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Zvoncari: Rijeka Carnival and the bell ringers of Kastav

by Rudolf Abraham

"> Picture above: Zvoncari ("bell ringers") in full dress at Rijeka's annual carnival (photo © Rudolf Abraham).


Shrovetide is carnival time across much of Europe. A few days of madness in the run-up to Lent subvert the normal order of urban and rural life. Guest contributor Rudolf Abraham reports from Rijeka on a little piece of cultural street theatre that has horned, toothed and exotic creatures dancing on the streets of the Croatian port city.

Anyone approaching Rijeka’s waterfront on the first Sunday of this month, would have found a crowd several thousand strong milling around expectantly, chattering and dancing and dressed in outrageous costumes. From black and white harlequins and shimmering blue fish, to soot-smudged chimney sweeps and little red riding hoods, divas, devils and dancing bees.

They are waiting to set off as part of the annual carnival parade — the main event of the wild and wonderful Rijeka Carnival. Held on the Sunday immediately prior to Lent, this is one of the largest Shrovetide carnival processions in Europe — an enormous event with up to 10,000 participants from up to 100 carnival groups, and attracting well over 100,000 spectators. At twelve o’clock sharp the first group swings right onto Ivana Zajca, erupting into song and dance, with music blasting from speakers mounted on elaborate carnival floats.

The carnival tradition in the Croatian city of Rijeka stretches back more than a century. It is part of a much wider Shrovetide carnival scene in Europe — though it was comparatively recently, in 1982, that it took its present form, with the procession cavorting its way along the Korzo, Rijeka’s principal pedestrian artery.

The largest carnival in Europe, by a considerable margin, is of course the Notting Hill Carnival in London — but that takes place in the summer months, not during Shrovetide, and is far removed from the cultural traditions and festivities of Shrovetide carnivals across Europe.

Rijeka’s Carnival Parade sets off from the corner of the Riva and Riva Boduli, just along from the opulent Jadrolinija building — the so-called ‘Adria Palace’, built in 1882. The building is a reminder of Rijeka’s Habsburg heritage, and a reminder too that Austria- Hungary was a serious player in global shipping. The ferry company Jadrolinija, which nowadays plies the Adriatic, is a pale shadow of the once-grand Adria Line — though a ride with Jadrolinija is still the most pleasant way of exploring the Croatian coast and islands. Nearby is a giant mural of a sculpture by Antun Augustincic being loaded onto a ship at Rijeka in 1954. The sculpture, called Vjesnica Mira, was shipped to New York, where it now stands in front of the United Nations building. These scenes are a reminder that Rijeka has always punched above its weight and has made its mark around the world. But Carnival Sunday reveals another Rijeka, a city that for a few jubilant hours ignores the wider world and exists only for itself.

After travelling east along Ivana Zajca to the Mrtvi Kanal, the parade then turns north and back along the Korzo, before returning to the Riva for ongoing festivities. Most spectators gather to watch along either side of the Korzo — which is packed during the parade, so you need to arrive early to stake out a good position with a decent view.

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