Mošćenička Draga in Istria, a Croatian holiday town in transition
We expats all have our favourite hangouts in Croatia. Places that in the summer are filled with life, but in winter seem like ghost towns. But are they?
I go on a journey of discovery in my special place, Mošćenička Draga on the Opatija Riviera in Istria. It is February and freezing. The bura is blowing and the sea is choppy. Only the seagulls fight for a place on the cold, wet beach.
So why do I still love it, even though the season is over? The reason is simple: that famous Croatian community spirit!
In this article, read about how deeply connected locals are to their “Draga”, and, if you dig deeper, you too may find hidden treasures in your favorite hangout. Draga (feminine) means dear or darling in Croatian.
Jump to a section:
- Draga through my eyes
- Blues-singing mayor
- Tourist and real estate agent
- Post woman
- Great-granddaughter of the first “grand hotel”
- Director of the tourism board
The facts are these…
Mošćenička Draga – Croatian holiday town in transition
So much is changing in Mošćenička Draga. For one, it now has a Michelin Star restaurant. For another, it offers luxury accommodation. Tourists, it seems, have fallen as much in love with it as the Austro-Hungarians in the 19th century, when they built their romantic villas along the promenade.
In summer, Sipar beach becomes lined with cafes, restaurants, and ice cream stalls. Streams of happy tourists walk the promenade with dogs, beach gear, and melting ice cream. Happy laughter, shrieking kids, screaming gulls: the sounds of holiday.
At night, the harbor lights glow in the water as pinks and purples fade in the bay. Live musicians serenade the setting sun, and the moon, if it feels like it, rises magnificently over Cres island. I’m not a local, but my heart swells with pride at the show Draga puts on.
In February, however, Draga is quiet. Most of the holiday homes are shuttered. The long promenade is empty. Today I meet one woman walking her dog. I sit on a bench, watching the choppy sea and breathing in the life-giving air. I can’t get enough of Draga, as locals call it, summer or winter!
Today I will learn that while the crowds have left, Draga has not died. The action has moved from the beach to meeting places. For example, Café Velebit, where I soon meet Rikardo Staraj, the mayor.
In winter, locals relax in ways they cannot in the season. And then they do what Croats do best: connecting. But not only socially: Draga has many committed volunteers working in associations to nurture its heritage and future.
While I wait for Rikardo Staraj, I ask the good-looking young waiter Leon Jurčić where he got his English accent. “Oh, last week it was American,” he says. Turns out he’s a talented voice actor. And then the mayor arrives, wearing a baseball cap.
Oh, so that’s the mayor. I’ve watched him moving backwards and forwards for a while now. “With so many projects on the go, I am a multi-tasker,” he says. He’s just come from discussing plans for the new harbor area.
Rikardo Staraj is in his second term as mayor but is also an artist, poet, blues musician, actor, and author. (Ah! So this is why the upgraded harbor is so tasteful!) With his talents and a degree in cultural tourism Rikardo could have emigrated, like so many others. He has certainly traveled the world, also living in Italy, Germany, and the US.
“But always, home offered the best quality of life,” he says. I will hear this a lot today. “The Mediterranean, but specially here, has fantastic nature with protected areas and excellent food, and we’re very connected to culture and art throughout the Liburnian area.”
Rikardo is in his 16th year in the town council and was deputy mayor for four years. His role here? “I have everything: a family, a beautiful traditional house, great views, a good life. But if you live here, you have to use your talents to do something good. I’m an artist, and being able to use EU funds to develop Draga creatively energizes me.”
The mayor works closely with Draga’s cultural, heritage, and tourism associations, also with associations throughout the region. 2023 plans include a blues festival as well as a Summer of Classical Music in places like Draga, Lovran, Brseč, Kastav, and Opatija, and many historical events, including a regatta for traditional sailing boats.
There are also ongoing heritage conservation projects, such as the restoration of Trebišća, a 1.000-year-old sacred Slavic site above Draga, dedicated to the Gods Perun and Veles. One of Draga’s biggest challenges is keeping its authenticity while the pressure to develop grows. Some of its romantic 19th-century villas are being restored. But it also faces a tsunami of tourism, and the first ugly concrete blocks are going up. Can Draga keep its charm?
