Origin Stories

My sister Lisa, brother Lou and me circa 1960

Memories of Papa and Noni’s backyard and my childhood are inseparable. Their backyard was a place where my brothers and sisters and I played and posed awkwardly for family photographs. Noni had a vegetable garden where she tended tomatoes, Italian beans and tender June lettuce.  Fruit trees, flowers and vibernum snowball bushes that produced white blossoms as big as 16 inch softballs flourished there. Two evergreen trees grew at the edge of a backyard patio where in the summer our family sometimes ate meals together. I loved their piney scent.

One of the evergreen trees and the shadow of its twin in October 1967. I have no photos of the cherry tree.

Those evergreens grew so huge that some relatives worried their roots might damage the patio and foundation of the house. Papa did not. His cherry tree lived peacefully a few feet away from the giant evergreens. When I was twelve years old Papa’s cherry tree was hit by lightening which split the tree down the middle. It was the only time I recall seeing him cry.  About a year after the tree was struck by lightening he died from cancer.

Since then I’ve wondered about his connection to this tree. Did it remind him of the olive and cherry trees of his childhood and youth in Mošćenička Draga? Or of Lovran’s chestnut trees? Many years later as I researched family history I read about an origin story my Papa likely knew. A very powerful Slavic god is called Perun. He is the god of the living world, sky and earth. Perun is typically depicted as an eagle living atop a sacred oak tree where he keeps watch over the world. He is also the god of lightening and thunder. Myth has it that irises grow in places where Perun’s lightening strike the earth. These irises are called Perunika or Iris Croatica—named Croatia’s National flower in 2000. During the month of May Perunika blooms on mountainsides, in gardens and near the shore. They are known as symbols of hope, bravery, wisdom and faith.

Iris Croatica/Perunika. Isabella Grosjean

Why not Rijeka?

This blog documents my experiences, observations and reflections during a twelve day visit to Rijeka in 2019 for karneval. The Tourist Board of Rijeka crafted my itinerary of five parades, four museum tours, one charity ball, meetings with karneval groups in their workshops, and visits to surrounding towns. They accommodated my solo treks to see Opatija’s The Museum of Tourism, walk a stretch of the Lungomare  and talk with a relative in Mošćenićka Draga. Guide Majda Lesić shared insights, time and literally went the extra mile(s) so I could better understand the spirit of Riječki karneval.

Review and spectator stands line Rijeka’s main promenade on the day of International Parade

Getting there

Rijeka, Croatia is a city on the Adriatic Sea located near more famous places. Like a character actor landing a starring role, Rijeka debuts as 2020 European Culture Capital during its karneval. Much of Croatia claims a languid, stunning natural beauty.  Rijeka not so much.   It has the feel of an aging port where memories of the 1990s Yugoslav War mingle with the last gasps of industry. Today, like most of Croatia, the country’s largest port relies mostly on tourism. Rijeka is small—seventeen square miles with a total population of 128,000.  About thirty miles south of Rijeka is a  much smaller coastal resort town, population 1,535 in tourist season. My mother’s family owns a house in the town center. Like many run-down villas sprinkled along Croatia’s island dotted coast, the house is sited between the magnificent blue, still sparkling clear sea and mountain ranges. Researching family history I learned Rijeka’s celebrated carnival is embedded into the life of Rijeka and surrounding areas. Next to Venice and Lisbon, Riječki karneval is the third largest in Europe. Riječki karneval gives Croatians time and space to express themselves in performance art and street theater. For six weeks a festival atmosphere weaves together political and cultural discourse, collective memory, national pride and family traditions.

Rijeka’s City Tower was built in the Middle Ages. An arch below the tower leads to the Old City.

