When I arrived in Rijeka several years ago, one of the first things I learned about the city was that it plays host to one of the largest carnival celebrations in all of Europe, if not in all of the world. While growing up in the Midwest of the U.S., I was aware that the carnival tradition is celebrated with vigor in New Orleans, LA, but other than there, the tradition seemed largely ignored by most Americans. So imagine my surprise back in the mid-1990s, when just a few days after my arrival, my hosts brought me to Rijeka’s center to participate in its grand event for a day I’ll never forget.
That particular day was cold and blustery, as the fickle, late-winter weather along Rijeka’s waterfront tends to be. The city’s main business district, the Korzo, was swarming with people. It seemed as though dozens of foreign languages were being shouted out in all directions. There was music blaring, and thousands of colorful banners and streamers were flapping in the wind.
At first, I watched with heightened interest as group after group of costumed participants paraded down the Korzo, each group dressed in different matching outfits that were sponsored by various clubs and organizations from communities around the region. I can remember asking my friends a few relevant questions about the history of the tradition and the process of the parade, but after a short time in the cold, the wine and beer started flowing, and they started dancing and singing. Before I knew it, the party was in full swing and the details of the tradition no longer seemed important. I knew at that moment I had been infected with the spirit of carnival.
Because carnival, per se, is directly related to the Catholic season of Lent, it is a tradition that is celebrated across most of Europe. Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to sample a few carnival festivals in other places and found that the style of celebration differs among each but the spirit does not. Venice, Italy, is probably most renowned for its carnival tradition, and its carnival has a more reserved atmosphere than what is offered in Rijeka. Cities in Austria, Hungary, France, Germany, and Spain, among other countries, are well known for putting on fantastic carnival celebrations as well.
It should be mentioned that carnival is a season rather than a single event. Its length varies from year to year, depending on the Catholic Lenten season and which week and month Easter Sunday falls on. Some years the carnival season lasts for as few as three weeks, while other years it goes on for as long as six weeks. In any case, the main event that takes place in Rijeka is the grand finale of a multi-week party that is celebrated there and in all of the villages in the surrounding region. During the carnival season, these nearby communities open their sports halls and community centers each Saturday night and provide music, food, and spirits– everything needed to draw the costumed revelers for a night of incognito fun.
The fun, however, isn’t limited to disguised adults trying to put some spice into an otherwise uneventful time of year. The local authorities take care to include children in the festivities, and they support parades and celebrations in the larger communities for groups of children organized by schools, kindergartens, and other clubs and organizations.
This year was the 30th anniversary of the grand carnival parade that takes place on Rijeka’s Korzo, which gave the atmosphere a dose of extra excitement. The 2013 season began on January 17th and ended on February 13th, Ash Wednesday, the traditional end to the carnival season. Various sources I’ve read stated that between ten and twenty thousand masked people participated in the parade, and well over one hundred thousand people enjoyed the festivities from the sidelines. This year’s event was enhanced by nice weather, which was cold but sunny and clear for this time of year.
Over the last seventeen years, the event has grown and improved considerably in scope and organization. In my opinion, it has become more spectator-friendly. Food stalls are more plentiful, face-painting and souvenir stands are commonplace, and cafés, restaurants, and local shops have become better staffed and prepared for the influx of business.
On the negative side, suitable parking and lodging in Rijeka remains difficult to find, pickpockets have been known to work the crowds, and the noise level can be deafening. So if you are planning to join the party in the future, book your lodging well in advance, arrive early in the Rijeka center to find adequate parking, leave all unnecessary documents and valuables in your hotel, and bring a pair of earplugs to protect against the constant, blaring decibel levels.
Another suggestion that readers who are considering paying a visit to next year’s carnival might value is to plan an extended trip of at least a few weeks to experience the carnival season in different settings. Anyone staying in Rijeka or Opatija can easily book an organized day trip to Venice (three hours by bus – usually every Saturday during the carnival season) from most travel agencies to sample a taste of two carnivals on one trip.
As I finish this article, the carnival season is officially drawing to a close. In fact, the Zvončari club from the village where I am writing this is marching down the street a short distance away.
The Zvončari tradition developed from pagan rituals of centuries past to scare away evil spirits and to stimulate new life in springtime. Nearly each village has its own Zvončari club which consists of men and boys wearing striped shirts, sheepskin capes, extremely large cowbells that make a deafening racket, and animal-head masks that are evil-looking enough to fascinate most adults and terrify most small children. Only minutes from now, the locals will burn the ‘Pust,’ a man-shaped puppet that has been hanging in the village center over the last several weeks. The Pust, who facetiously represents a local politician or prominent citizen, is blamed for all the disasters the community suffered during the previous year. At the proper time, charges against him are read by the local authorities before the puppet is set ablaze for his sins, thus bringing the carnival season to a close.
In conversations with many local Croats over the years, I have decided that carnival season isn’t enjoyed by all with equal enthusiasm. Like everything else, there are people who scorn the noise and inconvenience of it all and others who look forward to the season with great joy. If you are one of the latter, then plan a visit to Rijeka, Croatia, one year in February or March. It would be worth the trip at least once in a lifetime. Below is the official link for the Rijeka carnival. Anyone thinking of coming in the future would be wise to reference it before planning their trip.
Douglas Cavanaugh is a hobbyist writer who has lived in Croatia for seventeen years. He is the author of an international spy novel, Into Hell’s Fire (www.into-hells-fire.com), which is set in Croatia and Bosnia in 1992. The book is available in both paperback and eBook formats. More information about his book and other great books and music related to Croatia that he recommends can be seen in the bookstore and music shop on the site: www.into-hells-fire.com
Here is a review by an anonymous reader of Into Hell’s Fire listed on Amazon.com:
4.0 out of 5 stars A Good Yarn
Douglas portrays accurately the pain, beauty, history and politics of the former Yugoslavia.
We are shown the greed, duplicity and military aggression of Serbia and Croatia.
The portrayal of events in Sarajevo is particularly well written. The reader feels as if he is there dodging the bullets. Douglas has told it the way I believe it really happened. There is far more reality here than can be found in the novel Goodbye Sarajevo.
Also well written are the action paragraphs of the novel. These I found to be very readable.
A good yarn. Well researched and a great first book by this author. What will he write next, I wonder?