A Coastal Holiday in Opatija

Once a Habsburg resort, the sun-drenched Croatian town of Opatjia combines stunning views with contemporary comfort

On The Town | Ana Valjak, Alexander Litschka | July / August 2008

The coastal port city of Opatjia on the Adriatic (Photo: Ana Valjak)

As the temperature rises and sun pours down for more than twelve hours a day we all start dreaming of the seaside. For people in Vienna this dream is just five hundred kilometers away in Opatija, a town at the Croatian coast.

With a long weekend ahead we tank the car and head south. In the rear view mirror, clouds started gathering on the hills of Grinzing, it was good to be heading toward the sun. Driving down the highway towards Graz, trucks thunder by, each time belching carbon dioxide, we smile; soon the fresh sea water will be mixed with pine trees and lavender.

Two hours later we enter Slovenia and head toward the capital of Ljubljana. Thirty minutes later, we cross the border and look down a steep hillside to the ocean below. A beautiful azure blue reflecting the last yellow-red rays of the afternoon sun just as it is decanting into the depths of the sea. As a police officer returns the passports, after yet another rose-colored stamp inside, I say "Thank you," and drive away with a big smile.

Almost there… Downhill on the left we can see the mansions and hotels of the famous resort-town Opatija. We enter the town, past the palm trees humming, it seems, as the afternoon breeze whistles through the fronds. We’re staying at the wellness center Millennium (Milenji in Croatian), where we reserved a room a month ago, a necessity, as this resort is fully booked the entire year.

The whole town is built at the foot of the mountain stretching next to the coast, like the fabled towns of Nice, Cannes or Antibes on the Côte D’Azur. The villas, built in the Austrian Jugendstil and neo-baroque style by members of the Imperial court, are surrounded by beautiful gardens of oleander, and bougainvillea, specially decorated in a mix of tropical palms, dates and olive trees, and over 160 more exotic plants that originates from distant parts of the world and are not typical of this region.

As I park in front of the hotel we start feeling guilty about the work we left behind – but only for a second before the beautiful resort exerts its power and all of that is forgotten. The hotel is newly renovated (2004) and still gives the impression that no one has touched it. The art deco interiors are classy but also cozy, like a private vacation house, but of course bigger and fun of sharing it with other guests. The other visitors were mostly young couples, and almost no children, allowing a nice quiet vacation too much bedlam. We had our favorite room again, with a big balcony right above the entrance of the hotel.

A cool ocean breeze found the way through the open window, and we stretched out in relief on the huge bed. The room hasn’t changed since we were here last time. Austrians would feel very comfortable in this hotel because the interior strongly reminds of the classical Habsburg era. Among numerous interesting plants growing in the park is the Japanese camelia (Camellia japonica), which has become one of distinctive symbols of Opatija.

As a matter a fact Austrians feel comfortable in this town because it was known to be the favorite retreat place for Emperor Franz Joseph I during winter, and declared it a health resort in 1889. The lamps have picturesque little umbrellas and the curtains are thick, and it is hard not to feel like royalty. No, not yet. We open the balcony door and walk towards the luminous blue water spread out below us. A great room behind me, a huge balcony under foot, and the crystal clear ocean in front. Now we certainly feel like royalty.

And just as royalty what we needed is an exquisite royal massage, so we go down to the ground floor of the hotel to reserve massages at the reception. We walked into the wellness area put on the smooth, soft robes and waited to be taken care of. Alex went into a full body massage while I waited in the relaxing area surrounded by candles, enjoying the ambient music and reading brochure with all the services they provide. Maybe tomorrow I will do a pedicure with the full body cleansing, or manicure and face treatment. It is hard to decide because the offer is so broad. Soon after I went in the massage area and experienced heaven while getting a full body chocolate massage. Two hours later Alex and I met at the swimming pool at the glass house. One side of the glass house looks at the beautiful garden and the other to the sea. After all this we didn’t feel like royalty anymore, we felt like Greek Gods. So did our appetite; we were famished.

We walked to the promenade in search of a good restaurant. My dad suggested we should go to Bevanda, a restaurant specialized at sea cuisine. Bevanda exists since 1971 and since its first year it has been on the top of culinary scene. The offer is broad containing more than thirty different sea specialties. The vine menu was made by Branko Muzdeka best Croatian sommelier of the year 2007. We sat down at the terrace that is only few centimeters from the sea and watched sea gulls playing. The interior is a combination of modern flat surfaces and classical baroque chairs. All tables decorated by the finest cloths and crystal vases filled with flowers. We ordered a fish in the salt, which is a specially prepared fish so that when done, it has a crust of salt which then the waiter breaks with a hammer. It is exquisite. I let my gentleman friend decide on the vine.

After an exquisite dinner we took a stroll back to the hotel. Opatija like most  small resort towns has a unique charm of a slow life indulging pleasures of life. Beautiful nature, parks, old Austrian villas, seaside promenade and beaches attract tourists from Europe and all over the world for more then 160 years. Along the promenade, the beautiful sculpture "Maiden with the Seagull" sits on a rock out in the water. This sculpture is a symbol of Opatija since it was placed there in 1956 as a work of the work of sculptor Car. This sculpture is the second at this site. The original, demolished by a storm during the World War I, was called the "Madonna del Mare," the work of sculptor Rathausky from Graz, who also made the fountain "Helios and Selene" at the park next to St. Jacob’s Church in Opatija.

The "Madonna" was made to watch over the soul of count Arthur Kesselstadt, who vanished, not far off from that promontory swallowed by the waves in 1891. Today a gilded replica of the Madonna can be seen in front of Saint Jacob’s Church.

Opatija is very romantic town. At the same time it is quiet, relaxing and at the same time live and joyous. After my walk I turned back to my hotel looking forward to a fresh sleep. Tomorrow is another lazy day.

The coast can be reached by all means of transportation. From Südbahnhof the train ride takes about seven hours. From the same station the bus ride takes about six hours. From the Vienna International Airport the flight is forty-five minutes and tickets can wary from €150 to much more. The best contact page to find more about the town, hotels, restaurants and events is www.opatija.net. Prices at the Milenji Hotel vary from €200 to €450 per night. The reservations at the restaurant Bevanda can be made at: restaurant-bevanda@ri.htnet.hr

For more on Opatija, see "Revisiting and Reviving the ‘Austrian Riviera’" in TVR May 2012.

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