Botanic Gardens, Gardens, Landscape History, Public Realm

Park Angiolina: Symbol of Opatija

January 31, 2014

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January is often a month for reflection.  Named after Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and endings, gates and doors, it provides an opportunity to look at the past and future simultaneously.

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Republican coin, a silver didrachm from Rome or south Italy dating to 225-12 BCE

During 2013 I attended conferences and symposiums in two professional spheres. “Placemaking” brought me to Detroit and Stockholm (might two places be more different?), where a coalition of organizations met to develop a “new urban agenda around people and places” with a goal of informing UN Habitat III in 2016. Focusing primarily on urban development, the conferences explored how the quality of public spaces including streets, parks and markets fosters social, cultural, economic and environmental convergences that are just and equitable.

While the “Placemakers” consider an international platform regarding urban public space, UNESCO, through the auspices of the World Heritage Program and its partner organizations, continues to pioneer the conservation of historic and cultural urban and vernacular landscapes using models designed to promote a balanced and sustainable relationship “between the urban and natural environment… the needs of present and future generations and the legacy of the past.” Perhaps in 2014 the two initiatives will converge.

If all this sounds somewhat bureaucratic let me assure you that it is.  Which is why I frame my posts within the context of places that I visit exploring the elements I know best – parks, gardens and the public realm. To begin the New Year I am backtracking to share  some of these, which leads me (in the midst of an endless cold spell) to Opatija – the “heart” of Croatia’s Riviera.

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“Maiden with the Seagull” by sculptor Zvonko Cav, completed in 1956, is considered an emblem of Opatija. 

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Located southwest of Rijeka, Opatija is situated at the gateway to the Istrian peninsula on the Gulf of Kvarner.  Supporting a mild climate ideally suited for horticulture Opatija’s geographic location, just over two hours by car from Venice and four hours by car from Salzburg, is augmented by a physical beauty accentuated by a  rugged coastline connecting historic villages framed by gently sloping mountains.

The poster below, “The Pearl of the Adriatic” is from the period in which Opatija was part of Italy and referred to as Abbazia. Throughout history the region was also part of Yugoslavia.  In 1991 Opatija became part of Croatia.  Vestiges of all three cultures can be found in the architectural and landscape elements of the region.

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Opatija’s early history is closely tied to the development of the Benedictine abbey of St. Jacob mentioned as early as 1453.  St. Jacob, protector of pilgrims and travelers, is Opatjia’s patron saint, a fitting reminder of the role of tourism in the city’s evolution.

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St. Jacobs was built about 1420, renovated at the end of the 18th century and expanded in the 1930’s.

Today St. Jacob’s, the oldest building in Opatija, sits within an integrated network of open spaces, gardens, promenades and parks with Park Angiolina, deemed the most beautiful park on the Adriatic coast at its center.

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Villa Angiolina constructed in 1844 and renovated in 2000.

Built by Ignio Ritter Scarpa, a wealthy merchant and ship-builder from Rijeka Villa Angiolina, one of the grandest structures in Opatija, houses the Croatian Museum of Tourism.  Scarpa, described as a “lover of nature,” named Villa Angiolina after his wife and the creation of its garden consumed him.

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Scarpa’s passion for horticulture was enabled by his profession as a merchant with botanic specimens from China, South America, Australia and Japan acquired for the garden on trading expeditions. One such specimen, the Japanese camellia (Camellia japonica), became the symbol of Opatija.  For the past five years an Association of Camellia lovers, named in his honor, has sponsored an exhibit “Camellias of Opatija Riviera”  in the Art Pavilion Juraj Sporer located in the garden.

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Today the garden contains more than 150 plant varieties of trees and shrubs including bay laurel (Laurus nobilis), yulan and southern magnolia (Magnolia yulan, Magnolia grandiflora), windmill palm and European fan palm (Chamaerops excelsa, Chamaerops humilis), Nordmann fir (Abies nordmanniana), Serbian spruce (Picea omorika), cedar (Cedrus), Japonese pittosporum (Pittosporum tobira), pine (Pinus pinea), cherry laurel (Prunus lauricerasus), olive (Olea sativa), Sylvester date palm (Phoenix sylvestris) and sequoia (Sequoia). The trees are labeled and a map details their location.

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In 1852 Ljudevit Vukotinovic described the Villa Angiolina’s garden as,“A lovely park with a beautifully constructed pavilion; a very cosy park of this pleasant summer apartment which is much contributed by the beautiful location by the sea….Paths though the park wind through laurel, fig and olive trees and have in such way all the sweetness and charm of southern parks and that seductive air celebrated by all travelers visiting Italy…..” 

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The Scarpas were well-known for their hospitality and the Villa Angiolina and its grounds became a fashionable social destination attracting wealthy guests from throughout the continent.

