When we were planning this section of our trip we debated at length where to stay in Istria (this is the peninsula where Pula is located). Istria is like the Tuscany of Croatia with no shortage of vineyards, rolling green hills, and old Venetian cities dotting the coastline. There are some very beautiful coastal cities around the area like Trieste in Italy, Piran in Slovenia, or Rovinj in Croatia north of Pula. But as we felt a bit tight on funds we opted for the cheapest option which was Pula. I want to take a moment to say that while budgets are critical for travel, it isn’t always the best choice to go with the cheapest spot. This was our least favorite spot we stayed and in retrospect I would have forked out a bit more for lodging and stayed in Trieste or idyllic Rovinj making a day trip in to see Pula. But as hindsight is 20/20 we had no idea going in what to expect. There is nothing inherently wrong with Pula, the old Roman era center is actually quite beautiful, but be forewarned it is a powerhouse of shipping and is one of the largest cities in Croatia so the much of the city lacks that charming Mediterranean feel.
Another reason we may have left Pula with a somewhat sour taste in our mouths was our lodging. I know I just stated that we went with a cheap spot, but cheap doesn’t always mean crappy. This was just one of those instances where it did. Things started off bad when we pulled up to the place, it was sort of like a small hotel with two floors and four rooms per floor, and we couldn’t figure out the entrance to it. The entire place was surrounded by a metal fence with two gates. One of which was locked and the other was open. Logically we assumed the unlocked gate that past a pool and led to what looked like an entrance on the ground floor must be the right door. Right? Wrong. This was the hotel owners private entrance, which she was very quick to point out as she basically pushed us back onto the street, and told us to go around to the locked gate that she would open for us. Thinking this a bit odd we did as we were told and met her at the other gate. From here she took us to our room and this was where my heart sank. I’ve seen cheerier hospital rooms. The bare, old nicotine stained walls shouted boldly of the lack of love for this place. Which felt odd as the hallways were covered in murals of marine life and seemed so happy. Apparently that love didn’t transfer to the room. It is hard to explain what made the place so depressing, but there was just a major funk in that room that we couldn’t shake no matter what we tried. I don’t think it helped either that our room was on the street side instead of the seaside so it was stiflingly hot and the balcony overlooked the garbage strewn empty lot across the street.
We spent the following day playing catch up by writing, finalizing some aspects of our upcoming islands trip, and addressing some matters back stateside. That evening we were treated to one of the most spectacular lightning storms we had ever seen. With bolts crashing directly overhead the whole place shook. The storm continued on well into the night and we had a blast watching out the windows. The next day the storm was gone and a beautiful blue sky was overhead. By that afternoon we were ready to get out of our room and check out Pula.
Pula is an old city, dating back to the days of the Romans. It is located along the Via Flavia, which was an ancient Roman route connecting Trieste to Dalmatia. Near the ancient, and now modern day harbor sits the Pula Arena. As far back as the 1st Century the center has been composed of sand, giving the Pula Arena its name. Said to be commissioned by Emperor Augustus, it marked the city as the center of regional Roman rule. This amphitheater is unique because according to the Ancient Origins site it is the “only remaining Roman amphitheater to have four side towers and with all three Roman architectural orders entirely preserved.” By comparison only 2/3rds of the original structure of the Coliseum in Rome still stands. Besides the arena there are other historic Roman structures like the Arch of Sergii, which is a Roman arch dating back to 29 BCE, the Temple of Augustus that was damaged during WWII but renovated and now houses Roman artifacts from the area, and the more recent 17th Century fortress that stands atop the center hill in town with views of the city.
As it was creeping up on dinner we stopped by Jupiter pizza for a bite to eat and draft of a fantastic local beer. Fed and happy we waddled over to the arena to explore. I’ll take this opportunity to make a small PSA about Croatia’s “attractions” as a general whole. Often they are worth visiting, but be prepared for them to be a little pricy and include zero information. If you want an audio guide you’ll have to fork out almost as much as the ticket costs, and they aren’t always very useful. So just don’t expect a lot of information about what you’re seeing in Croatia and you’ll be fine. The arena was a good example of this as tickets cost us about $10 and provided very basic info about the place. But don’t let that deter you, it is well worth a visit. Walking inside a 2,000 year old structure that you can have basically zero limits on what you can touch, sit on, explore is easily worth the $10. We had a blast sitting in the stands pretending to watch one of the gladiator battles (we didn’t want to pretend to see an animal hunt). Admission to the arena during the Roman days was totally free, but seating arrangements were tightly dictated following the social hierarchy of reputation and wealth. As nobody was there to dictate our social status we sat wherever we wanted.
It was incredible to touch the old walls and stare up at the arched entrances the Romans were so famous for. There are a few statues still standing, including a lion that has born witness to potentially 2,000 years of history. Mind blown moment. But the part I really enjoyed was the auxiliary underground room set below the arena. In the days of the Romans this room would have housed the animal cages and any technical aides needed, but today it is home to an ancient olive oil mill complete with hundreds of clay oil vessels. It is easy to miss this as there is only a set of stairs with no markings that leads you down into the room full of its ancient treasures. In addition to the oil vessels there are other bits and pieces of columns, ornamentation, and statues stored. It felt like you had accidentally stumbled into somebody’s basement that happened to be filled with antiquities. We started our tour about an hour before closing so in the blink of an eye it was time to browse the gift shop and take off. On our way back to our lodging we stopped to see the Temple of Augustus. It was closed by the time we got there so we just admired it from the outside.Which we have photos of, in addition to more inside the arena in our Gallery. From there it was back to the “hotel” and prepping for our next stop: Split.