Imagine a place where one evening you are watching the sun setting behind lush green hills while the next evening you are watching the sun disappear beneath a vast but tranquil sea in a blaze of colours.
Imagine a place where one day you are roaming in the most scenic of coastal towns feeling the cool sea breeze on your face while the next day you are walking in the narrow, stone-paved alleys of a gorgeous hilltop town which instantly transports you back to the medieval era.
Imagine a place where one morning you are standing in the middle of a 2000 year old Roman amphitheatre while the next morning you are standing 60 metres under the ground in a cave full of bizarrely shaped stalactites and stalagmites that give the cave an otherworldly feel.
Imagine a place where one afternoon you are having the most delicious seafood you have ever had while the next afternoon you are enjoying a rare but delicious truffle based dish with a glass of world-class homemade wine.
Istria – a small triangular peninsula in north-west Croatia – is that place which offers a chance to experience all these things and a lot more. With so many things to see and do, one can easily spend a fortnight in Istria but sadly we did not have so many days. We had dedicated four days to Istria in our itinerary starting with the ancient city of Pula.
AN INTRODUCTION TO PULA
After visiting Zagreb and Varaždin – two cities which trace their origin to the medieval era, it was time to walk with the Romans in Pula. Although archaeologists have found evidence of settlers in Pula before the Romans, the city’s true history begins when it was captured by the Romans. Pula became a significant port city under the Romans whose importance can be gauged from the fact that it had a large amphitheatre and a couple of Roman theatres as well. The city was ruled by many different powers over the centuries but its importance never diminished. It was virtually the capital of Istria for most of its history. In 1991, the centrally located town of Pazin was made the capital of Istria but Pula remains the largest and most populous city of Istria.
ARRIVAL IN PULA
Our fourth day in Croatia was a hectic one since it involved a 350 km drive from Varaždin to Pula. We bid adieu to our gracious hosts in Varaždin and left the city by 9 in the morning. The drive to Pula took us almost four and a half hours. The road, which mostly consisted of highways except for a small stretch after Rijeka, was one of the best we had ever driven on.
Our apartment – Anchys Apartment – was situated in a quiet residential area roughly 2 km away from the historic core of the city. We checked into the two studio apartments that we had booked and found them to be modern, clean and well furnished.
After keeping our luggage and freshening up, we drove to El Pulari restaurant which served one of the best Mexican meals we have ever had. It was definitely among our top five restaurants of Croatia.
We came back to our apartment, rested for a bit and then drove to the city centre where we parked our car and began the sightseeing tour of Pula by 5 p.m.
THE CHURCHES AND THE FORUM
From the outset, we would like to say that despite its Roman-era treasures, Pula is not a city that we liked very much. In fact, if we were to make a list of our favourite places in Croatia, Pula would definitely find a spot in the bottom three. There are a few reasons for this. The first and foremost is that Pula lacks the charm of the other Istrian cities and towns. It is a city which feels rough around the edges. Perhaps this is due to the fact that Pula is also an industrial city with a long history of shipbuilding. Unlike most other Croatian cities, Pula also seems to lack a compact dedicated pedestrianized centre. The sites are spread over a large area, which, along with the fact that Pula is built on hilly terrain, resulted in a lot of climbing that tired us out. The final reason is a more personal one. For anyone visiting Pula, the top attraction is going to be its amphitheatre, but as we had already seen three Roman amphitheatres in Arles, Nimes and Rome, we didn’t go starry-eyed over this one.
In spite of all this, Pula still has a lot of things to see.
The first among them was a mosaic which had decorated the floor of a Roman house some two millenniums ago. This mosaic, based on the Greek myth of the Punishment of Dirke, was discovered after the structures above it were destroyed in a bombing during World War 2. It made us wonder how many other such priceless relics are buried beneath our feet. The colours of the mosaic had faded with time but its intricacy and beauty were still quite evident. The location of the mosaic was also slightly strange. Usually, a treasure such as this would be kept in museums, but here it was preserved at its original spot itself in the midst of shops and residential apartments.
Just a few metres away from the mosaic’s location were the Church and monastery of St. Francis. Both the buildings – which date back to the 14th century – were quite unremarkable. The facade of the church was under renovation while the interior was rather bare. The only thing of note in the entire church was the gilded wooden altarpiece. The entrance to the monastery cost us 9 kn which felt like wasted money when we actually saw the place. A small collection of fragments of antique Roman sculptures was displayed in a non-descript cloister while one of the adjoining rooms contained the remains of a floor mosaic. It took us just a few minutes to visit the church and the monastery after which, feeling underwhelmed, we made our way to the central square of ancient Pula.
