Revisiting and Reviving the ‘Austrian Riviera’
A single train offers not only the least expensive ride to the Croatian coast, but also a peek into Austria’s once-imperial Abazzia
On 28 Mar, 1894 at 19:00, Emperor Franz Josef boarded the Abbazia-bound Hofjagdzug at Vienna’s Südbahnhof to meet the German Kaiser Wilhelm II. The following morning at 9:00 sharp, the Kaiser pulled into the small station of Matulji with "beautiful sunshine, clear sky, blue sea and warm, kräftig air." Coats of arms and laurel decorated the station with Austrian and Prussian banners where the German Kaiser awaited with open arms to escort him by carriage down to the Austrian Riviera resort on the Adriatic.
One hundred and eighteen years and a handful of days later, I boarded the EC151 from Vienna’s Meidling station bound for the same resort, now Opatija in Croatia. I was feeling royal myself, having discovered that ÖBB operates a daily, direct train departing Vienna at 8:02 a.m., and even at prices as low as €29 for the entire 10-hour trip. This must surely be the cheapest way to get to the sea for any Vienna resident.
After the unceremonious start past the Meidling graveyard, the train pulled out of Vienna, and passed through Imperial Baden and up the breath-taking climb of the Semmering Bahn between Gloggnitz and Mürzzuschlag. The left side of the café car offered the best views of the 460-metre climb, as the train curved its way around the valley over the viaduct, passing castle ruins, snowy peaks and thawing ski slopes. The Kaiser had slept through all this.
After a stop in Graz, the train descended into Slovenia, through Maribor train yard (now a canvas for the country’s graffiti artists), and into the Alpine scenery of the Savinja river valley. After an hour-long pause in the concrete jungle of Ljubljana station (more colourful graffiti), the train carried on through the wooded border between Slovenia and Croatia. Although I wanted to alight at the wisteria-draped station at Matulji, I carried further to the terminus at Rijeka to take a practical 30-minute bus ride to Opatija, the former hub of Austria’s Imperial coastline.
A tropical terminus for the new railroad
Until 1873, when the Austro-Hungarian Imperial South Railway (K.u.k. Südbahngesellschaft) completed the line to Fiume (now Rijeka), Opatija consisted of a medieval abbey and the lone Villa Angiolina built in 1844 by a Fiume-based freemason named Higinio Scarpa for his wife. The rail company developed the resort under its General Director Friedrich Julius Schüler, and within twenty years Abbazia became the destination for the royal elite. Its first hotel, the Kvarner, opened in 1884, and hosted Anton Chekhov a decade later. He didn’t like it. "Have you ever been to Abbazia?" he asked in his story Ariadne. "It’s a filthy little Slav town with only one street, which stinks, and in which one cannot walk after rain without galoshes."
In the rain that also greeted my April arrival, I found an Opatija still bearing the air of old Imperial Austria, with many hotels and villas donning the names changed during the Tito years. The balcony of the Hotel Bristol facing the open Adriatic and Krk Island also looks over the Park Angiolina laid out by Vienna architect Carl Schubert around the original pink Villa, now a museum. Its environment envelops the visitor with birdsong and fragrant plant life, including a towering Californian sequoia. Author of several tombstones in Vienna’s Zentralfriedhof, sculptor Johann Rathausky’s bust of Schüler stands in this park, and his Helios & Selene in the adjacent St. Jakob Park.
The town itself also bursts with abundant plant life, which is transformed into an echoing rainforest when the heavens open. Cypress trees, palms, and magnolias provide the canopy, while violet wisteria drapes over stonewalls. The city’s emblematic red camellia fills the streets when in bloom in February.
A history of healing, not without tragedy
Franz Josef had expressed reservations about idyllic Abbazia, when his son Crown Prince Rudolf and wife Princess Stephanie of Belgium fell in love with it. "I plead with you, beware of sailing so much, so you don’t catch a cold," the Kaiser wrote the princess on 8 Mar., 1887. "You’re there as a patient, so look after your health. It would be better to hear as little as possible about your excursions out at sea."
Franz Josef’s fears were recalled after an accident at sea on 27 Mar., 1891, when during rough seas a Theresianum student named Georg accidentally knocked his mother Countess Anna Fries overboard with his oar, leading to her drowning. A commemorative statue by Zvonko Car has become a popular image: a lone maiden standing on a spit of rock holding a seagull.
Walks along the seafront Lungomare promenade are a common pastime, offering a view of the coves and of old Kaiserliche-und-königliche establishments like today’s Art Pavillion, a former Austro-Hungarian Konditorei, or confectioner. Another trail, the Šetalište Carmen Silva, skirts the hillside just over 100 metres above sea level, offering views of the sea at places. First named after Romanian King Carol, who got lost, out riding on a horse likely during his first trip in April 1896 to the Villa Angiolina, the 30-minute path apparently requires 1903 steps for adults, 2538 child footsteps.
In the evening Opatija’s waterfront restaurants serve basic fare, but back up a hillside street the Ivančić family runs one of the few local restaurants in town, Istranka, with an inviting interior of home furnishings. The bakalar na bijelo (cod pâté) kicked off the meal with mild sea effervescence. In-season asparagus soup followed with crispy stalks swimming in a puréed broth with egg yolk cream. For the main course, the beef goulash fit the bill with beef (and plenty of it) and fragrant aromas of caraway seed and local laurel leaf. For dessert, we headed down the street to the Kaffeehaus of the Grand Hotel – you might say a 1st District transplant – for a lethal triple-chocolate Milenji Torte.
Opatija’s bus station offers connections to the scenic Istrian Peninsula, including Pula and its Roman amphitheatre, the sixth largest in Antiquity. Another 40-minute bus ride leads to Rovinj, a sleepy-looking fishing village that teems with tourists in the high season. Even the distant, stunning Plitvice waterfalls, one of Croatia’s highlights, lie a day-trip away.
Before my €29 return to Vienna, I made sure to visit the forlorn station at Matulji, seeking out the "Imperial Waiting Room" I had read about. Two attendants with nothing much else to do sat in an office with original furnishings and little sign of modern technology, and told of plans to revive the station for future admiration. With a turn of a key, one of them led us into the old waiting room, now occupied by a ping-pong table between the dusty antique benches awaiting refurbishment. Wall markings indicated where authorities had removed paint and wood samples for planned renovations.
Outside I could imagine the Hofjagdzug pulling northward to Vienna, with fanfare and waving Kaisers, kings and counts. I climb on board, and the old Imperial days are on the rails once again.
Travel Facts: How to get there: EC151 departs Wien Meidling at 8:02, (SparSchiene as low as €29), and arrives in Matulji at 17:42. From Matulji, take a Halo Taxi (35 kuna, €5), or continue by train and alight in Rijeka at 17:56. Catch bus 32 from opposite the Rijeka train station at 18:30 to Opatija, arriving at 19:00. Bus ticket valid for 3 Zones (26 kuna, or €3.5) available at any newsstand.
Where to Stay: Hotel Bristol, Ulica Maršala Tita 108, www.vi-hotels.com/bristol
For additional photographs of Opatija and the Istrian Peninsula, visit the accompanying slideshow.