Fortification Veli Vrh

A hill above the Rječina River canyon, Rijeka, Primorje-Gorski Kotar County, Croatia
Back to the list Back to the map
Year of build:
Original name:
Monte Lesco
Military architecture
Past and Present Ownership of the Building/Site:

Public (City of Rijeka, Republika Hrvatska, Javno dobro putevi i vode), affiliated company (Vodovod i kanalizacija d.o.o.)

Typology and Style

World War II military fortification facility that forms the Alpine wall system, and was built as an underground fortification consisting of a system of underground tunnels and combat blocks (bunkers) on the surface. The underground fortification was almost complete at the time of the outbreak of the war, and its construction began after 1931 ("Circular 200") . The "Circular 15000" as of December 1939 created a detailed classification of the fortifications, and according to the same, based on the known parameters, we can classify the fortification of Veli Vrh among the large fortresses ("Opera grossa") category.

“…It lacked, however, weapons and various elements of communications and electrical equipment, and could not be considered operationally ready. Unlike the aforementioned fortifications, whose bunkers were buried deep into the slopes of the hill, the fighting blocks on the Monte Lesco elevation were massive concrete structures above ground, while the project according to which the fortification was to be built, envisaged multiple embrasures per block with the use of both frontal and lateral fire. The bunkers were appropriately camouflaged, so that they resembled clusters of karst rocks, but an experienced observer from far away would be able to recognise their purpose thanks to the highlighted size.”

From: TONIĆ V., Tragom „Alpskog bedema“ u Rijeci i Hrvatskoj, Rijeka: Slobodna Država Rijeka, 2011

Degree of preservation and status of protection

Fairly well preserved. The passageway of the entrance crew room is backfilled with building material, i.e. brick that has collapsed from both the walls and ceiling, leaving the concrete part visible. It is not a listed building.

Architectural Description

The construction part of the underground building is completely finished, with already obvious signs of degradation, right at the entrance where the wall and brick ceiling inside the crew room have collapsed. The main tunnel is about 130m long, while the total length of the underground parts being about 470 metres.

“The underground (logistical) part is located at a depth of about 14 metres below the level of the main observatory, with all the necessary parts located in the extension of the main corridor, which extended in a northwest-southeast direction. The excavation was reinforced with concrete and then further coated with bricks. The room for the electricity generator, kitchen, toilets, and food and water storage is located close to the only entrance (lack of the usual emergency exit is an atypical feature of this fortification).”

What also differentiates this from the other fortifications is the spiral staircase (86 steps) that leads to the most representative aboveground bunker, at the very top, right next to the hiking promenade, and overcomes a leveling of about 14m.

“The "most attractive" structure of this fortification is a massive concrete observatory with three unshielded embrasures oriented west, north and east, with a separate dome (casemate) with one embrasure for machine gun, facing northwest.”

Masterfully camouflaged in a way that resembles a build-up of karst rocks, this bunker was, from far, recognisable for its size, and even today, anyone who passes by is sure to notice it because it impresses with its massiveness. Unlike Katarina A and B, whose bunkers were buried deep in the hill slopes, the construction of concrete bunkers at Veli vrh also explains the current state of steel shortage in Italy, which suffered an international embargo on steel imports, and the Navy had priority for its use. The lack of steel armour in the embrasures has obviously been attempted to compensate, with a greater thickness of the protective layer of concrete, resulting in the larger dimensions of the bunker.

“…the fort had a total of nine combat blocks with 13 heavy machine guns and light machine guns,…”

From: TONIĆ V., Tragom „Alpskog bedema“ u Rijeci i Hrvatskoj, Rijeka: Slobodna Država Rijeka, 2011

History and Historical Context

As consolidated by the Treaty of Rapallo in 1920., a border was passing through the City of Rijeka dividing the city in two parts. The western part that included Rijeka with its harbour was under the Kingdom of Italy, while the eastern part including Sušak and the river Rječina was assigned to the Kingdom of Serbs Croats and Slovenes (treaty of Rome 1924.). The part of the frontier that was passing over the hills above Rječina river was heavily fortified by some of the main defensive corps of the so-called line “Vallo Alpino” (Alpine Wall).

