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New Europe

Day Five: Rijeka

The market at Rijeka 
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The market at Rijeka. A cathedral of fish.
Michael Palin - New EuropeSpend the night at Opatija, at the north-eastern end of the Istrian peninsula. Once a favourite watering hole for the rich and successful of the Austro-Hungarian empire, it has the languorous, stuffy air of a place that will change only reluctantly. My guidebook damns it with faint praise. 'Attracts an elderly clientele of middle-class Europeans.'

The next working city down the Croatian coast is Rijeka ( in Italian Fiume - both words meaning 'river') and I have a special reason for stopping here. When I was making Around the World in Eighty Days I remember a slow and rather magical voyage across the Bay of Bengal aboard a Yugoslav freighter called 'Susak', captained by a man of infinite, if lugubrious patience. He, like the rest of the crew, viewed the Madras-Calcutta-Singapore run as some sort of punishment and the only time I saw him cheerful was when he talked of his home and family, back in Rijeka. The name didn't mean much to me then but now I'm looking at it on the road signs ahead, and Captain Sablic has agreed to meet me again, eighteen years on.

With some difficulty we find a place to park in the busy port area, and as we're a little early I walk around a nearby fish market. It's like a small cathedral. Built by an Italian the year the First World War broke out, it has an apse, a gallery and a fine timber roof through which the sun filters onto glistening slabs of tuna steaks, nine inches thick, squid, shrimp, mackerel, sardines and mountains of conger eels. Business is done in traditional fashion. No computerised cash tills here. The fish are weighed in standard-size brass buckets and measured with brass weights.

Round the corner from this piscatorial palace, I find Captain Sablic at one of the outdoor cafés. Any worry that I might not recognise him is quickly allayed for, even without the uniform and with a few more pounds on him, the face and the posture are unmistakable. The captain had a way of occupying a chair that suggested he might be in it for ever, and his face betrays the same grave world-weariness that I knew from nights in the mess-room on the 'Susak'.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Five: Rijeka
  • Country/sea: Croatia
  • Place: Rijeka
  • Book page no: 19

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