The Sugar Palace of Rijeka, “the River City”

Many times in my writing, I said that going to a local city museum gives you a lot of answers. In fact, it gives you answers to questions you likely had unconsciously. Today we are talking about the city of Rijeka and its Sugar Palace. I am not referring to a ballet from Tchaikovsky. It is about the industrial heritage. Additionally, it is a city museum.

To start with, take a look on this photo. What do you think it is? How can it relate to anything called industrial heritage?

Sugar Palace in Rijeka, Croatia

I mean, thinking about industrial heritage or industrial history, you may more likely imagine this:

Rikard Bencic, Rijeka, 2017

You wouldn’t be wrong anyway. In fact, this second photo is from the exactly same place, just a few meters outside of the building in which you can find this fresco painting. The thing is, the outdoor photo was taken in May 2017, before the extensive works of renovations of former industrial buildings in the Rikard Bencic complex in Rijeka, Croatia.

After that, several buildings got their new purposes, all cultural, and one of them the City Museum of Rijeka. That is to say, Rijeka was elected the European Capital of Culture for 2020, back in 2016. The institution of the European Capital of Culture is quite an interesting thing, but I will say more about it in one of my following articles. Most importantly, the year in which a city is the European Capital of Culture is full of arts of all kinds, learning, curiosity, and events.

Now, I can imagine were you thinking about. Yes, Rijeka got screwed with the pandemic. Nevertheless, the new Museum of the City opened in this building, whose name is…

The Sugar Refinery Palace, or better said, just a Sugar Palace of Rijeka

First, let’s remember that industry started developing at some point in the 18th century. When it started, it was a huge innovation. To put in the context, it was much a bigger thing than the invention of Facebook. As a result, some factories were sometimes particularly pompous buildings as they got their own designs.

Therefore, the Sugar Palace is indeed a Palace.

Inside the Sugar Palace in Rijeka
This staircase looks more royal than working class, correct? It is so lovely that allowed me one of the best museum selfies ever.

There is a lot to learn about the first development of certain industries. For instance, after I visited the Chocolate museum in Saint Gallen in Swizerland, I got some incredible insights about the history of one product, chocolate. Every product has its own story. Therefore this Sugar Palace tells something about the earliest examples of the sugar industry in Europe. The local name Šećerana is the Croatian word for a “sugar factory”.

The multicultural (or better to say, inter-cultural) city and its industry

To put things in the context, let’s locate Rijeka on the map. During my international travels, I often need to explain that Rijeka is very close to the Italian city of Trieste and even fairly close to Venice. Back in the 17th or 18th century, there were no national states yet. In most communities, people of different ethnical backgrounds lived in the same area just calling themselves just locals on that place.

Notice the underlined cities in the surroundings? If you moved the Google map towards the south you will quickly find Dubrovnik, on the west Milan, to the north Vienna, and on the east Budapest and Belgrade. The sea in front is the Adriatic Sea, a small part of the Mediterranean Sea.

Inside the Sugar Palace which is now the Museum of the City of Rijeka (Muzej grada Rijeke in Croatian), you can find some amazing insights about it. At some point, 4 different languages were widely spoken in the city of Rijeka and each of them was taught at schools of the city. These languages were Italian, Hungarian, Croatian, and German – in that order of frequency. The most fascinating thing is, these are the 4 languages of different groups, one of them unrelated to the other 3.

Isn’t it incredible?

For as incredible as it may sound, they co-lived on one place, as the inhabitants of Rijeka and the region. However, problems arose from time to time, wars came and went, and nowadays Rijeka is a Croatian city, where most population are of Croatian national feeling. Hungarian and German are gone, while some Italian-speaking community still exists in Rijeka and the wider region, most notably the neighbouring Istria peninsula where our author Emina is from.

One of the main squares in Rijeka in the 19th century. It is still on the place, but it looks very different nowadays. You can find this picture inside the Sugar Palace.

Political history of Rijeka is incredibly complex, as the city was claimed and occupied by the fascist Italy led by the poet Gabriele d’Anunzio, as early as in 1919. Before that, Italian-speaking population in Rijeka rarely considered themselves Italian, but rather Fiumani. What the heck does it mean?

The River City

It is not the name of a rock band, but of the city we are talking about. Rijeka is the Croatian name, while in Italian it is Fiume. Both names mean river in their respective languages. Now, as we mention that, Rijeka has a history of rock music. However, let’s leave it for another article to not make it 5000 words long. Just to clarify, the name Fiumani basically means inhabitants of Fiume, and the Croatian word for them is Riječani.

So, let’s go back to the history of industry. Let’s be clear: the origins of the industrial history of Rijeka closely relate to the European colonialism. In the late 17th century, Rijeka was a part of the Austrian Empire, also known as Habsburg Monarchy. For those of you who are not familiar with the House of Habsburg, I recommend you to check the Wikipedia article for some basic information.

In short, the House of Habsburg was one of the most powerful families in Europe for centuries, as aside from a huge area of central Europe they ruled in Spain, Low Countries (Netherlands/Belgium), and even Portugal at some point. As a result, they had a direct access to a lot of goods and knowledge from the colonial empires. Subsequently, the city of Rijeka with its great position on the Adriatic sea and a great logistic potential, happened to become the Empire’s industry hub.

Rijeka City Museum, in the former Sugar Palace
Pay attention to the quote from one of the most emblematic poets of the history of Rijeka

From a sugar palace to the City Museum

In other words, Rijeka was like the Silicon Valley, a perfect place for industry of that time to flourish. The sugar refinery was the first big industry that developed. For that reason, its building was the most opulent one. The lavish interiors gives an impression that you are inside one of the local Habsburg residences and not in a former factory.

As we all know, the plant called sugar cane came from South America through the colonial routes. One of the most powerful merchants of the 17th century were the Dutch ones. They were also the ones who were responsible for the beginning of the industry in Rijeka, in particular this sugar industry. In fact, they were foreign investors of that time.

The Sugar Palace of Rijeka
The units of fresh sugar as they appear in the sugar refineries

Subsequently, other industries developed in the city. While the sugar industry went extinct in the mid-19th century, other industries developed instead. Meanwhile, the city became an important logistic knot with one of the most important ports of the Adriatic Sea. Most importantly, Rijeka was the stage of the invention of one of the most impressive weapons of the 20th century – the torpedo. This time it was the British investment, led by the engineer James Whitehead. It remains the landmark of the industrial heritage of Rijeka.

Inside the torpedo factory, this photo is in the Museum

Sugar palace, weapons, colonialism, and some positive words

Nowadays, sugar is considered a part of unhealthy kinds of food, while weapons are obviously associated with wars. There are many changes in the ways we talk about the European colonialism. Many things from the history of Rijeka are tough to explain to visitors, including the history of the city’s own population. On the other hand, Rijeka is an incredible place for learning about the general world history.

Finally, I can say Rijeka is a cool city for slow travellers. The same applies to the wider region. The Museum of the city of Rijeka is the place where all the questions are answered as much as they can. This is not the only article about this museum on Fun Museums, as more is about to come about other details, beyond the Sugar Palace story.

Visit the museum’s official website for more information.

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