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Our cultural trip to Rijeka, February 2020

When you’re making plans to stage an international year of culture in the city you love, it makes sense to start by doing your homework. That’s why Leeds 2023’s creative director Kully Thiarai and I set off from St Pancras Station in London on a chilly February morning at the start of a remarkable train journey through Europe to Rijeka, a Croatian city on the Adriatic coast with a population of around 130,000 and a rich industrial and cultural heritage.

There was a special reason for visiting Rijeka. It’s this year’s European Capital of Culture and we knew there was a great deal we could learn about how to stage major events, build profile in the city, engage citizens from all corners of the community and ensure lasting benefit long after their year of culture has ended.

The journey was long but thrilling in its own way. We minimised our carbon footprint by using the train and our two-day route took us through some of Europe’s most iconic cities – Paris, Milan, Venice and Trieste and more. Most of them sped by almost unnoticed but we overnighted in a budget hotel in Turin and made the last leg of the journey from Trieste to Rijeka by bus, arriving in the early evening with time to hungrily devour fresh fish caught that morning in a restaurant next door to our little apartment, which was simple but clean, central and comfy.

view of a blue sky in Italy from train window

A view from our train window arriving into Trieste, Italy.

The next day was parade day, or Rijecki Karneval – and wow do they know how to party in Rijeka. Just about every community group in the area turned out with a display of some sort, and many other European cities made a contribution to the spectacle too.

A big lesson for us to take home was the incredible cultural diversity of the parade itself (which by the way continued uninterrupted for a staggering eight hours). Traditional herders and farmers shook their giant cow-bells and rustled their raffia skirts alongside US style drum majorettes, Japanese martial arts experts, LGBTQ revellers, kids in national costume, local trade bodies (I particularly loved the dressmakers kitted out as cotton reels) blues bands, dancing girls, dancing boys, Indians in glorious colours. No idea what the blokes in lace veils and ribbons were all about but it didn’t matter somehow as the entire city turned out to celebrate, participate and party until dawn.

people in costume celebrating carnival

Rijeka carnival in full swing.

The culture of carnival is deeply rooted in Croatian society, so our second lesson was to amplify what our city already loves – and we have no shortage of our own parades, from the Chapeltown Carnival to the Tour de Yorkshire with Light Night and dozens of other smaller events in between.

We thought hard about how we might achieve the right balance between massive events like this and smaller, more bespoke gatherings that happen across our own city of Leeds all the time. We collapsed into bed exhausted after something like twelve solid hours of carnival fun and factfinding (don’t ask me who the guy apparently dressed as a leprechaun hugging Kully came from, but it definitely wasn’t Ireland).

The following day we had more work to do, and spent the morning with Dorian Celcer, the partnerships and protocols manager for Rijeka 2020. They have a lovely, accessible office, not flashy but cool and open to the people of the city to come and use shared spaces, buy merchandise, attend events and find out all about the great year of events and activities that have been planned.

Dorian Celcer, the partnerships and protocols manager for Rijeka 2020.

Rijeka 2020 essentially has three main themes: WATER, WORK AND MIGRATION – representing the past, present and future of the city and wider region. As a coastal city they are launching ten permanent large scale installations on or by the sea, mostly in pretty unexpected places.
Visiting artists are working with them but everyone invited has to work with local people to share knowledge and skills. In the lead-up years Rijeka 2020 staged 200 different events and 600 are planned for 2020 itself – that’s quite something.

Grabbing a couple of hours to ourselves and following Dorian’s detailed instructions, Kully and I caught the bus up to the highest point above the city, Trsat Castle, which dates back to the 13th century and is an event and meeting place for visitors and cultural enthusiasts alike, described as it is as a place of ‘tradition, passion and experience’.
Rijeka is a glorious part of the world, 70% of the surrounding area is protected and of outstanding natural beauty – we were excited to learn that this is the only place in the world where bears, wolves and vultures all live in the wild together. Amazing!

Kully at the top of Trsat Castle overlooking the city.

Rijeka 2020 hasn’t been afraid of controversy, investing in the restoration of the 80 year old yacht belonging to the former Yugoslav communist leader Tito, which has angered right-wing nationalists.

Community engagement and environmental sustainability are central to everything they do at Rijeka 2020, which chimes closely with our own objectives. Their priority is to change local lives and bring economic benefit to a region which is challenged on many levels. Thirty million euros has been invested in cultural projects and another forty-two million euros in infrastructure (the latter mostly coming from the EU, which made us feel a bit glum as of course we won’t benefit from that ourselves now we’ve left the European Union). The investment is heavy but will have lasting impact. The restoration of the city library, the city art gallery, the city museum and the children’s centre are all underway.

Within a month of coming home coronavirus has struck, a global crisis that has set the whole world reeling. It’s heart-breaking to think that in Rijeka many years of planning has now been eradicated as their live events, exhibitions, community activities and hundreds of amazing workstreams have been cancelled or put on hold. The city is striving to react and preserve what it can but you can only feel for everyone at this most desperate moment in our history.

We came back from Rijeka with a mass of information to help us plan our own approach to Leeds 2023, but our hearts go out to the people of this remarkable city and we wish them every possible bit of good luck in the difficult months that lie ahead for them.

Ruth Pitt, chair, Leeds 2023