Pizza is now available in a former civil protection bunker from World War II, while the indie club Tunel resides in a disused railway tunnel. In Rijeka, the third largest city in Croatia, the unfinished area is currently unfinished – fallow land has never harmed subculture. And Rijeka's scene is growing.
Many tourists will experience this in the coming year: Rijeka then bears the title European Capital of Culture. "Port of Diversity" is the motto that the city on the Kvarner Bay has given itself – in seven thematic blocks it should be about water, work and migration. Whereby Rijeka will not be the perfectly dressed metropolis, which presents all the sights impeccably.
"I like these crazy architectural layers of the city that stand for their complex history," says Morana Matkovi, 35, who works as a curator for Rijeka 2020. It points to the city panorama at the foot of a steeply rising mountain range: by the water, the imposing palaces from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, industrial buildings and high-rise buildings from the fascist era.
Further up the medieval fortress Trsat and the prefabricated buildings from the socialist Tito era. Matkovi says that on their flat roofs tomatoes will grow, flower beds will bloom and events will take place next year. The residents helped to develop the plans for this.
She is fascinated by the opposites of the city: Cruise ships dock in the container port in the east because there is no marina in the center with enough space for them. "Tourists often look shocked when they get off as if their organs were being removed," says Matkovi and laughs.
Factory recycling instead of a new building offensive
Unlike in other cultural capitals, there are hardly any new buildings in Rijeka – despite 450 planned events. The existing structure is being rethought, unused land is being restored. The port city has enough empty factory buildings and warehouses like the graffiti-painted "Exportdrvo". After the disintegration of Yugoslavia, many industries had to close, tens of thousands of workers lost their jobs.
The rusting "Galeb" (in German: Seagull) – formerly a cargo and military ship, then a yacht under Tito – is now a museum. And in the west of the city there is a completely new cultural area with a city library and an interactive museum for children only, the "Children's House". The focus is on the already opened Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMSU).
Only the rectangular plates in the floor of the gallery rooms remind us of the past: here used to be the machines of a motorcycle factory and foundry. The 41-year-old curator Ivana Meštrov from Zagreb hopes that the cultural events will bring "a lot of movement into the city".
The current exhibition "Culture of dopolavoro – Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow" tells the story of the building: Former factory workers talk in videos about how they spent their free time back then. "The factories had organized many activities for their employees, there was a painting group, and in former shipyards there were even photography workshops," says Meštrov. "For many it is a sad chapter."
A symbolic year, "a milestone"
On the bank of the Rjecina, which flows into the Adriatic Sea, there is the dilapidated area of the former Hartera paper mill, a paradise for lost-place fans. If you walk along the narrow street Ružiceva – the harbor behind, past the electro club Civot – you will reach this unusual place.
Graffiti and street artists have conquered the buildings with their broken windows and run studios there. There is also an old boat between barbecues, broken glass, sofas. A film crew recently shot "The Dark Tower" for the new Stephen King series.
Whether concerts, exhibitions or readings: This website has news about all activities in 2020.
The city magazine "Time Out" is also a helpful source for current events or sights.
The Grandhotel "Bonavia", built around 1876, is located in the city center and was modernized in 2000 with a glass facade. The ferry in the harbor, which was converted into the hostel "Botel Marina", is original and inexpensive.
Also worth seeing is the inner and old town with its pedestrian zone "Korzo", the splendid coffee houses, Italian restaurants, Croatian Konobas with pasta specialties.
Tip: A culinary foray through the art nouveau market halls, which are open every day, there you are close to the pulse of the city.
Croatia Airlines, Eurowings or Ryanair fly non-stop to Rijeka in summer. A direct night train runs from Munich to Rijeka in just under 10 hours.
The beach bar Morski Prasac, the "sea pig", is considered an insider tip; not only locals jump from concrete walls in front of a shipyard into the sea, there are also events with local bands in summer.
And then there are the hidden beaches – with container ships and shipyards in the background. Since the paths are not advertised, you have to use Google Maps – or use the "Spotted by Locals" travel website. Among other things, Iva Susic publishes her insider tips there.
For about half a year she has lived in the eastern part of the city, in the Peine district, about 20 minutes from the city. There is a beautiful bay hidden behind the next one.
As a child, she always went swimming with her grandmother here, says the 31-year-old. Your favorite bay with fine white sand? Sablievo, of course. New beach bars have opened here a few years ago, and it gets busy in summer.
The district would actually have a lot of potential – for new apartments, galleries, shops. But gentrification will not capture this corner of the city that quickly, Renato Stankovi believes. The 32-year-old cultural scientist is working on implementing small projects for 2020 here. "There are so many different types of ownership – nobody really feels responsible for reinventing the neighborhood," says Stankovi. "Even a sheikh from Dubai would fail here."
Stankovi, who grew up in Rijeka, packs his enthusiasm into sentences without periods and commas. He could imagine an experimental playground with moving elements in the Hartera. A beehive with native species or even a new place for a temporary parliament that is discussing the climate crisis, for example.
In socialism, it would have been easier to redesign the district collectively, he says. The political legacy of the former Yugoslavia continues to have an effect here in the former working town and birthplace of Croatian punk with bands like Paraf. In the rest of the country, which is moving more politically to the right, Rijeka has the reputation of a "red bastion".
"We have to give the locals tools to continue making changes in the future," says Stankovi. For him, 2020 is a symbolic year, "a milestone". But he wonders, "What happens after that?"
Bettina Hensel works as a freelance writer for SPIEGEL ONLINE. This trip was supported by
Kvarner Region Tourist Board.