A favourite resort of the Austro-Hungarian great and good, and now one of Croatia's major attractions on the Istrian peninsula. Opatija doesn't quite look as if it's caught up with the twentieth century yet, much less the twenty-first, with all its buildings converted pastel villas that look as if they should have housed a holidaymaking archduke or two.

The coastal town owes its elevation from fishing village status to Iginia Scarpa, a businessman from nearby Rijeka who built a park and villa named after his wife Angiolina in the centre of Opatija in 1844. The flurry of elaborate late-nineteenth-century hotels, on the other hand, were mostly the work of Friedrich Schueller and his Southern Railways Company. Forty years after Scarpa moved in, Schueller began with the instantly recognisable Hotel Kvarner, the Adriatic's answer to the Hotel Sacher although without, unfortunately, its own signature torte.

The facade of the Kvarner, which takes its name from the gulf Opatija overlooks, is bedecked with putti, curlicues and such like, and bears more resemblance to an opera house than does Rijeka's opera house. The Kvarner, and its sister hotel the Imperial, played host to most of Opatija's illustrious visitors, from the Habsburg royals to James Joyce by way of King Carol I of Romania, who got himself lost out riding in the woods one day and promptly paid for them to be festooned with signposted trails.

During the 1990s, the Kvarner's famous Crystal Ballroom took on a new lease of life as the venue for the annual Dora festival which selected Croatia's entry to the Eurovision Song Contest.

There's not much of old Opatija to see; you'll have more luck with the tranquil harbour experience at Lovran, a few kilometres west along the Franz Joseph Promenade, named after the octogenarian emperor who presided over Opatija's heyday. Still, St. Jacob's Abbey, which gave the town its name in both Croatian and Italian, sits in the middle of Angiolina Park, just a grove away from the miniscule Portic bay.

An outcrop of rocks to one side of Portic shows off Opatija's emblem, if by 'emblem' one means the location plastered across everything you can buy in the souvenir shops. The statue of a Maiden with a Seagull has been gazing out to sea with the bird on her hand since 1956 (I'd like to see a falconer who could manage that), when it unceremoniously replaced the Madonna watching over the soul of a count who died in a boating accident in 1891.

Between the wars Opatija belonged, along with the rest of Istria, to Italy, not that you'd be able to tell; the town's healthy attitude to nostalgia, which accounts for Franz Joseph Promenade as well as the main street named after Marshal Tito, doesn't extend quite that far.

In total, Opatija's been under four sets of hands in the last century, as the hotels' various names testify: the poor old Imperial started life as the Crown Princess Stephanie, was Regina Elena to the Italians, Moscow until Tito and Stalin fell out, Central until Yugoslavia decentralised in the 1960s and Imperial after that. (Not that being named after Stephanie, whose husband Rudolf notoriously killed himself and his mistress in his Mayerling hunting lodge, would have become that much of an advertisement.) It's now belonged to Croatia for eleven years, and there's no sign of any change yet; perhaps the proprietor ran out of fancy lettering.

Despite its staid glories of the past, if Opatija isn't careful it runs the risk of turning into Blackpool, or equally, Atlantic City: whoever concreted over the town beach, Slatina, must surely have had a brother with a cement mixer and enough friends on the local Central Committee for nobody to complain. Teenagers from Rijeka painting the town red coexist with predominantly Croatian, Austrian and German tourists, whose average age would probably make them contemporaries of the Marshal, if not the old Emperor too.

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