Rijećki karneval features groups of big-headed masked creatures called Zvončari or bell-ringers. Some of them look like creatures in Maurice Sendak’s children’s book Where the Wild Things Are.  In this centuries-old tradition protected by UNESCO, boys are inducted into mostly male Zvončar groups from their own region although women belong to a group who wear elaborate flower headpieces. Zvončari ward off evil spirits from the previous years so  spring can arrive.   Zvončari from Halubje typically wear massive masks covering their entire heads, brandish a mace or bačuka, and bang twenty pound bells attached to their waists. Their ritual performances alone were worth a visit. On this second trip to Croatia, I naively planned to conduct oral history research, recording memories from people I contacted the previous year. Would I hear about how Rijeka coped with the flood of refugees who lived there in the 1990s? How have relationships between the city, tourism and Riječki karneval evolved? What meaning did karneval have for people whose lives revolve around the ‘fifth season’? I would also take the opportunity to check on the family house.

Riječki karneval was more spectacular than I thought it would be. It helped that Rijeka’s Tourist Board gave me the VIP treatment. I was assigned a personal escort, Majda Lesić, who became my Croatian culture-history-language mentor. She walked, drove and talked me through tours of cultural sites and museums, visits to karneval group workshops, meetings with various experts, several parades and even a costume ball. Along the way I learned about Majda’s decades of work at Trsat Castle, and for the U.N. in the 1990s.  Majda’s dislikes the term Balkan and its historical associations. The term is used less and less to describe Croatia and neighboring countries—its meaning is not in keeping with the expansive, inclusive image Rijeka  2020 is projecting. When I asked Majda to explain the difference between možeš

(yes, you can) and u redu(okay!)  She was more excited than I was about my discovery.  Croatian is a challenging language for native English speakers to learn. Today there are  between five and six million Croatian speakers worldwide. University summer  school and online courses promote the language and heritage.

International Parade

Riječki karneval follows the Roman Catholic calendar. It is celebrated in parades, dances and other events beginning on St. Anthony Day, 17 January and ending on Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent.  Although karneval dates back to the middle ages, present day Riječki karneval experienced a revival in 1982, two years after the death of the former Yugoslavia’s legendary leader and president Josip Broz Tito. Tito’s yacht Galeb (Seagull) once an Italian navy ship, is moored in Rijeka’s harbor. It is being transformed for a second time into a public museum and meeting space. Interpretative themes stress the historical significance of the yacht’s diplomatic missions as a peace-keeping vessel, and evoke Yugo-nostalgia. Nostaglia is a potent strategy for attracting tourists. It relies on half-imagined memories, half-remembered truths and myths to convey a feeling about place. Riječki karneval embodies nostalgic imagination. I continue to be impressed by karneval communities for their devotion to making their traditions come alive each year in the  real, make-believe world of karneval. 

Pinocchio themed group with live music in the International Parade 

The official mascot  of Riječki karneval since 1991 are Morčići, called Moretto in Italian.  Morčići open the International Parade, marching a step behind of Meštar Toni who, with an annually elected karneval queen has presided over Riječki karneval since 1980. From  today’s perspective Morčiči appears a racist emblem or historical curiousity.  To understand the role of Morčiči in Kvarner’s cultural identity it is important to know that for centuries Ottoman and Italian (and Venetian) claimed, dominated and/or ruled what is now Croatia. Since the 1800s traditional Croatian Morčiči jewelry favored by sailors was thought to protect the wearer from storms and general bad luck. Today this jewelry is crafted by skilled artisans. It is sold in the Tourist Board office located on the Korzo which is Rijeka’s main, car-free promenade which runs parallel to the city’s harbor.

Adria Palace was built in 1895. One front faces Jadranski Square and the Korzo, the other the port of Rijeka.
It houses Jadrolinija, Croatia’s largest sea shipping company .

Riječki karneval International parade is held on the Korzo. It is the culminating parade and groups from other parts of Croatia and Europe are invited to participate. Karneval groups who are vetted to perform in the International Parade are granted funds from the EU to help to offset costs of elaborate, hand-made costumes. Most karneval groups perform choreographed routines along the route and have at least fifty members. One university student group satirizing a local politician was listed on the parade roster as having five hundred members. Although funding for karneval groups has decreased somewhat in recent years, the number of participants remain high. In 2019, one hundred six karneval groups performed for an audience of over 110,000—close to  Rijeka’s total population.  The scope of the spectacle took me by surprise, as did the intensity of the performances. Fantastical floats transformed semitrucks into smoky movable underworlds. Popular themes referencing American culture included the Adams Family, Victoria’s Secret, all things Disney, NASA, The Blues Brothers, gangsters and politics. Medieval themes a la Game of Thrones ranged from a well-rehearsed group celebrating a fort on the island of Cres to an anarchic group wearing animal skins and wielding torches.  About fours hours into the parade I found the increasingly liberal use of fireworks and giant flares in close proximity to crowds a bit alarming.

