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Nix's Rijeka Travelogue

The River’s Promise | A Rijeka Travelogue

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On first impression, you’re entering Budapest by the sea… no, that’s not right. You’re entering Venice… a Habsburg Venice. No… that’s not right. You’re entering a blend of Venice and Budapest with a massive industrial port tacked on. Neoclassical Habsburg quad buildings and wooden-windowed Venetian houses stand next to each other while the port’s gantries extend into the sky like giant metal stalagmites. You are entering the city of Rijeka, or if you’d prefer, Fiume. This is the story of my journey to the city called River, my Rijeka travelogue. 

I entered the city at night, driving in from the south side. When approaching the city from the south, you see some buildings clinging to the hills, but nothing definite. Then you enter the tunnel which the locals call Pećine (meaning caves) and that one takes you right up to the city centre. When you exit the tunnel, the centre jumps out with no warning. Unlike Zagreb, there’s no drive through an outer industrial shell followed by grey residential commie blocks. The tunnel puts you right in the middle of the old Austro-Hungarian city. This isn’t to say that there’s isn’t a communist outer shell, but you don’t drive through it. 

When I first laid eyes on Rijeka, it was night and I had been driving for 12 hours, possibly more. I could smell the sea. The sea always smells very sharp when you first arrive to the seaside. I hadn’t smelled the sea since 2019. The smells of a seaside city are always different. There’s always the smell of the sea, a sharp smell of algae and salt, but also the smell from the wharfs, the fish warehouses and the smell of wood, because the water gets everywhere and makes every wooden object smell three times stronger than usual. 

A fascinating boat from my Rijeka travelogue

Rijeka is its Croatian name, but for years it was named Fiume. It was a city roughly half-Italian, half-Croatian in demographics. Historically, it was part of the Kingdom of Croatia, which then entered a personal union with the Kingdom of Hungary. By the time of the 19th century, it was Hungary’s only international naval port and had a friendly rivalry with nearby Trieste, which functioned as Austria’s primary international naval port. 

When the Dual Monarchy fell in the wake of the Great War, Fiume tried to function as an independent state before being taken over by Gabriele D’Annunzio and his Arditi. D’Annunzio tried to annex Fiume to Italy, but the Italian government refused the offer, so he declared himself the ruler of an independent state. There’ve been some who’ve called him the first fascist dictator. 

My landlady in Rijeka seemed to agree with that assessment. Barely ten minutes into our first meeting, she started speaking, quite unprompted, about the commandante D’Annunzio, the first fascist dictator in the world. I smiled, trying very hard to hide my strong interest in this subject behind a visage of the tourist’s shallow interest in historical factoids. In another life, I’d have visited Rijeka in order to pay homage to Gabriele D’Annunzio. However, experience has taught me that cities and people exist quite outside of what we experience on the internet. I therefore came to Rijeka to observe, to listen, to smell, to touch and to taste. 

In the spirit of such great observation, I loved Rijeka because it is probably the last non-touristy place on the Croatian coast. Something about that titanic industrial port may be turning away the mouth-breathing hordes away. Frankly, that’s the way I like it. I love visiting places where the local economy doesn’t revolve around me dipping my balls in the nearest body of water. Call it the observer effect. Whenever you visit a city or country which depends on tourism, all eyes are on you. This makes it very difficult to observe people in their natural habitat as they then perform for you, as a tourist. To them, you’re not a human being but a walking bag of money and they’ll act out all sorts of roles to get you to disburse some of that cash. 

Rijeka is not like that. I didn’t see a souvenir shop until my second week in the city and it wasn’t in the city centre but up by the medieval castle in Trsat. The locals registered my presence as an outsider, but did not surround me and try to sell me things I didn’t want to buy. I spent two weeks in Rijeka, trying inasmuch as possible to live, buy, eat and walk like a local. Naturally, I failed, because I’m not a local, but suffice to say, it is probably the last place on the Adriatic coast where you can at least try. 

If you decide to travel to Rijeka, I recommend going to the Bistro Mornar for your meals. Ask for the marenda, which is Croatian for breakfast. Marenda translates to breakfast but it’s a much bigger meal than what’s usually meant by breakfast. Expect dishes like squid ink risotto or goulash gnocchi. You’ll never pay more than 25 EUR for two people, including wine and bread. When I travel, I usually cook my own food and only go to restaurants on Saturdays, like I do back home, but Mornar is so affordable that it was cheaper for me to get the marenda than shop at the market. Their dinner menu is also great and from there, I recommend the fish plate. 

a fish plate in Rijeka

Of course, I also went to market and bought food to cook. For this, I recommend going to the market near the theatre house, which also has a fishmongers’ hall. As an appreciator of fresh seafood, the two weeks spent in Rijeka were a time of joy for me. I never eat seafood if I can’t see the sea, which means that I only eat seafood when I can see the sea. But more on that in future pieces.

