In 2017, after a summer exploring the likes of Rome, Barcelona and various places in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, we quickly went about seeking out our next destination of adventure, planning to go away for a few days at the end of October.
We had our hearts set on the Balkans again, as the climate and variety of activities and places on offer left us wanting more after our summer road trip. Ultimately, needing to make the most of the time we had away, it was through a search of airports that were accessible directly from the UK that had us stumble across a place called Pula. A small city on the west coast of Croatia which, as it transpired, was home to a number of landmarks including the most intact Roman amphitheater in Europe, and the sixth largest in the world.
The more we researched, the more it drew us in. Not only does it have some incredible architecture, the history here is fascinating, as it has its roots and stories from ancient Rome, through Istria as well as occupation during the second World War.
Going in October meant that the tourist numbers were down, and everything was extremely accessible once we had sourced a taxi to take us from the small airport a few miles out of town to our wonderful apartment in the center, based in what was once the old cathedral convent. Visiting at this time of year also meant the temperature was lower than normal, no higher than a very comfortable 20 degrees and on one day we saw heavy, heavy rain.
The first landmark we saw was from the window of the taxi entering the city, Pula Arena. Built in 68 AD, it is without a doubt the standout landmark of Pula. A smaller version of the iconic Colosseum in Rome, it offers a less busy and far more accessible and affordable alternative to its Italian relative, and also sits remarkably plush among the city of residential buildings around it. One notable feature was the lack of any scaffold or maintenance taking place, something rarely seen on western historical monuments. For the entry price of 50 Kuna per person (around 7 Euro’s with concessions for students, children etc.) we had free roam to go around this incredible ruins, as well as the cellar containing artifacts and information relating to the wine making the country is so proud of.
The arena still lives on, holding gigs and festivals, and serves as a fantastic example of Croatia’s approach to its heritage. Pula’s city walls are a similar story. Unlike Dubrovnik’s impressive walled old city, the walls in Pula are mostly dismantled and only visible in small, crumbling pockets with the story being that on the expanse of the city over the centuries, the walls were removed and the materials recycled for use in other buildings.
On the same side of the city as the Arena, is Tito’s Park. This sits as a beautiful memorial to Josip Broz Tito, President of then-Yugoslavia from 1939 to his death in 1980. Also in this park there are busts remembering the military leaders and heroes who fought and defied the Nazis during World War Two.
Moving away from the park, we found the glorious Twin Gates that lead to the archaeological museum and the Gate of Hercules. Whilst the architecture of the latter is well worn, and easily missed, at the top of the damaged arch is a carving of the head of Hercules and his club. Close to the carving is a damaged inscription containing the names of two Roman officials, Lucius Calpurnius Piso and Gaius Cassius Longinus to whom the Roman Senate had entrusted the duty to found a Roman colony at the site of today’s Pula. This gate once led to the city center, but now leads to a trendy hotel bar well worth visiting, as it serves extremely generously priced, delicious (and somewhere moreish!) local wine.
Sticking to the theme of ‘little Rome’, in the Forum Square in the center of the old town, was used as a part of a triad of Roman temples. The Communal Palace is situated at the northern end of the main square, where the temple of Diana once stood. The spot occupied by the Palace has been used for the beautiful baroque public buildings that have stood as council seating since the days of Ancient Rome. The Temple of Augustus is the only one of the three temples still intact, a temple dedicated to the first roman emperor Augustus around 27 BC. As it was built at around the same time as the original pantheon in Rome, it shares a lot of structural similarities. An incredible piece of architecture, maintained extremely well, and home to a small museum of well kept, interesting Roman artifacts found in the nearby Nesactium. Behind this beautiful building is the remains of the Temple of the Goddess Diana. Although the original temple has not survived, the whole back side of the Temple of Diana is still clearly visible. The forum itself hosts the tourist information center and a number of restaurants in a genuinely nice, open and spacious environment.
