Did you know that the city of Rijeka on the northern coast of Croatia hosts one of the largest international carnivals in the world?
Every February the world goes carnival crazy with the lead up to Lent: Rio, Venice and also in Croatia, where the spirit of Mardi Gras is alive and kicking. The Kvarner Riviera attracts over 150,000 revellers from all over Europe. The 2011 event was the largest in its history with again over 100 floats and troupes of ‘zvoncari’ bell ringers coming from all over south east Europe filling the city with music, noise and festivities: the Rijecki karneval!I had spent a couple of days on the beautiful island of Cres, off the Kvarner coast and was joining in with the preparations for the big carnival. People were busy building amazing floats, extravagant costumes and masks whilst others were rehearsing music and dance routines, which would fill the streets of Rijeka in the final procession on Sunday.
In villages all over the region the local young men were preparing themselves to ‘drive-out winter.’ Early one morning I travelled up to the idyllic hillside village of Matulji just outside Rijeka. Here I was met by the colourfully dressed mayor and his small ‘oompah’ band. I guess they were very pleased to see me as they pressed a glass of the local brew, a heady mix of grappa and mountain herbs, locally known as ‘rakija,’ into my hand. While this warmed my cockles he told me about the tradition of the ‘zvoncari’ which means ‘bell ringers.’
In ancient times, the evil spirits of winter were banished by these fearsome characters dressed in sheepskins, brandishing wooden clubs and bones whilst yelling and gyrating the cow bells hanging from their waists, but this hadn’t really prepared me for the spectacle I was to experience later on that day.After a hearty, wholesome lunch of bread, cheese, ham and local wine I wandered into the crowds of people starting to line the streets. What was going on? Little did I realise, that Matulji was the village where the zvoncari were meeting before the big Sunday procession in Rijeka and already the square was filling with bright costumes and brass bands. Men from all over the area and indeed some coming from as far away as Poland and Slovakia as well as neighbouring Slovenia were arriving and getting into character. What a sight!
Each ‘tribe’ had a different outfit, some full sheepskin garbs with long red tongues and huge horns, some with outrageous head dresses and some even with real animal skulls over their faces. Real demonic versions of England’s own Morris Men! Once gathered together, each tribe began their exorcism of the ‘devil’ – winter. What a tremendous cacophony!
Bells clanging, shouting and yelling, whips cracking and drumming all followed through the village by brass bands and a costumed children’s parade. Leading up to the final Sunday grand parade in Rijeka, these troupes carry out their traditional ritual through all the towns and settlements of the Kvarner region, sometimes without rest, whilst the local people provide them with food and copious amounts of beer and wine.
Many zvoncari begin their path as toddlers and these littl’uns sometimes tag along in their tiny versions of their fathers full costumes, very cute. In 2010, to prove how significant they are, these pagan bell ringers gained international UNESCO status so as to be protected as a part of the region’s cultural-heritage.
This was a perfect introduction to the full carnival spirit of Rijeka. The city is steeped in history. A place where mid-European culture and the Mediterranean climate meet. All around you can spy the various influences of the Venetians, Italians, Austrians and Hungarians from the architecture to the customs, a real crossroads of culture.
Throughout the carnival period other festivities take place. From classical music concerts to masked balls and everyone is involved. Tens of thousands of people converge on the city every year. Over 120 floats and groups portraying everything from the Romans to political parodies to modern-day environmental issues all vibrantly decorated, partying and parading through the city.
One of my fellow spectators told me that it takes nearly six hours for all the floats to pass by, but I was enjoying the atmosphere so much that time didn’t matter! I even spotted the mayor – he was having a whale of a time dressed as a huge beer barrel leading his merry brass band! He gave me the biggest grin, probably because he had drunk the contents before climbing into it!
Although the roots of carnival go back centuries this event is always evolving for the last few years it has featured the Pariz-Bakar masked car rally. No this isn’t a spelling mistake! In Rijeka there is a region known as Pariz and nearby is the town of Bakar (once a leading Croatian town) and one of the country’s best known racers Tihomir Filipovic, recognising the connection after completing the famous Paris-Dakar Rally, started the trend and now up to 200 brightly painted vehicles make the tour between the two points into Rijeka for the end of party banquet.
It is hard to believe that the Rijeka International Carnival is probably one of the largest in Europe and yet few people in the UK have heard of it. You could easily travel to the Venice Carnevale di Venezia and then come to Rijeka and do it all over again!
More info: http://www.ri-karneval.com.hr/en/
My original article published in the Civil Service Motoring Association’s ‘Motoring & Leisure’ magazine in January 2001.