The Pula Forum was a large square that housed two important monuments. The first was a Roman temple constructed towards the end of 1st century BC and dedicated to Emperor Augustus and Goddess Roma. The second was an elegant Town Hall which dates back to the late 13th century. The town hall was built on the remains of another Roman temple – Temple of Diana – and has since retained its core function of being the administrative headquarter of the city.
The next destination in our itinerary was the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, commonly known as Pula Cathedral. The most or rather the only noteworthy thing about this cathedral was its imposing bell tower. The interior of the cathedral was almost as austere as that of the Franciscan Church we had seen earlier. There was an information board which showed some mosaics from 5th and 6th centuries situated around the altar but as that area was cordoned off we were not able to actually see the mosaics. Right next to the cathedral was the waterfront which served as a nice location for some shots.
KASTEL – A FORTRESS ON THE HILL
As Pula was an important port city, there was a need to defend it. And as with so many other cities, the rulers of Pula also thought that the best way of doing it was by building a fortress on the top of a hill overlooking the bay. Thus, the construction of Pula fortress, known as Kaštel, was undertaken in the early 1630s. Today, this fortress is best known for offering stunning views across the harbour and the city.
Our climb from the waterfront to the fortress was a short one, consisting of some stairs and then an inclined path. At the top, we were welcomed by a row of canons placed along the outer wall of the fortress. Inside the castle was the Historical and Maritime Museum of Istria but we chose to give the museum a miss and directly climbed to the top of the ramparts.
We took an entire round of the castle atop those ramparts and then went up the watchtower. It was the topmost point of the fortress and gave an amazing 360º view of Pula. One side was dominated by the blue waters of Pula bay and giant cranes of the shipyard while on the other side lay the amphitheatre bathed in the golden light of the setting sun. We stayed there for some time to enjoy the sunset after which we came back down to the city.
THE ROMAN WALLS AND GATES
Pula was surrounded by walls for much of its history, with multiple gates providing access to the city. Some of the ancient gates and parts of walls are still preserved and provide an insight into the origin and history of Pula.
The first of the three gates that we saw was the Arch of the Sergii built towards the end of 1st century BC. This gate was a triumphal arch commissioned by a female member of the powerful Sergii family to honour three male members of her family. From an architectural point of view, this was the best and most ornately decorated of all gates.
We walked a short distance along the walls and came across the next gate known as the Hercules Gate. This gate is named so because it has the head and the club of Hercules carved on the top of the arch. Hercules was considered the protector of the ancient city of Pula. The Hercules Gate is the oldest Roman monument in Pula and dates from mid 1st century BC. The gate also had an inscription which contained the names of two Roman officials who were the founders of the city.
Just a few metres from the Hercules Gate, was the last of the three gates known as the Twin Gate on account of its two arches. This gate belongs to the 2nd century AD.
THE COLOSSEUM OF CROATIA
At around 8 o’clock in the evening, after spending close to three hours going up and down and across the old centre of Pula, we finally reached the star attraction of the city – the Pula Amphitheatre. The cost of entrance was slightly steep at 50 kn but it was well worth the price. The amphitheatre was well preserved with its outer ring almost completely intact. As soon as we entered, it felt like we had stepped back in time. Since we were visiting so late in the evening, there were very few visitors and it seemed like we had the place to ourselves.
The Pula Amphitheatre was constructed over a period of approximately 100 years from late 1st century BC to late 1st century AD. It is the sixth largest amphitheatre in the world and could accommodate over 20,000 spectators. A unique thing about it is that the structure was built along the side of the hill. As a result, one side of the amphitheatre consists of four levels while the opposite side consists of only two levels as it uses the elevation of the hill. This was a feature that we believe we had not seen in any other amphitheatre. Also by using this technique, the builders would have saved a lot of stone and other construction materials.
The best part of this amphitheatre lies underground. A dark narrow corridor led us to a subterranean chamber situated beneath the fighting ring. This chamber, once used to house the animals and equipment used in gladiator combats, today holds an exhibition on olive oil and wine production in Istria. The exhibits included many varieties of amphorae used for storing oil and wine as well as different machines used in various stages of production.
We came out from the underground chamber and sat at one side thinking about all the history associated with this 2000 years old structure in solitude. Alas, those moments of peace and quiet were soon shattered when a young American boy decided that it would be a good idea to test the acoustics of the structure by standing in the middle of the Arena and doing a rendition of some Donald Trump speech at the top of his voice. As if on cue, the staff began switching off the lights and we stepped out of the amphitheatre.
We got ourselves a pizza from Jupiter restaurant and then drove back to our apartment.