The city of Rijeka, like all cities, lives in the wake of its history. We already mentioned Gabriele D’Annunzio. He is remembered, if not entirely honoured, in the city he tried to occupy for Italy. But more than D’Annunzio, Rijeka lives in the wake of its Austro-Hungarian heritage, as well as its historic mixed demographics. The city was always roughly half-Italian, half-Croatian. It had a unique dialect – Fiuman, which is a variant of the Venetian language, though in the brief period when it was indeed occupied by Venetians, the Fiumans resisted fiercely. They remained loyal to their Austrian king. As the main port of the Kingdom of Hungary within the Habsburg empire, it had Hungarian governors and bureaucrats, but attracted men from all over Europe. The English engineer Robert Whitehead invented the torpedo in Fiume while working for a company owned by an Austrian. 

So, the question on everyone’s lips is, was Rijeka Italian? Was it Croatian? Was it Hungarian or Austrian, perhaps? To this day, the Hungarian Parliament House in Budapest displays the coat of arms of the City of Fiume. Without Fiume, Hungary has no port and no access to the sea. The natural answer would be, how is that Croatia’s problem? But what about the city’s Italians? They were ruthlessly purged by the Yugoslav communist authorities, becoming the Esuli – the exiles. 

A nation state can be and indeed should be ethnically homogenous. A capital city or a large city can aspire to be ethnically homogenous, though it’ll always have a community of foreigners orbiting state power. But a port city, especially the principal port city of any nation will always belong to the liminal space, where the land gives way to sea and the country gives way to the world at large. As such, it will always have a degree of diversity, a degree of the foreign about it. Rijeka was the principal port of the Kingdom of Hungary and is still the principal port of the Republic of Croatia today. If, in the future, the Croatian state were to join the proposed Intermarium alliance, Rijeka would be that alliance’s primary port in the Adriatic sea and from there the Mediterranean.

We who seek ethnic cohesion and homogeneity will have to accept these facts about the great port cities of the European nations. Nationalism alone is not sufficient for them. Nationalism can sustain the grand capital. Mere tribalism can sustain the mountain village. But the port city looks to the world and must have a global idea driving it. Obviously we oppose universalism and egalitarianism, however we must understand that a national unifying principle may be a prison to a port city. Rijeka has been dying on the vine ever since the collapse of the Dual Monarchy removed it forcibly from its global position and into the and later post-national era. 

It is becoming clear that old school nationalism, of the kind which caused the Italian-Yugoslav squabbling over Istria and Fiume, or maybe we should call them Istra and Rijeka, must become a thing of the past. The global consciousness which will invigorate the port city and indeed, anyone who feels that they need it must necessarily be a racial consciousness, a consciousness of a comity between all right-minded white men who can work together to create great things. Just as an Englishman working in an Austrian company in an Italian-Croatian city administered by Hungarians could invent the Torpedo, so is the future of our race and its great port cities a future of European cooperation and mutual respect.
In all the grand port cities of Europe and her daughters, in London, in New York, in Marseilles, in Rotterdam, in distant Buenos Aries and ancient Venice, in frigid Oslo and sweltering Cadiz, in dreamy Rijeka and long-suffering Odesa, our race must find a new unity, a unity of salt and sail, where long trade routes connect us over the seas. The great gates of these lanes are our beautiful port cities, eclectic and kaleidoscopic, places of many languages and cuisines, but of one race – the white race.
The gift of Rijeka was to grant, if for a small while, the possibility of that dream. It failed, of course, because white unity failed in the 20th century. But now our unity is our only hope of survival in the demographic age and soon, the old dream of Rijeka must be revived once again. 

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Nationalism can sustain the grand capital. Mere tribalism can sustain the mountain village. But the port city looks to the world and must have a global idea driving it.

Our race must find a new unity, a unity of salt and sail, where long trade routes connect us over the seas.

Those were my favorite parts. 🙂 Maybe one day White men will start working together. We need talk like this to build a foundation on. Sir Oswald Mosley said a long time ago “it’s been done before and it can be done again, our task is to do what we are doing”. It’s good to see articles like this talk about Nationalism today and reaching back into the past. I’d never heard of Gabriele D’Annunzio before.

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