By: Kristen Monson
A Roman arch stands alone in the square, one side intricately carved, the other bare. The Arch of Sergi divides Pula, Croatia into East and West. Less than 100 feet away is a mustard, three-story building with white shutters framing rectangular windows. Adjacent to the gold-colored store is a faded blue building with cream trim and arched windows. A stone balcony stretches across it. Next to it stands a pale green building with straight lines and square windows. Scanning from the Arch of Sergi, the architecture changes from Roman to Austrian to Venetian, and finally ending with Fascist style; in the matter of 350 feet, the entire history of Pula is shown by these four structures.
Pula is a coastal town located on the Adriatic Sea in the Istrian county of Croatia. Years of different empire rule and history took part in the making of the town that is today’s largest cultural and economic center of Istria. With the only shipyard in the country, Pula is an industrial town with a strong community. “Here in Pula, we live in this shipyard,” explains local tour guide Mariam Abdelghani. Whenever builders finish a ship, citizens of Pula are invited to Uljanik Shipyard to see and explore the boat.
Pula, along with other towns in Istria, have a strong Italian community and is the only county that is bilingual with Croatian and Italian frequently being spoken. Walking through the streets of towns in Istria, Italian flags hang from buildings next to Croatian flags. Istrians do not see Italian flags as a foreign country’s flag, but rather half of their culture. Flags are not the only sign of Italian presence though. Much of the architecture in Pula is Roman, with monuments still existing from as early as the first century BC. The Temple of Augustus is one of these monuments. The temple was constructed between the year 2 BC and AD 14 and is located in the Forum housing a collection of ancient stone and bronze sculptures. Today, the stone-based Forum is used for weddings photos in front of city hall.
Situated outside the old city walls, the Pula Amphitheater is one of the world’s biggest arenas—second to the Coliseum in Rome—and held 20,000-25,000 people during the time it was used. Built in the first century AD, having an arena in Pula showed the importance of the town. Tens of thousands of spectators would flock to the limestone arena to watch gladiators fight wild animals and other gladiators. Today, the amphitheater is the best-preserved arena, which people can walk around in and attend events like the Pula Film Festival, concerts, operas, ballets and sports competitions.
What makes Pula a destination worth traveling to is not only the culture and history of this town, but also the surrounding area of Istria. Less than 30 minutes away is the coastal town of Rovinj. With red roofs filling your eyesight and flowerpots on every windowsill, Rovinj looks more like a movie set than a home to people. Although the small town is popular with tourists, it is still unscathed by urbanism. The narrow streets wind their way through town, with many of the roads leading to the Church of St. Euphemia on top of a small hill. With a miraculous legend behind the name of Rovinj’s most significant monument, the church is worth visiting as it even has a statue of St Euphemia on top that can predict the weather—although sometimes not the most reliable. All the roads lead you back to the city from the top of the hill, with the two main ones taking you along the water or the other through the art and jewelry store dotted street.
Close to Rovinj, but different in dynamic, the ancient Roman town of Poreč is devoted to tourism and has become the party center of Istria. Although the town can be more crowded than other surrounding towns, it has something to offer every type of traveler. Along with museums, Poreč’s streets are home to many atelier galleries and restaurants serving local seafood. The main attraction is the Euphrasian Basilica, a UNESCO World Heritage site that was built in the early to mid 6th century. The basilica is worth visiting for the mosaics alone. Although some parts have been destroyed throughout the years, the Byzantine elements of architecture are still noticeable.
In the northern part of Istria, overlooking the Mirna River valley lies the hilltop town of Motovun. A 45-minute drive from Rovinj to Motovun changes the scenery from coastline to rolling hills. Motovun Forest stretches for miles along a river valley that is especially rich in producing truffles. The town relies on this river, as many families’ livings are made by picking truffles with the help of dogs especially trained in finding them. In the town, shops selling whole truffles, truffle oils and sauces, and local wines are placed on every corner, making it easy to spend money on truffles that rival Italy’s and France’s finest truffles. Vineyards producing some of Istrian’s best red and white wines surround Motovun, so grabbing a glass at a café is recommended. Although a small town, a large number of events still take place including the International Motovun Film Festival that takes place at the end of July.
Although on the Adriatic Sea, Istria is not known for their beaches, but produces the finest wines, truffles and olive oils in the country, and possibly in the world, to make up for that. With multiples towns that are thousands of years old and with the influence of many different countries and empires, it is easy to be captivated by the culture Istria has, making it an area worth visiting.