Student group mocks a local politician with fire and fiery slogans. My apprehensive finger on the lens–joj/ouch!

Family matters

    View of Moščenićka Draga 

Riječki karneval events are expertly implemented to strengthen the tourism sector of Croatia’s economy and to make visitors feel welcome. Much of the time I felt as if I was at a block party or family reunion filled with relatives I had only just met.  A sense of you’re here so you’re one of us is expressed perfectly by the Croatian saying, s istog smo stabla which means we are from the same tree. Having a personal guide translate my attempts to communicate helped immensely as did my white, vaguely European appearance.   During my two week karneval stint I saw few people of color — notably speaking perfect Croatian. Croatia has the most homogenous population of the six countries in former Yugoslavia with over  95% of the population Croat and over 85% Roman Catholic. Critical to Croatia’s economy and culture is a striking population decline since the 90s—the country is now experiencing negative population growth. Karneval, if viewed through a single lens misses a vital significance. It is a tradition kept by and for Croatians, a vehicle for nationalism, incentivized by economic opportunities participating groups have throughout the year. But I saw heartfelt pride and delight motivated by a deeply held sense of community. In the towns of Lovran, Matulji and Opatija parades were planned and implemented so that everyone, from the littlest children to the physically challenged could find their place—and might have their face smudged with charcoal by a wandering a devil.  I was smudged in Matulji.

Karneval participants in Moščenićka Draga

Karneval traditions in my family’s ancestral town of Mošćenička Draga include a Halloween type parade with children in costume and their parents. They visit homes and local businesses to collect sweets and eggs, symbolic of the Lenten and Easter seasons to come. A concertina player marching with the families amplified the parade’s charm factor. Afterwards I sat down with the town’s mayor, Riccardo Staraj in a sidewalk cafe overlooking the pebble beach. Riccardo is a musician, tourism expert and writer. He is also a relative. Riccardo echoed sentiments others shared about karneval. Croatians often participate as children, tapering off interest as they enter adulthood until they become parents. From this perspective karneval almost functions like a cultural rite of passage. It may help to reinforce Croatian identity in a time of rapid social, political and technological change. A hallmark of Mošćenička Draga’s karneval celebration is the launching of a Pust effigy on a huge wooden rocket off the town’s pebble beach into the night sky.  Pust is a puppet, often satirically named, who is blamed for all the bad things that happened the previous year.  Pust’s blast into space on Fat Tuesday frequently draws several thousand people from surrounding towns. The rocket has been launched every year since 1969,  the same year as the US Apollo 11 moon landing.  The 2019 rocket was at least as high as a one-storey building. In Rijeka, Pust is taken out into the harbor and burned.

Touring around

Carving pršut during Rally Bakar-Paris Parade in Rijeka. It was delicious/uskusno!

The Bakar-Paris Parade, which is a parody of the Dakar(Senegal) Paris (France) Rally, Rijeka’s Bakar-Paris seems more like a slow-motion tail-gate party than parade. Participants and their cars are in costume but the endurance is related to having a good time instead of road racing. Like several karneval events I attended, Bakar-Paris had an inward-looking quality.  The attitude of participants toward spectators was open and friendly, but I got the feeling karneval goes on not matter who shows up. The day I attended I got a taste of pršut and Croatia’s bora wind. Even though it was a sunny day, gusts were frigid.


