Home of Croatia’s league champions crowned in 2017, Rijeka is a port city with a fiery passion for football. After the 25-year monopoly of the independent domestic game by the capital Zagreb and rival Adriatic soccer hub Split, Rijeka was rewarded for its communal dedication when flagship club HNK Rijeka ended Dinamo’s 11-year grip on the title. A memorable win over Cibalia Vinkovci sealed the deal.
The 2016-17 season was the first full one played at the Stadion Rujevica, known as the ‘Kamp’ because the modest ground, expanded and improved prior to the subsequent European campaign in July 2017, is the main pitch at HNK’s training camp. This will be Rijeka’s home turf until 2018, when a completely revamped €25-million arena will be unveiled at the seafront Kantrida. So close to the Adriatic you only need to walk ten paces from the stadium and you’re striding on beach towels, the Kantrida is as legendary as its location is memorable.
From the terrace of the Kantrida bar, the Pod Kavun, blue sea stretches out to an endless horizon. Inside, a wall displays generations of Rijeka teams, all in stark white, backdropped by the same jagged cliff-face that once formed one side of the stadium.
Football in Rijeka reflects the mixed history of this sought-after, deep-water port, part of Hungary until World War I, then Italy until World War II. Although there’s no record of any clubs from the Hungarian era – just a legacy of grand Habsburg buildings and the invention of the torpedo – US Fiumana were a reasonable force in the Italian game from the mid 1920s to the early 1940s.
Based at the Kantrida, their team featured later Torino five-time Scudetto winner Ezio Loik and Rodolfo Volk, top scorer in Serie A with Roma in 1930-31. Both were born in Fiume, still the Italian (and Hungarian) name for Rijeka.
Volk, the first goalscorer at Roma’s legendary Campo Testaccio ground, would return to Fiumana after his glory days, playing right up to when the club folded in 1942-43.
But Fiumana, effectively, just changed their name to NK Kvarner (the name of the region) in the immediate aftermath of World War II. They stayed at the Kantrida and the bulk of the team remained the same. That is, until 1947, and the post-war settlement that saw Rijeka formerly belong to Tito’s new Socialist state of Yugoslavia and nearly all of the city’s Italian speakers – which is to say the majority of the local population – forcibly sent over the new border to Italy.
Up until then, the border had been the narrow river, the Riječina, which today provides a pretty view to those sitting on the terrace of the downtown Hotel Continental. To the east is the former separate community of Sušak where, before 1947, most of the Croats lived. They had their own football team, first known as HŠK Victoria, formed a decade or more before Fiumana.
And, although Sušak is on the other side of Rijeka to the Kantrida, carved out of a stone quarry in 1911, Victoria were the first team to play there two years later.
The shifting border after World War I meant that the team from Sušak were no longer able to play in what was effectively Italy. The club was renamed NK Orijent and later competed, with occasional success, in the Yugoslav set-up after 1945. They made the top flight once and enjoyed the occasional cup run.
Declared bankrupt in 2014, they bounced back as NK Orijent 1919 to win their regional division of Croatia’s fifth tier in 2015. All this time, from the 1920s onwards, the Reds have played at the Stadion Krimeja, Kumičićeva 66, in the heart of Sušak half a kilometre from the old border crossing.
They also played a number of city derbies against NK Rijeka – formerly NK Kvarner and renamed in 1954. The Whites enjoyed more of the limelight when part of Yugoslavia, winning two cups and beating Real Madrid 3-1 at the Kantrida in 1984 – but, as HNK Rijeka, they are now a big fish in the small pond of the stand-alone Croatian league.
League runners-up in 2014 and 2015, HNK Rijeka have long outshone seaside rivals Hajduk Split even before the 2017 triumph. Now HNK supporters’ group the Armada have a league title to taunt Hajduk’s Torcida fans in Adriatic derbies in 2017-18.
Rijeka airport is on the island of Krk 25km (15.5 miles) south of the city’s main bus station at trg Žabica. Buses (50kn, journey time 45min) connect with incoming flights, almost all services seasonal. Back to the airport, buses leave from platform 5 of the city bus station.
A taxi (+385 91 516 5236) should have a fixed fee of around 200kn but agree with the driver first.
Rijeka is connected by bus with the Croatian capital of Zagreb (2.5-3hr) and Ljubljana (2hr 15min). Croatia’s main bus company, Autotrans, which serves the airport, is based in Rijeka. More information can be found at Bus Croatia.
Rijeka bus station is near the city centre, where you’ll also find the harbour for boats down the Adriatic coast. It’s also set between the city centre and the underused train station on the way to the Kantrida stadium in the west of town. There are three trains a day from Zagreb, 3.5hr-4hr journey time.
Downtown Rijeka, with its free communal WiFi, is walkable. For the Rujevica, you’ll need a city bus, tickets (15.50kn for two journeys, 20kn for a day ticket) available from newsstands or 10kn on board.
Near the Kantrida, the Villa Nora comprises two sea-facing apartments overlooking the beach and the stadium – ideal if they’re free. Also nearby, on the main road, the 3.Maj Prenoćište Kantrida is a basic hostel with equally basic showers but floor after floor of extremely cheap beds in two- and three-person rooms.
Nearer Sušak, by the Riječina river, the three-star Continental has a history dating back to the Habsburg days. It was revamped in 2008. Behind, in the same Hoteli Jadran group, the Neboder (‘Skyscraper’) has also improved since it was a hangover from the Socialist days.
Further east, the Hotel Jadran was also an old-school remnant, with steps down to the sea. It has since been renovated and reopened by the Best Western group and renovated.
Diagonally opposite is the best hostel in town, the Youth Hostel Rijeka.
Nearby, the Belgian Beer Café has all the trappings, flavoured beers and all. Pommery is more party-centric with a huge terrace. Only known to locals, Nad Urom is on the top floor of a shopping centre right on the Korzo, with TV football on a panoramic terrace and a bird’s eye view of landmark clock tower.
Down below, also football-focused, the Fiorello Pub is as more recent opening.