Karneval, mesopust – commentary

The carnival in Rijeka is over for another year, which for some has come way too soon and for others has come way too late. It really seems to stir up much the same reaction as marmite – people either love the carnival or hate it. Although the main procession on the last Sunday during the carnival is the most visible and most widely promoted feature during carnival time, throughout the whole period there are all sorts of activities going on: bell ringers, carnival parties every Saturday night, the city ball attended by various dignitaries, special carnival plays, exhibitions and concerts. One such carnival activity is the trial of the pust. If you were to drive through any of the smaller towns and villages around Rijeka during carnival time, particularly in the villages around Opatija, you would more than likely spot the rather macabre sight of a human effigy, or pust, hanging from a post.

Every year, each village or town’s carnival society chooses a figure, who is held to blame for all the problems that have occurred during the previous year. In 2002, when I spent a lot of time going from village to village to look at the different pusts, a very popular figure was Osama bin Laden, but pusts can be an effigy of someone in the village [like a notorious womaniser or gossip], a local firm or state company, or even a concept [like suspicion]. Throughout the carnival period, the pust hangs on its post in shame until Shrove Tuesday when a court case is held to determine its fate. In front of the whole village the pust is put before the judge, where the charges that have been made against it are read out. Just as in a real trial, defence and prosecution lawyers present their cases. All the villages have their own way of carrying out the trial, but a shared feature in all them is the merciless humour and wise-cracks directed at the powers-that-be, and topical issues of the day . The pust is almost always found guilty as charged and is then sentenced to death, whereupon it is taken in a solemn funeral procession, with people dressed up as a priest and funeral mourners, to a funeral pyre to be burnt. Again, the burning of the pust takes many forms – but perhaps the most interesting [and most well-known] burning of the pust happens in Mošćenička Draga, where the pust is tied onto a make shift rocket facing the sea and burnt. With its burning, all of the problems of the previous year go up in smoke.

There has been some debate in recent years about the direction the carnival is taking. Some people feel it is becoming too commercial, too geared towards being a tourist attraction and that as a result the traditions that lie behind the carnival are taking second place. When I was speaking to one bell ringer, he told me that he is not happy with coming to the city to parade in the main procession. He said ‘we are not doing this because of the tourists, we are doing this because it is a part of our tradition’. His argument was that bell ringing is carried out in the villages to chase out the winter and to welcome in the spring, and that if people wanted to see this tradition they should come to the villages and not the other way around. The thing about pusts and the burning of the pust is they are one such tradition that cannot be brought into the city.

Original post by Sarah Czerny 🙂


Rijeka Carnival – Riječki karneval

Did you know that the city of Rijeka on the northern coast of Croatia hosts one of the largest international carnivals in the world?
The 2023 Rijeka Carnival Procession takes place on Sunday 19th February in the centre of the city – come and join the fun!


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.’

The zvončari bell ringers certainly scare the devil out of most people!

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.

Party goers of all ages take part

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!

Everyone joins in the fun

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!

Come and join in the fun of Carnival, the year-long Rijeka 2020 – European Capital of Culture programme and “be what you want to be!”

rijeka carnival rijecki karneval article

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.