Sandi Pribanić is the leader of the karneval group Draške Maškare. He was featured in the Time Out Rijeka 2019 karneval issue and I suspect many other publications. For almost twenty years Sandi has been imagining themes, designing costumes, selecting music and helping to choreograph parade performances. Majda took me to Draške Maškare’s workshop in the cellar of a one hundred year old community center on the outskirts of Rijeka. There we were greeted by kindergarten teacher Sandra Picco who was cheerfully sewing costumes for the group’s fifty members. In English she explained that Sandi has a long commute to the workshop from his day job. Sandi’s dedication is astounding but typical of many karneval groups who perform throughout the year at festivals in Kvarner, Istria and in coastal and island towns. We were joined by Kemal, another Draške Maškare member. Sandi pulled a plastic bottle filled with homemade rakija out of his backpack. We sat between sewing machines and fragments of costumes, just new and from previous years, toasting each other with rakija that tasted like the scent of spruce trees.

Many karneval groups feel like big families.  Siti i Pijani or Full and Drunk is one. They personify the merry, raucous side of Riječki karneval. Siti i Pijani’s core group includes Kristian Brozović. Kristian is on the Trsat Castle historic site and museum staff. His knowledge of history is wide-ranging, and his commitment to Siti i Pijani is heartfelt. The evening we met in Siti i Pijani’s workshop Kristian introduced me to Mario, who has been a member of the group for forty years and is acknowledged as Siti i Pijani’s  spiritual leader. 

Kristian Brozović guiding Siti i Pijani as the group approached the main stage during the International Parade

Standing amid  tables laden with craft materials and sewing machines, about fifteen of the one hundred twenty Siti i Pijani  explained how they choose their theme and select music for  their performances. I was treated to a musical preview as they modeled costumes of Looney Tunes cartoon characters Wiley Coyotes and Road Runners. The costumes required hundreds of hours of imaginative crafting for their costume designer and seamstress—who is chemical engineer.  Siti i Pijani members perform not only at Riječki karenval, but throughout the summer for festivals in Kvarner, Istria and along the Adriatic coast.

Karneval costumers  Eleonora Maraspin and her granddaughter Lea Martinić 

My itinerary included a visit to Grobnik where I met with the ‘Grobnik ladies’ who craft costumes for karneval’s charity costume ball and karneval groups. In a spotless, inviting workspace adjacent to their home, closets and workrooms are filled with costumes and accessories. Most of the costumes are handmade. It was a real pleasure to be fitted by representatives of four generations of Grobnik costumers. Grobnik sits high above Rijeka. Its fortified medieval castle is perched above a field where a legend about  Frankopan Croats defeating Turkish invaders also gave rise to a complex, improbable origin story about the Morčići. Overlooking the field at twilight it was easy to imagine historical re-enactors in ‘chain-mail’ expertly crafted by the Grobnik ladies from aluminum can tops. Frankopan castles in the Primorje Gorski-Kotar County, including Trsat and Krk Island, are restored and linked in historical-mythical trails appealing to newer (adventure, village) and older (cultural, heritage) tourism sectors.  You can follow the route at this website or app https://frankopani.eu/en/

 Grobnik field seen from castle walls

Grobnik claims Croatia’s current and first woman President, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović who was born in Rijeka. Often referred to as Kolinda, the multi-lingual Grabar-Kitarović combines film star looks, humble beginnings as the  daughter of a butcher and study at Harvard, Washington and Johns Hopkins Universities in the US.  Her perfect American accented English is likely due in part to years spent in New Mexico as an exchange student. She graduated from Los Alamos High School in 1986.

On January 5  Zoran Milanović  was elected President of Croatia in a second round run-off over Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović. Milanović begins his term as President of Croatia in February during Riječki karneval. I wonder what role he will play in karneval given the  importance of political satire.

Balinjerada in Opatija

Opatija is located about fourteen miles south of Rijeka along Kvarner Bay. During karneval Opatija hosts the balinjerada, a race where costumed participants race homemade carts (balinjera are ball-bearings) down the main street.  I saw children, families and individuals try to remain upright on various devices including a tricked-out dentist’s chair.  The town of Opatija provides a contrast to the balinjerada’s wackiness. It is a slightly faded, upscale resort town with an air of respectability. European royalty in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, railroads, and it’s harbor made it a popular tourist destination. The harbor’s iconic statue called Girl with a Seagull is within view of The Museum of Tourism. It tells the story of Opatija’s touristic ascent. You can see the Girl with a Seagull from the windows of Wagner Cafe on town’s main street which also has a Hollywood-style Walk of Fame. However, the stars are nineteenth and twentieth century Croatian luminaries such as inventor Nikolai Tesla, popular singer Ivo Robić and children’s author Ivana Brlić-Mažuranić.  Opatija’s three casinos overlook a scenic twelve mile Lungomare that connects five towns along the coast stretching from Volosko to Lovran. Lovran is a sweetly green town where karneval groups performed for an audience whose numbers easily matched the town’s population.

