OPATIJA, CROATIA [ɔpǎtija // o-pot-ee-uh]
Opatija is a Croatian coastal town resting on the northeastern shore of the Adriatic Sea, and as pointed out in my last post, most people traveling to Croatia have never heard of it. They’ve heard of Zagreb, Split, Dubrovnik… but usually not Opatija.
However, this wasn’t always the case. The story behind Opatija is a checkered one, dating all the way back to pre-Roman times. But to avoid turning this post into a full-on history lesson, I’ll try to briefly cover the highlights of the town’s modern history, beginning in 1844.
At this time, Iginio Scarpa, a rich merchant from Rijeka (another town in Croatia not far east of Opatija), founded Villa Angiolina. Villa Angiolina is the building that really marked the beginning of tourism in Opatija. This building still stands in Opatija today, converted into a museum devoted to telling you the story I’m telling you now.
Over time, the town became a fashionable spot for the Austrian imperial family and Austrian nobility. The first luxury hotel was built in 1884 and named Hotel Quarnero, but today stands as Grand Hotel Kvarner. Many more hotels and villas were soon built, and Opatija hit the height of tourism in 1889 when the Austrian government declared “Abbazia” (Opatija) the first climatic seaside resort on the Adriatic.
However, Opatija would change hands many times over the next century. It was assigned to Italy in 1920 with the advent of fascism, given over to Yugoslavia in 1947, and finally would fall into Croatia’s hands in 1991 with the breakup of Yugoslavia.
Since then, Opatija has been fairly quiet, operating to provide a peaceful getaway to tourists and Croatians on holiday alike.
So then what makes Opatija special?
I traveled to a multiple towns and cities throughout Croatia during my stay there, and while each was unique and beautiful in its own right – and I’ll go into each of those in later posts – there was a certain air in Opatija that didn’t seem to be anywhere else. It was that certain air, a feeling, essentially, that made you feel like nothing bad could ever happen there.
It’s not an imitation of anything – like a Disney resort trying to lure you into feeling like you’re standing in Germany when you’re really in Florida – it’s authentic. It’s an arresting, tranquil place to forget about the worries on your mind. And it’s not flashy, like a five-star resort in Shanghai, but it will have everything you want and plenty more than you need.
I don’t think I’ve ever slept better than I did there, listening to the soothing sounds of the Adriatic and the gentle hum that the activity of people seem to make…
If you decide to check Opatija out, here are the things you won’t want to miss:
As mentioned earlier, it’s one of the most recognizable landmarks in the town, and the museum inside will be able to give a much more in-depth account than my brief post about the history of the town. ADDED BONUS: the park surrounding Villa Angiolina is a green thumb’s dream, boasting over 150 different plant species both native to the region and other parts of the world.
Maiden with the Seagull
This statue has become one of the symbols of the town, and is recognizable across Croatia. It is, however, a new sculpture in comparison to others in Opatija. Maiden with the Seagull was erected in 1956 by the sculptor Zvonko Car. In its place once stood the Madonna del Mare, which was demolished by communists after the end of World War II.
Abbey of Saint James
This 14th-century Benedictine abbey, Opatija Sv. Jakova, or Abbey of Saint James, from which the town gets its name (“opatija“ means “abbey” in Croatian) can be found in Park Svetog Jakova or Saint James’s Park. Saint James’s Church, originally built in 1506, now stands in the same spot.
A less common destination in the town, but fun if you’re looking for a little luck, is the Villa Rosalia, which today is known as Casino Rosalia. Originally constructed in 1896 as a luxurious villa for Austrian aristocracy, it was later credited as being the first casino in eastern Europe.
Seaside of Opatija
Last, and my personal favorite, part of Opatija you won’t want to miss is simply walking along the stone path that winds through the majority of the water’s edge of the town. There’ll be places to lay out in the sun as you pass, to climb rocks, to take the perfect snapshot, and to look at various street vendors’ art.