“In the climate of mistrust that prevailed among European countries in the 1930s, memories of the First World War slaughters were still fresh. The battles on the Italian-Austro-Hungarian front, on the Soča River and in the Julian Alps, could be compared with the fierceness and magnitude of the tragedy of hundreds of thousands of lives lost to those in the plains of France and Belgium. After the war, there was an opinion among military strategists that it was better to invest in strong defensive lines and concrete fortifications than to count on the masses of soldiers, "cannon fodder", as a guarantee of inviolability of borders and avoiding future bloodshed.
The construction of permanent fortifications on Italy's "Eastern Frontier" began shortly after Circular no. 200 was issued: both Croatian and Slovenian papers of that time mention the digging of "huge caverns" as early as in 1931-1932.
“On April 28, 1937 (valid retroactively since December 20, 1934), a decree was issued to found a special corps of the Italian army called "Guardia alla Frontiera" (Border Guard), in order to occupy the positions situated on a line known as “Vallo Alpino” (Alpine wall). This corps was territorially divided into so-called. sectors, totalling 27, from which the first was located on the border with France on the Cote d'Azur, to the twenty-seventh, which was the city of Rijeka itself.”

The fortification was under control of military forces until 1995. However, the only period when it was used for military purpose, was in the “Battle for Rijeka”, from the mid April to beginning of May 1945. (03.05.1945. Liberation of the city of Rijeka from German occupation).

"Rimski sporazum". Hrvatska enciklopedija digital edition (Croatian encyclopedia) (in Croatian). Miroslav Krleža Institute in Zagreb

TONIĆ V., Tragom „Alpskog bedema“ u Rijeci i Hrvatskoj, Rijeka: Slobodna Država Rijeka, 2011

Values of the Building

The value of this site is primarily both cultural and historical, both globally and locally. However, the architectural value of the fortification, especially the skillfully camouflaged above-ground bunkers, should also not be underestimated. More recently, this site has become the city's hub for sport climbing and various other outdoor activities, and the concrete bunkers have become a base for graffiti.

Description of the Urban Context and Development

On the slopes of the hill above Pulac, there is a paved but narrow and winding road which leads to Veli Vrh. This place has been a popular city climbing destination for many years. Furthermore, the "Rijeka promenade" mountain path leads here as well. The view is breathtaking, both west towards the sea and east towards the hills. A great place for meditation, sport and recreation.

New Cultural Tourist Offer Focused on Selected Building/Site

Given the urban context in which the fortification is located, and the type of bunkers that are different from the others in the surrounding area, including a number of smaller abandoned buildings, this would be an ideal place to form a smaller sports and recreation centre run by one of Rijeka’s numerous mountain societies, intended primarily for locals and then for tourism. It is rarity to have such a hiking destination near the city. It is interesting that in the 1980's, ideas about the establishment of a Museum of the Battle of Rijeka existed, which allegedly came to the administrative center in Belgrade although the idea never came into fruition.

At this location, more attention should be paid to the environment and above ground battle positions that can fit into the sports and recreation story, rather than to the tunnel itself, which by no means is different when compared to the adjacent tunnels on Sv. Katarina. Moreover, the subjective impression is that the underground premises of Veli Vrh are much cooler with sensory wind passing through.


The archival documentation for the construction of tunnels and bunkers was not found in the State Archives, which is logical given the fact that the construction of these facilities was a very well-kept secret at the time. It is not possible to exclude the possibility of archival documentation on the Rijeka fortifications in the military archive in Rome, however, although for this it would be necessary to have a longer period of time for research. The found documentation comes from private sources or Drenova Heritage Museum digital archive.

Veli Vrh Approximate Floor Plan