“I don’t want to see massive concrete elements here,” says Rikardo. “I want to see traditional buildings restored, but we have to live from something, so development is inevitable. We also can’t stop private owners from building on their properties. However, we can slow it down, for example, through new building laws.”
Another problem is that Draga gets too full in summer. The solution? “We want selective tourism. This should remain a peaceful area, offering quality events.” We’re on the same page!
I meet Željka Rubinić in Velebit too. She greets Vladimir Benaš, her retired boss, who’s reading his paper over coffee. Željka’s ancestors came to the region in 1780, and she has lived with her extended family in Draga since 1968. That includes her parents, a sister, and an uncle, who has an apartment in the house. They have a large plot with olive and fruit trees and vegetables, which her father looks after.
For 30 years, she has worked for Annalinea, a tourist bureau and real estate agency, which she now runs. Her role in the community? “We do a lot of renting out for clients, and so the older residents who rent out places often come to me for advice.” She also works together with the Draga tourist board, the municipality, and the association of holiday accommodation owners. “All tourists come to me when there is a problem, for example, if the beach is dirty, so I get insights into what is needed, and I pass this on to these associations. Then we solve them together.”
In summer, she works a 12–17 hour day and can no longer enjoy Draga’s delights. In winter, she concentrates mainly on real estate, working half days. “So in winter, I have free time for my family and friends.” After work, she may have a coffee in Café Velebit. Then she has lunch with the family, and later meets friends.
“We go walking in the Učka or along the Lungomare promenade. On weekends we do day trips, for example, to Gorski kotar.” Friends are everything. “We see each other often in winter. We watch football matches at each other’s homes. We spend the second day of Christmas together. We visit festivals, for example, I go to the carnival every year with 57 other women.”
Winter is also travel-time. “I’ve seen all of Europe, specially Italy and Germany. Sometimes I visit Germans I met in Draga.” But she still thinks Draga is the best place to be. “We have the best of everything: A beautiful place to live, income from tourism, and, even though it is small, Draga has everything we need: a kindergarten, school, cafés, post office, and we are close to Rijeka. It is a beautiful life, and I would never leave.”
The biggest change in Draga? “Digitalization has sped up development, which now comes much faster.”
Dubravka Češljar is showing an older woman how to use a calculator she bought. Older people use the post office most, and Dubravka, who manages the Draga post office, is a real help when it comes to modern gadgets. They love Dubravka because they can talk to her – about their aches and pains, and about their children, who are now working in other countries.
Dubravka lives in Sveta Jelena, a village not far from Draga, but has worked in Draga’s post office for the last seven years. Before that, she worked for 25 years in Ičići, another Riviera town. “Some of my Ičići customers have followed me here,” she says, explaining just how important her relationship is with her older customers.
Older people come to pay bills or draw money from the post office bank, and play Lotto. Dubravka proudly shows me a new Lotto computer program. Next week she will be trained in how to use it.
The biggest change to her job? “Tourists and younger people hardly come anymore. They don’t send post cards or buy stamps. And they do their banking online.” She misses meeting foreigners and, especially, talking German and Italian to them. “What they don’t know, though, is that it’s cheaper to draw money from the post office than at an ATM.” (Good tip!)
Today, online shopping keeps the post office alive. The old-fashioned phone rings all the time with people asking if their parcels have arrived. This means her job is safe. In two years, she goes into retirement but still loves to work. “It keeps me mentally fit!”
Draga has been part of Dubravka’s life for 55 years. Her father, from Senj, was a forester; her mother is from Gorski kotar. In 1967 the family moved to nearby Sveta Jelena, where he got a job. She went to primary school in Draga, later working there first in Konzum, then as a receptionist in Hotel Marina and in a tourist bureau (now closed) before joining the post 43 years ago.
She now lives with her husband of 41 years. Her two children, a son, daughter, and granddaughter have moved out. “It’s just us, two dogs and two cats,” she says. “And a big property with vegetable garden and fruit trees.”
