I take a bus from Pula to Opatija. I watch the scenery unfold – mountains, villages, one wound around a church like a French village, a huge scar of a factory, turning the river water bright green, and then it flows into the sea, turns blue again. We pass through several small towns by the sea, Lovran, Brseč, Ičići, before the bus pulls up in Opatija.
The young woman at the Tourist Office finds me a studio apartment in Volosko, 2 kilometers further on. The owner picks me up and drives me there. There are several small apartments, set around a small patio with trailing bushes. It’s delightful. Just beneath it is the main road to Rijeka and on the other side, the hillside leads into the old town of Volosko. It tumbles down the slope in a maze of narrow cobbled alleyways, that twist their way down to the sea. It has one main street, with grand old Venetian buildings that now house a Konsum supermarket and the Post Office on the ground floor.
I slither down to the sea. This is where the great Lungomare begins – 12 kilometres of waterside walkway, with stone paving and elegant railings built at the turn of the 20th century, still in Franz Joseph’s time.
And everything here has remained, resolutely, Kaiserlich und Königlich, the large icing-sugar-coated mansions and tall houses, the coves and bays, the trees lining the walkway, to give shade in the summer. This is where they came, in Franz Joseph’s time, the Emperor and Empress, their friends and their retinues, the Riviera of Opatija, heads of state and their attendants, the landowners, the statesmen, the wealthy and powerful, and those who were not powerful yet, but one day they would be.
The sun shines, but the bora still seizes the sea and rips it like a sheet, flings it against rocks and the promenade wall, where it breaks up into foamy fragments. In small pebble bays, the waves breathe up the slope of stones and then crackle like paper when they recede, hiss and snap, the stones tumble with loud popping sounds. The bora has turned the sea violent, overturned memories, emptied the love charms slipped between stones.
The Emperor who would reign forever and the Empire that would last forever. The bora shuffles its memories like cards in a familiar game of win and lose, with Fortune smiling on you or turning her head and her attention, out to sea.
The War came, tore up everything, the silks, the laughter and the wine, the damp paper treaties, paper money, paper notes of assignation, secrets, an undying love. The sea melts then swallows them.
So how come these memories don’t feel like shreds or fragments, but are bora-brought complete with light and shade, with tenderness of thread and stitch, with exultation of the rivets nailing into place this lane-along-the-sea, this shaded slipway, overlooking rocks, curving round each bay? Perhaps because it is built in homage – not to Queens or Emperors, not to power and structures of dominion but to the sea itself and the lacy decoration of the trees. The trees too, as they grew and bulged over their containing stones, look out over the water.
The bora blows, the chill wind from the sea. I feel I’m privileged to see the water like this, teeth snapping in the wind, waves ripping sheets of silk, throwing them on the stony beaches.
I meet other old friends, apart from Franz Joseph, who is everywhere. The Empress Elizabeth or Sisi as she was affectionately called, spent time here too. I first met her in Corfu, further down the Adriatic coastline, at the Achilleon which she had built as a retreat because she loved the pine trees that surrounded it, and the view out over the Ionian Sea. I met her again in Budapest, in the district named after her, Erzsébetváros.
When the walkway reaches Opatija, I come across a plaque commemorating the Marshall, Józef Piłsudski; I’d first met him through Kazimiera, in Poznan. I wonder if she was with him too, at least some of the time. I could imagine her walking here, with her white blouse, long dark skirt, hat tilted at an angle, and parasol in hand. The plaque reads: (with thanks to J for the translation)
"Józef Piłsudski, a soldier and a statesman, the co-founder of Poland’s independence,
First Marshall and the Chief of the Polish State
Lived in Opatija
On the eve of the Great War for the Independence of Nations
- Polish Embassy in Zagreb, Polish Cultural Society “Fryderyk Chopin” in Rijeka"
And near the gardens of the Villa Angiolina, built in 1844 by Iginio Scarpa, a resident of Rijeka, I come across the statue of a stout man, hands thrust in trouser pockets. It turns out to be Miroslav Krleža. He is more of an acquaintance than a friend, as I have not yet read his writing, but I intend to.
For even if they are no longer in bodily existence, I do count these people as friends, I feel I have come to know them either through reading or hearing about them, or reading what they have written or when I’ve been to places where they lived, places that were dear to them, and where their presence can still be felt. Their traces, their effects, their spirits. One of life’s mysteries. Why would we visit the graves of those dear to us or the places loved or lived in by writers or others who have had an effect on us, unless there was something that still has the power to move us?