Hear the sounds of karneval parades near Rijeka

Rijeka’s Moment

 ’Port of Diversity’ is the motto for Rijeka 2020. It seems to have not much in common with a popular karneval motto,  ‘Krepat me ne molat!’or Die but don’t give up! The International Parade creates an atmosphere where the city’s edgy charm and karneval’s boisterous appeal merge. Tireless costumed revelers exude local and national pride for weeks on end, interacting with crowds and whirling in unison. Parade emcees blast often wickedly funny commentary at high volume from cherry pickers and review stages. The cobbled streets of Rijeka, the view from atop Trsat’s ancient stone parapet and the nearly idle shipping cranes provide a dramatic backdrop for karneval events. Security police were so inconspicuous I only noticed their presence when they were pointed out to me.

Cranes of Rijeka

Croatian Tourist Board award-winning videos on the Croatia Full of Life youtube channel https://www.youtube.com/user/croatia reference Game of Thrones, 2CELLOS and World Cup Soccer stars. Hoping to build momentum with breathtaking flyover images, Rijeka’s Tourist Board videos provide historical context, each with a slightly different focus. The world’s first torpedo factory was built here. On Rijeka’s  amazingly clean namesake river, the Riječina, paper mills prospered for over a century. Near the river  an art corridor is tentatively blooming around, in, and on vacant factory buildings. For some the city’s industrial heritage is a bittersweet reminder of  a  time when Rijeka was more economically and politically powerful. Rijeka’s industrial heritage like its political past is emotionally charged and complex. The Governor’s Palace is now a museum and the venue for the Riječki karneval charity ball. The palace was headquarters for Italian fascists between WWI and WWII. These curious statues are displayed in the White Salon of the Governor’s Palace aka The Maritime and History Museum of the Croatian Littoral.

We call them ‘The Satyr and his Nymph,’ but that is only what we thought they represented. For a long time we thought that these were household decorations connected with the carnival tradition, but it turns out they were made to be used as mannequins in a jewelry store. They attract the interest of most visitors and  we use them to tell the story of the carnival tradition in Rijeka. We do point out the fact that they are jewelry store mannequins, and actually have no direct connection with the carnival.

Ivo Mileusnić, senior curator at The Maritime and History Museum of the Croatian Littoral

Rijeka seems to elicit push-pull emotions from its residents who have a flair for quirky, ironic humor.  Contrasting Riječki attitudes appear in slogans on the bumper sticker, Volim grad koji teče I love the city that  flows/runs,  and the name of a shop near the Korzo called  Šta da?— What, yes, really?/You don’t say? It sells unique objects made by local artists mostly from recycled materials. 

‘Nitpicking’  (2017)  by Lonac is found near an abandoned  paper mill and Rejčina River. 
The artist portrays his own father 

I inquired at The Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art about the location of a mural about the city’s shipbuilding past by Lonac, a artist whose photorealistic work is well known in Europe and North America. The brother of a busy senior curator happened to be in the museum  when I arrived. He gave me an impromptu tour of the paper mill district along the way to the mural. I was impressed by his candor, generosity and skepticism about Rijeka’s future. It was not the first time I heard about young people leaving the city because of lack of opportunities. The quizzical, nostalgic tone of murals by Lonac and Spanish artist Pejac mirror his perspective.