Dubravka finds Draga beautiful. The new concrete blocks don’t bother her. “For me, they are ugly. But they are just for tourists,” she says.
Nina Kleiner’s family is deeply connected to Draga. She is the 5th generation of women in her family involved in tourism. In 1906, Nina’s great-great-grandmother opened the restaurant Armanda on Draga’s harbor. This was turned into Draga’s first hotel, Albergo Armanda, which her great-grandmother ran with her siblings in the roaring 1920s.
“My great-grandmother would walk among guests with a sun umbrella. It was a highlight!” She shows me an early brochure of the glamorous hotel, which was called a “dream spa cure”. Its descriptions of the healing effects of the beach, sea, Učka mountain, and nature still apply.
The hotel burnt down during the war. During socialism, it was nationalized and rebuilt as Hotel Draga (today’s Hotel Mediteran).
In the 1950s, Nina’s grandmother opened Café Laura, Draga’s first ice cream parlor and café. It was here that her mother, Kosana, met Nina’s German father, Ede. “I grew up in this world, the café, the ice cream parlor. I first served ice cream at the age of 12.” Then began the next tourism epoch. Her parents built the “Kleiner Villa” with 11 apartments on the promenade, which Nina now runs with her mother.
Most of Villa Kleiner’s guests have been coming for generations leading to lifelong friendships. “One 90-year-old Swiss friend came to Draga with the first post bus in 1947. He now visits us with his children and grandchildren.
This is not unusual. A lot of families get second and third-generation guests. “This is what makes Draga special. Guests want their own children to enjoy Draga the way they did as kids, with the sea and the people here.”
Nina was brought up in Germany, in the Ruhrgebiet, later Munich. She studied business, later working many years with the travel company Expedia. But she always had a foot in Draga, spending summer holidays there, and covering the Croatia coastline for Expedia. Now, she lives mostly in Draga, spending a few winter months in Germany.
“It’s great to have a career and see the world when you are young, but at some point, one longs for home. To be somewhere where you know people and are not just a number. Of course, I still work hard in summer, 12-14 hours a day. But I don’t sit eight hours in an office in front of a computer. And you only have to go out the front door to meet someone you know, or go for a quick coffee. It’s a really lovely community. For expats too. It’s easy to integrate here if you want to.” In Munich, she tanks up on big city life. “It’s the perfect combination!”
Nina is an active member of a circle of people nurturing Draga’s future including Rikardo, Željka, and Nensi. “We are there for anyone who needs help,” she says. She is the head of Draga’s holiday renters association. “There are over 100.000 holiday renters in Croatia. Tourism is built on this sector, as we don’t have many hotels. So associations like ours play a key educational role.”
Nensi Dretvić lives in Draga, though her family is from nearby Brseč. She has always worked in Draga, first as a receptionist at Hotel Marina, then in tourism with a former agency. She has been the director of the Draga tourism board for 11 years.
She has the statistics: “We have two nice hotels, one of the best small camping grounds in Kvarner, holiday lets in 360 private houses (80% local, 20% owned by Germans, Austrians, Italians, and Slovenians). New are the five-star luxury villas being built outside the center. These houses are full six months a year, April to October. They are sought after because they are quiet, comfortable, and with a swimming pool. And they bring top quality guests.”
Draga is mostly a family resort. “It is popular because it has the best beaches in Kvarner, is on the Opatija Riviera, and is just 75 km from Italy. The season is long because we are on Mount Učka, where you can go hiking, biking, or climbing or on botanical, herbal, or Slavic mythology tours.”
[Read: 5 hiking trails on Učka mountain]
Her job is the promotion of the municipal area, which stretches to the border with Istria and includes Brseč. She also coordinates all people working in tourism. Next week, she goes on her annual trip to EU trade fairs.
Her face lights up when she talks about her work. “I really like this job. It’s so interesting. I speak German, 10 seconds later, English, then Italian.” Her vision: A hotel open all year and more small family hotels. “No more than 20 rooms. I don’t like big hotels. Nature must be protected. If you live here, you want everything to be perfect! Because it is my home.”
Learn more about Mošćenička Draga’s history as a glamorous Austro-Hungarian holiday resort here.
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