As Opatija’s popularity grew as a tourist destination so too did its infrastructure.  Amenities, including a modernized water supply and sewage system, were installed enabling the establishment of doctor’s offices, sanatoriums and bathing places. A new railway facilitated access and luxury hotels, spas and villas were built to service the burgeoning tourist trade centered on taking “the cure.”  In 1882 Villa Angiolina was purchased by the Southern Railway Company as part of an overall plan to enhance tourism facilities.

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Villa Angiolina circa 1900

Wealthy Europeans flocked to Opatija including the Royal family of Austria, assorted kings and princes and famous writers, dancers and musicians.  These included the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph, the German Emperor Wilhelm, the Swedish Norwegian King Oscar ll, composers Gustav Mahler and Giovanni Puccini, the author James Joyce, Noble prize winner Henryk Sienkiewicz, the Russian novelist Anton Chekhov and dancer Isadora Duncan who, according to legend, found inspiration for her dance moves in the fluttering leaves of Opatija’s palms.

Portions of Park Angiolina were reconstructed and additional areas, including St. Jacob’s park created under the direction of Carl Schubert, the head of the Viennese imperial society for construction of parks.

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St. Jacob’s Park

Schubert linked Park Angiolina with its Mediterranean feel, palm trees, camellias and exotic shrubs to St. Jacob’s Park, a formal, manicured Viennese-style garden.  Both were enhanced to complement the elegant Belle Époque villas and grand hotels built along the coastline many of which, including the Hotel Kvarner finished in 1884, remain today.

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Hotel Stephanie and Saint Jacob’s Park

The model below created by Milivoj Hrelja in 2012 depicts Opatija around 1900.

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Park Angiolina

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Park St. Jacob

The original architectural appearance of the parks has been preserved representing two distinct landscape styles and experiences. The informal, curvilinear plan remains in the botanic garden adjacent to Villa Angiolina while formal French/Viennese influenced gardens are sited in front of the Villa and within St Jacob’s Park. Both spaces are ornamented with seasonal flowers

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The image of Villa Biedermann by Theodor Blatterbauer depicts the seaside promenade (1892).

Connecting the  3.64 hectares of parks and gardens is an internal landscaped path system and the Lungomare, a coastal promenade linking Opatija to Lovran and the historic harbor, Volosko.

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The construction of the promenade, initiated by the Society for the Embellishment of Opatija, began at the end of the 19th century, a visible reminder of  Opatija’s transformation to a tourist destination.  During this period the first travel guide, Abbazia, Idylle von der Adria, was published. Many guides followed as well the travelogue, “Three Months in Abbazia” by noted British explorer and ethnologist Sir Richard Francis Burton who was distinctly underwhelmed by his stay.

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In 1889, the first section of the Lungomare was developed simultaneously to Opatjia’s official declaration by the Austrian government as a “climatic health resort.” Twenty-two years later the final section of the Lungomare was complete.

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The Lungomare frames the harbor and is characteristically unchanged, as seen in the historic image above and recent photograph below.

The coastline of Opatija is home to aged oak trees that form irreplaceable part of the region’s natural heritage and culture. The trees have been incorporated into the landscape and Opatija remains one of the rare places, within Europe where as many as five species of oak (Turkey Oak, Downy Oak, Sessile Oak, Holm Oak and Cork Oak) grow along the coastline.   An effort to preserve the oaks within Opatija is ongoing.

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This combination of formal and informal spaces remains today and it is the contrast of the two historic landscape periods that contributes to Opatija’s charm. When writing this piece I researched how the parks and public spaces are managed and maintained.

According to records in 1968 Park Angiolina and St. Jacob’s Park received special protection as national monuments (monuments of garden architecture – parks) and were listed in the “green book” a register of specially protected natural objects maintained through Croatia’s State Institute for Nature Protection  Their category is defined as the  “conservation of artificially developed areas or trees having aesthetic, stylistic, artistic, cultural, historic, ecological or scientific values.”

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The parks are maintained by a company “in social ownership,” “PARKS” Ltd. Opatija incorporated in 1995 to “perform communal activities of maintenance of public areas.”  Responsibilities include: lay-out and maintenance of landscape including parks, public green areas and beaches, cultivation of flowers, decorative plants and seeds, civil engineering, wholesale and retail sale of flowers and seedlings, retail sale of books, newspapers, magazines and stationary and management.  The Company is owned by the City of Opatija and employs an average of 78 employees. Unable to translate the city website it remains unclear to me whether this is a public-private partnership arrangement.

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Throughout Park Angiolina works of art and sculpture are sited. The art pavilion “Juraj Matija Sporer” built around 1900 provides space for exhibitions and cultural events.

In 2011 the mural seen below was created on a wall surrounding Park Angiolina’s open air theater.  Dubbed the “Wall of Fame” it depicts the images of famous guests to the city including recent visitors (Robert DeNiro) and historic personages.  For more information about the mural including a slideshow of each image visit: http://muralguide.org/murals/opatija/wall-fame.

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One space on the mural is empty to provide tourists an opportunity to become part of the picture.  And yes, I was in Opatija, too!

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Copyright © 2014 Patrice Todisco  — All Rights Reserved

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