Pejac’s ‘Camouflage’ (Tribute to Rene Magritte 2016) on windows of an abandoned paper factory power plant

Rijeka’s past is full of complicated stories. The 1990s was pivotal.  European punk rock grew roots here then. On the Bridge of Croatian Defenders a stone monument lists names of people killed in The Croatian War of Independence. The bridge is less than a city block across. Now entirely in Croatia, it connects what was once Italy to what was once The Kingdom of Yugoslavia.  ‘Hapsburg yellow’ facades of the restored Croatian National Ivan pl. Zajc theater, the city library and Adria Palace buildings are remnants of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and shipping empire. As the ‘Port of Diversity’  transitions from cargo ships to cruise ships and yachts the Adriatic is coming under increasing pressure to offer up its resources to global enterprises. The official  promotional video for Riječki karneval 2020 hypes the city’s year as a European Culture Capital. The city’s reinvention moment is defined by the very old and the very new, art and culture amid industrial decline. Rijeka wears its tensions, fraught past and heart on rolled-up sleeves.   Whatever 2020 brings, Riječki karneval will embrace change while holding onto tradition—a little bit subversive and a little bit transcendent. 

Rijeka in 2020 will likely face the question Dubrovnik and much of Croatia are already reckoning with—What happens when people discover what you have?  The environmental activist group Eko Marišćina might answer by saying air pollution. Eko Marišćina spokesperson Davorka Simčić is passionate about raising awareness. Halubajski zvončari are from an area where air quality compromised. They are sympathetic to Eko Marišćina’s activism, but because of the group’s strict rules they are not allowed to make public statements. Rijeka 2020 is an opportunity for Croatia to roll out progressive, sustainable practices which mitigate the impact of environmental stress caused by over tourism.

The International Parade  starts at noon on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday and ends eight to nine hours later. Two traditions officially close Riječki karneval’s International parade finale.  Karneval mayor Meštar Toni returns the keys of the city to Rijeka’s elected Mayor Obersnel, and the Halubajski zvončari remove their massive animal headpieces. They are always the last karneval group.  A line of police wearing ballistic vests follow the zvončari. The lights and music turn off. Street cleaners stand by ready to work.

At 8:30 pm my camera batteries were dead. I was one of the few spectators left to see a group of about thirty people gather behind the police line. This group held vigil candles and large wooden coffin-shaped signs with chemical compounds painted on them. Candlelight in the dark imparted a religious feeling to their procession.  Two people held a hand-painted bedsheet banner strung between poles. A young woman stopped to explain they were protesting environmental degradation near Rijeka. Members of Eko Marišćina live in the town of Marčelji where garbage is dumped and left untreated, creating health hazards for residents.  She said the Mayor did not like them, implying this was why they were not part of the official parade. They were however allowed to sit in review stands on the Korzo and to process without interference—or media coverage as I later discovered.

As this unofficial, final group silently marched they were joined by Haljubaski zvončari holding their ‘heads’ along with stragglers from other karneval groups—middle aged women as glittering Victoria’s Secret Angels, university students as gangsters wearing fedoras, and assorted Disney characters. To walk with them was to feel the ebb and flow of time. When the marchers turned off the Korzo they faced the harbor and stopped to sing a song about their city. No emcees or blaring music. Just the ordinary magic of Riječki karneval. 

For more about Rijeka and Riječki karneval

Andrea Pisac Travel Honestly https://travelhonestly.com

Rijeka Carnival – closing ceremony by Halubajski Zvončari – One take #Croatia vlog https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hDc8FhWj0_Y posted by Andrea Pisac

Ivan Lozica Nar. umjet. 44/1, 2007, pp. 71-92, I. Loziča, Carnival: A Short History of Carnival Customs. Review Received: 31st Jan. 2007 Accepted: 15th Feb. 2007 UDK 394.25(497.5:4)

Rijeka 2020  https://rijeka2020.eu/en/programme/

Many thanks to

Croatian Counsel General in Chicago, Sanja Laković, dr. Nevena Škrbić Alempijević, dr. Robert Doričić, Tim Haugh, Majda Lesić, Eleanora Maraspin, Lea Martinić, dr. Ivo Mileusnić, Sandi Pribanić, David and Peter Scatena, Linda Shopes, Davorka Simčić, Riccardo Staraj, Helga Sušanj, Selma Thomas and Rijeka’s Tourist Board, and my mother, Mary Martincic Scatena

Photography Marie Scatena