There’s no place on the Adriatic like Opatija, Croatia’s first true resort town. Driving into this seaside settlement from Rijeka catches you off guard. All at once, grand neo-baroque and rustic Italian-style villas spring up on every side – a multi-cultural collage of pink walls, fluted columns, fading red tiles, grand staircases, and tiny balconies facing the sea.
Brilliant blooms tumble over vases and planters that outline sprawling cafe terraces. Rainbow-striped umbrellas shade oiled-up sunbathers, children hugging gelato-topped cones, and beach volleyball enthusiasts breaking over cold beers. Climbing up the foothills of nearby Mount Ucka, Opatija is one part Sorrento, one part Vienna, and wholly relaxing. It’s the spot for turn-of-the-century opulence and resort town charm.
Though the area around Opatija has been settled for centuries, its modern history really took off in 1844, when a wealthy merchant from Rijeka named Iginio Scarpa built his holiday home there. He called it Villa Angiolina after his late wife, and to fill its grand rooms, he began inviting other businessmen and politicians to vacation there. A few took an interest in further developing the town – and thus began tourism in Croatia.
One influential investor, Friederich Schuler, the director of the Austrian Southern Railway Company, deemed Opatija the “Austrian Nice” and in 1884 opened the town’s first hotel and health resort, Hotel Quarnero (today’s Hotel Kvarner), complete with an indoor pool filled with warm sea water.
In 1889, Opatija was officially declared a health resort, spurring many of Austro-Hungary’s finest physicians to open sanatoriums there. The rich and famous flocked to the seaside town, and it quickly became a summer playground for the likes of Emperor Franz Joseph, Queen Elisabeth of Romania, writers James Joyce and Vladimir Nabokov, composer Gustav Mahler, and dancer Isadora Duncan.
Today, visitors still enjoy the pastimes of Opatija’s glory days: strolling the Lungomare, indulging in a seaside ice cream sundae, enjoying a relaxing spa treatment, gossiping over coffee among perfectly manicured greenery.
History buffs might enjoy a trip to Sveti Jakov, a Benedictine church complex built around 1420. Sveti Jakov later gave its name to the entire settlement that grew up around it – Opatija means “abbey” in Croatian. Today it sits in the center of town, right on the Lungomare, not far from beautiful Park Angiolina.
Another unusual attraction is The Croatian Museum of Tourism, housed in the historic Villa Angiolina. The permanent exhibition brings together postcards from yesteryear, hotel bric-a-brac (ice buckets, trays, furniture) from the late 19th and early 20th century, and a collection of unique souvenirs.
Opatija Tourist Sheet:
In three words: charm, opulence, relaxation
Claim to fame: Croatia’s first celebrity playground
Don’t miss: secret “beaches” on the Lungomare
Snap a photo of: the iconic Maiden with the Seagull statue
Written by: Elaine Ritchell
Featured Photo: Tea Cimas / Cropix