Putting Opatija back on the musical map…

Oliver Condy reports from the Kvarner Festival in the stunning Croatian coastal town of Opatija

Kvarner hotel, CroatiaOpatija may be an unfamiliar name to most today, but from the middle of the 19th century until the First World War, this beautiful coastal town, tucked away in the north of Croatia on a stretch of coast known as the Kvarner bay, was regarded as one of Europe's finest and most luxurious holiday destinations. From the moment of its 'discovery' by the wealthy merchant Iginijo Scarpa in the mid 1840s (the grand Villa Angiolina, named after his wife, dates from 1844), Opatija became the place for wealthy Austro-Hungarian businessmen and nobility to relax, each attempting to out-do each other with increasingly grand villas.

Towards the end of the 19th century, the 14-kilometre long 'longomare' or promenade stretching from Volosko in the east to the village of Lovran was built, along with various bathing areas, creating a resort that rivalled anything to be found on the French riviera. With rail links from Vienna and Budapest built soon after, Opatija was marketed as the place to relax and, as was the fashion, to convalesce (recent research has even found that bacteria grow at a slower rate here than anywhere along the Croatian coastline...).

Where nobility flock, however, artists, musicians and writers surely follow. And Opatija became a cultural centre where many great composers came to find inspiration. In 1905, Gustav Mahler spent the Easter holidays here writing his 'Tragic' Symphony No. 6, and Puccini and Léhar are known to have spent time enjoying the climate and no doubt playing an active part in the town's flourishing music scene. Many Jewish composers also made their way from Austria and Hungary to Opatija, including the Hungarian operetta composer Emmerich Kálmán. What did these composers get up to? We'll perhaps never know – two world wars and decades of neglect have since put paid to the town's historic archives.

A stroll into any of Opatija's Viennese-style hotels reveals huge, ornate ballrooms and concert halls in which music would be heard perhaps every evening. Certainly in Opatija's enormous Kvarner Hotel, concerts took place twice a day before 1918 in the extraordinary Crystal Hall, built in 1909 when the hotel's café burnt down. You can still see crumbling statues of angels playing flutes and violins above the entrance to the hall, evidence of the importance of music during Opatija's golden age. Even a major concert hall was half-built, the amphitheatre in the Angiolina Garden – minus its planned roof – now used for outdoor concerts, cinema screenings and more.

The Kvarner Festival is determined, however, to put Opatija back on the musical map. Founded just three years ago by the Austrian conductor Michael Fendre, the festival showcases a wide range of music – mostly classical, but with a smattering of jazz and folk – performed by world-class artists including the terrific Accordone who delighted their audience with a spell-binding concert of traditional Italian music last night. Nigel Kennedy is due to play tonight, and tomorrow, the Purpur Orchestra, featuring members of the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics, will give a concert of Vaughan Williams, Mozart, Haydn and the early 19th-century Croatian composer Luka Sorkočević.

At present, the festival's only venue is the Kvarner Hotel's mighty Crystal Hall but, as Fendre tells me this morning, his plans are long term, including a drive to tie the programme into Opatija's considerable musical heritage. Music by Mahler, Puccini and a series of concerts by former visiting Jewish composers is planned. There are dozens of potential venues, including hotel ballrooms and the town's early 20th-century church – the challenge is to convince visitors from the UK, France and Germany to make the trip. As I gaze out of my hotel window over the glistening, sun-lit surface of the Mediterranean, the ancient harbours, colourful and dramatic villas and hotels, and the giant Magnolias and bay trees that dominate Opatija's shoreline, I get the feeling that it shouldn't be too hard a task...