Three Months at Abbazia

Richard Francis Burton
First edition of 1888.

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New edition by http://burtoniana.org, 2008.

Abbazia, a popular summer and winter resort of Austria, in Istria, 56 m. S.E. of Trieste by rail. Pop. (1900) 2343. It is situated on the Gulf of Quarnero in a sheltered position at the foot of the Monte Maggiore (4580 ft.), and is surrounded by beautiful woods of laurel. The average temperature is 50 deg. Fahr. in winter, and 77 deg. Fahr. in summer. The old abbey, San Giacomo della Priluca, from which the place derives its name, has been converted into a villa. Abbazia is frequented annually by about 16,000 visitors. The whole sea-coast to the north and south of Abbazia is rocky and picturesque, and contains several smaller winter-resorts. The largest of them is Lovrana (pop. 513), situated 5 m. to the south.

-- Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th edition, 1911.

This little pamphlet, reprinted from the Vienna Weekly News of 1888, has long been unobtainable, and is among the most rare of Sir Richard Francis Burton’s vast output.  One was offered in 2008 for $5,000 on the open market.  Only one or two others are known to exist in libraries.  It is a long grumble about Burton’s stay at a health resort, The Hotel Stephanie, in Abbazia over the winter of 1887/8.  Although he does not say as much in the text, he was accompanied by his wife, his personal physician Dr. F. Grenfell Baker, and Lisa, Isabel’s maid.  They were flush with the proceeds of the Arabian Nights translation, and Burton was busy working on the Supplemental Nights.

Entertainingly dyspeptic and caustic at times, Burton’s grumble bristles with advice and the sort of observations on local colour unique to Burton, alternatively pedantic and trenchant.  He was then in the last years of his consulship at Trieste, and was well familiar with the country, its peculiarities and archeology, since it was within his jurisdiction, but he was ailing from various complaints associated, we now know, with tertiary syphilis, but which were usually described as “gout”.  Earlier in 1887, he had suffered his second heart attack.  The Burton entourage decamped from Trieste to Abbazia so that he could take a “semi-hydropathic cure”, the details of which are left unspecified, and to escape the Bora wind season in Trieste.

Trapped in the resort by walls of snow, which would last another two months, the Burtons “looked forward with horror to the Christmas tree, the New Year's Day ball, to the concert of Tyrolese girls, to the Gypsy band, and to the occasional musicians”.  During the local church service “the people howl (we cannot use any other word) a hymn in Slav, which appears to be of about ten bars in length and da capo, till your head is ready to burst: they never change either words or tune”.  The establishment put its cess pool in the centre of the building, with the result that when it is cleaned “once per mensem” the building “becomes fouler than the worst hospital of the prescientific age: the stench is such that none but the strong of stomachs can withstand it”.  He noted his boredom in his private journal: “a serious occupation or a study is a necessity. I got Father Josef Janc, the Catholic priest, to come and read German with me in the evenings, and I had my literature — my two last volumes of supplemental Arabian Nights.”[1]  To make things worse, though he again left this detail out, the hotel would not accept Burton’s cheque, because, as he wrote in his journal “they did not know who ‘Coutts’ was.”[2]

As usual, Burton’s coming and goings were not unnoticed in the press.  In the Eclectic Magazine, it is noted that “SIR RICHARD BURTON'S friends will be glad to hear that he has just returned .in improved health to Trieste, after nearly three months spent amid snow at Abbazia, whither he had gone in search of a warmer climate. He hopes to arrive in England in the early summer, passing slowly through Switzerland on the way.”[3]

It is impossible to say if the hospitality industry in Istria took any notice of the advice Burton bombards them with, but the region did go on to flourish as a tourist destination before and after the First World War.  A consumptive Anton Chekhov loved it at first, but also grew disenchanted: it features  in his story “Ariadna”.[4]  In 1912 it hosted a marvellous chess tournament in which nothing but the King’s Gambit was played.  Today it is incorporated into Croatia, with “Abbazia” renamed “Opatija”, and its prime years, like this pamphlet, largely forgotten.

Gavan Tredoux
May 2008.


[1] Isabel Burton, Life (1893): 355

[2] Ibid.  Coutts, founded 1692, was Burton’s bank in England.

[3] Eclectic Magazine (May, 1888): 718.

[4] Donald Rayfield, Anton Chekhov: a Life (2000): 328.