by Sonja Slijepcevic
The motto of Rijeka’s Great Carnival “Die, but never give up” expresses the very essence and soul of the carnival. As someone once said, despite the long history, playful and satirical spirit of the carnival, it doesn’t show any slowing down, in fact it is growing in its popularity from season to season.
Today we know that the carnival existed in some form from before the 15th century. A document was found which dates back to 1449 and provides evidence that the City Council prohibited the covering the face with a mask during the carnival celebrations. The reason behind this decision was to prevent the open criticism and satirical expression of opinion towards the government and its officers.
In the present time, we mostly consider the carnival big fun for the whole family, with a lot of music, dancing with masks, songs, laughter and the mandatory special donuts (krafne) as one of the carnival symbols.
“Zvoncari” – bellmen (bell-ringers) from this region were included in the program of the Winter Olympics in Sarajevo in 1980 and started to boost the interest for the historic and cultural background of this tradition.
In 1982 the Rijeka Carnival was once again revived under the Rijeka’s Tourist Alliance and organized a “walk” with masks to bring something new into the city’s touristic offer. This was a spark which ignited a bigger fire for the region’s attractions and events that every year brings thousands of new visitors to enjoy this great event.
Nowadays, the Carnival also puts a new light on the traditional and cultural value of the event which shows the rich history of the area to the world.
The city of Rijeka is also accepted as a full member of the Federation of European Carnival Cities and the carnival was added to the list of the 500 most important events in Europe. In 2009, the Rijeka Tourist Board won the “Golden Tourist Heart” award, as the organizer of the best tourism event in south-eastern Europe.
Rijeka carnival is a unique mix of European urban carnival and mythological rural custom and tradition.
The carnival, actually, has its roots in pre-Christian, pagan beliefs that wearing masks, dancing and making noise, would scare off the bad spirits and welcome the spring and new life. This custom can’t be imagined without bells and horns. The bells noise would scare away any evil powers, while the horns were a symbol of fertility. Later, the burning of the “pust” (puppet) which symbolized everything bad in the past year, had been included in the rituals.
Zvoncari -bellmen or bell-ringers are well-known participants in the carnivals and processions in rural areas surrounding Rijeka. The groups of bell-ringers usually wear sheep skins (fur), large head masks with horns and big bells around their waist. Local people say that you have to be born into the “family” of Zvoncar-bellmen, you can’t just become a Zvoncar. This means that you must be a strong, tall man capable to “fight” and protect your home.
One group of regular bellmen participants in the Rijeka carnival parade is a group of Grobnik Dondolasi. The term “dondolas” has its origin in a word “dondolo” which means bell. The legend says that dondolasi have their origin from shepherds. The shepherds would wear frightening masks and sheep’s fur to scare away wild animals and bad spirits away from their livestock.
Today Dondolasi are the safe-keepers of old traditions and custom. They usually start their walks (procession) through the villages on the first Saturday in January.
At the carnival, every time when the procession stops, the bell ringers form a circle which is a defense formation in the open space. In the middle of the circle their flag is held high to symbolize the value of people, family, their country and bravery. The bell- ringers then rise their arms to show their determination to defend their values.
The Halubje bell-ringers from the nearby area also found their place on the UNESCO’s world list of non-material cultural heritage.
This year the Rijeka carnival celebration started on January 17th and the international closing parade as a crown of the celebration, will take place on March 3rd. The kids’ parade with masks took place on February 16 on a beautiful sunny Saturday. Thousands of kids, parents and spectators enjoyed music, colourful masks and children’s smiling faces.
For months, many kindergartens and schools have been preparing original masks to represent their cities or municipalities. This year we were able to see the little witches in red, smart little owls or busy bees, “dangerous”- looking wild animals from Africa or cute blue smurfs with white hats. One kindergarten group proudly dressed up as cabbage and beans, reminding everyone of the healthy organically grown local food.
Everyone has fun including the numerous tourists who often come from nearby countries to escape the cold winter days and surrender themselves to the warm sunny Mediterranean climate in Rijeka or the islands of Krk, Cres and Mali Losinj. Carnival and its parades add to the special experience of their stay.
The city of Rijeka opens its doors during this fun joyful time to tourists and locals alike with numerous concerts, exhibitions, happenings for all generations, as well as with a plethora of culinary specialities in restaurants, hotels and cafes. The city is alive with colours, imagination and as organizers say: “Come and be what you wish”!!!
If You Go:
- Carnival usually starts in January, but the best time to join is during the February, when the major festival parades take place
- The best way to get to Rijeka is to land at the Zagreb international airport and from there you have about 1.5- hour drive to Rijeka. Distance between Zagreb and Rijeka is around 150 km.
- From Zagreb you may take regular coach bus a few times a day to Rijeka. The travel is about 2.5 hours. Bus is solid and safe transportation.
- The highway Zagreb Rijeka is a toll route.
- Another option is to fly to Pula (Istria Peninsula) and from Pula you have a bus to Rijeka. Rijeka-Pula distance is approx. 100km. By bus it’s about a two hour-drive, several buses daily.
- Additional information about Rijeka Carnival – accommodations (hotels, B&B’s, apartment rentals), car rental etc. is available on internet.
- English, German and Italian languages are widely used at the restaurants, hotels, tourist offices and agencies
Rijeka carnival banner on parade – from Marina botel
Masks-symbols of carnivals- photo by Sonja Slijepcevic
Grobnik Dondolasi- photo by Rabko-CC BY-SA 3.0 free to share
Zejanski i Halubajski zvoncari – photo by: Roberta F.-CC BY-SA 3.0.-free to share
Little witches in red- photo by Sonja Slijepcevic
Sonja Slijepcevic is a freelance travel writer and photographer, a member of the International Travel Writers and Photographers Alliance (ITWPA), who for years has been combining her love of travel, passion for photography and professional career in the project management field. She likes meeting people from different cultures and backgrounds, enjoys history and art, and likes to write about these experiences.
She was born in the capital city of Croatia, Zagreb and has been living in Canada for 26 years.