eaten the appetizer, which was really tasty, we knew that that was all we’d actually needed.
The other two dishes were good, but not great, and we weren’t able to finish them.
For the second time that day, we rolled out of a restaurant, then made our way home, absolutely exhausted. Eating and drinking and sleeping in new beds was definitely catching up with us.
The next morning, we got up early, grabbed a cappuccino and a cheese and spinach burek (a savoury phyllo pastry) beside the bus stop, then boarded our bus to Zagreb, the inland capitol of Croatia.
We had SUCH a good time in Rijeka, which we definitely needed after our mixed couple days in Trieste. Two days was also the right amount of time to stay there, as it’s quite a small city. It was also where we had the best food of the trip, which was surprising!