Walking away from the arena at the other end of the old town, the Triumphal Arch of the Sergi (Golden Gate) straddles the street. A smaller version of its counterparts in Paris and Barcelona, but another exquisite piece of architecture and well worth a walk-by for the sake of a five minute detour.
Above the city sits Pula Castle. An impressively preserved building housing themed museums and varied artworks. Whilst we were there, there was a museum detailing the occupation of Istria, now the western side of Croatia, by the Nazis in World War Two, along with items and artifacts. Around the back of the castle is the Small Roman Theatre. This again fits the criteria of ‘little Rome’, though as we were unable to go around via the archaeological museum, due to renovation work taking place at the time of our visit, it was an adventurous clamber down from the castle, and at first appeared as a bit of a decaying ruin. But standing in the center of the scene, looking towards the semicircular orchestra and tired section for the audience underneath the divine Istrian skies, it’s very easy to get lost in imagination of the plays and music that would have once filled this area.
On the walk up towards the fortress, on a wide cobbled street, one of our favourites, the Church and Monastery of St. Francis. The entry fee was nominal, no more than 2 Kuna each, and although the exterior was masked by scaffolding whilst we were there, the interiors were handsome, containing floor mosaics and the kind of architecture and artifacts you would come to expect from a central European church. What was less expected, but a very pleasant surprise, the small garden in the center cloister was home to a number of tortoises! We went on a wet day in the autumn, which meant that they were not particularly active – I’m not sure if there is a time or climate in which they are! But we did manage to spot a couple. Also, as with everywhere in Croatia where we found ourselves near stone walls, we saw a number of the inspiringly named, Dalmatian Wall Lizards. I’m not a fan of reptiles as a rule, but these little colourful critters sneaking in and out of the brickwork all over the Balkans are quite characterful!
Whilst in Pula, we would recommend a restaurant just off the center of the Forum – Orfej. The food and drink here was excellent, wonderful relaxed ambiance, fast, extremely well priced and the service from the waitress who worked every night we were there was second-to-none. Of all the food and drink we have had across our trips to Croatia, I don’t think we have been anywhere we wouldn’t recommend, but this really was perfect customer service.
On our final full day, we took a taxi out to the neighbouring town of Fazana where we were able to get a boat to the island of Brijuni. It’s worth noting that during the summer months it may be possible to get boats directly from the port of Pula, or specific buses and trips to Fazana, but as we were there off season we weren’t able to do so. Brijuni National Park is a beautiful island with quite an elite backstory. The island was home to Tito, who used the island to house his own safari of exotic animals donated to him by world leaders from across the globe. For the most part, this safari still exists and likes of zebras, llamas and even a hippopotamus can be seen. Those animals that have died since Tito’s passing nearly 40 years ago are taxidermied and on show in the museum to Tito, also on the island. All of this, along with his Cadillac Eldorado (one of three in the world, the others belonging to Queen Elizabeth II and Elvis) and a road train ride around the island, can be seen with a guide for the price of the boat trip if bought together at Fazana.
Returning to Fazana, we found a restaurant which served an unorthodox shark stew which we ate on the seafront as a series of wedding parties, and their accompanying musicians, went past to the church. In Croatia we learnt that weddings take place on a Saturday, and whilst it made for festivities over our late lunch, it meant we would be unable to see inside Pula Cathedral before we left the following morning.
Pula is an incredible place, a wonderfully relaxed city and felt like a rewarding alternative to Rome. Less busy, less queuing and more affordable.
Coming at October meant we did miss out on a few landmarks. The archaeological museum was being renovated, the tunnels under the city were closed due to being outside of the tourist season and we were unable to visit the cathedral and clocktower due to weddings and religious ceremonies taking place over two of the four days we were there. For anyone planning a visit, it’s worth noting that it isn’t too far from the borders with Slovenia and the very eastern edge of Italy if more day trips are desired!
That said, and although we only had four days, with one hindered by poor weather, having the freedom of going off season meant it was long enough to see almost everything we wanted to.
by Tom McBeth and Natasha Bryan