By Elizabeth Chambers
“In front of you, you see the whole history of Pula,” said Mariam Abdelghani, tour guide and local of the Croatian city. We were standing feet away from the Arch of Sergii and its neighboring architecture. “The yellow building is from the time of the Austrians, the blue from the time of the Venetians, and the green from the time of fascist Italians.” This coastal town located on the Istrian Peninsula is the site of some of the most well-preserved ruins in the world. Though often overpowered by the grandeur of luxurious Dubrovnik, Pula has a unique artistic and historical nature to present to its guests.
As the bus entered the outskirts of the city, it tilted side to side, maneuvering narrow streets. Stone buildings with terracotta roofs flanked the route. Pink flowers spilled from window boxes of homes as vines climbed up their façades. Arriving at Hotel Veli Jože through the electric blue front door, a carpeted staircase led up to a mosaic floor, where the reception desk stood. The hotel’s character radiated from its tall antique ceilings and beaten stone stairwells.
Built in the 19th century, Hotel Veli Jože was formerly used as an Austro-Hungarian Naval headquarters. Its original stone frame now holds 160 beds within 75 rooms. Spaces are decorated simply, with blue accents upon white walls. Large double-paneled windows open wide, allowing in a warm breeze in the summer.
A 20-minute walk away is the Valkane cove – an ideal place to spend an afternoon in Pula. An oceanfront bar in the cove, Šumi More, offers a variety of drinks – including a homemade blueberry mojito, presented with fresh mint leaves and carved ice cubes, which hold extra syrup.
Owner of Šumi More, Marko Ristic, sat on his outdoor terrace. He offered iced shots of Rakija – a Croatian liquor. His Rottweiler sauntered around the area greeting guests with kisses. The sun sat high in the sky. Families shared laughs while couples shared cigarettes. Children ran around in bathing suits, squealing as they dared each other to dip toes in the water. Hours later, as the sun began to set over distant trees, warm stone slabs framed the turquoise ocean offering heat to reclining guests.
Aside from providing a relaxing atmosphere for its guests, Pula’s waterfront has a significant purpose. The coastal city is home to the only working shipyard in Croatia: Uljanik. Functioning since Roman rule, Uljanik employs over 2,000 locals, presently. It is so important to the city’s economy that every time a ship is completed, the town is invited aboard to view the new creation.
Inland, Pula presents an array of historic architecture, scattered across the relatively modern city. The Temple of Augustus sits on one side of the main square next to the city hall. Destroyed during World War II by the Allies, it was reconstructed from its original stone in 1947. A ten-minute walk away is the Pula Arena, where roughly 23,000 people would gather to watch gladiator battles.
Standing in the Arena’s center and seeing its magnitude, one can only think about how odd it is that this structure has stood since Roman rule. Where gladiators would fight to the death, tourists now wander with Nikon cameras around their necks. A long, dimly lit hallway leads to an underground room beneath the arena. Here the gladiators prepared for battle and wild animals were stored. Moisture trapped between thick stone walls makes the air damp.
The Pula Arena is the best preserved amphitheater in the world and still serves as a venue for concerts today. Because vibrations damage its stone frame, only five or six loud shows are allowed per year. The arena presents the Pula Film Festival annually, during which the amphitheater is lit up in vibrant color and transformed into a cinema. A functional piece of Roman architecture, the Pula Arena is an element of the city that historically and continually attracts crowds.
Typical Roman cities, like Pula, were built with a decumanus – a main street that runs through downtown. ‘Deca’ signifies the number ten, which represents the fact that ten soldiers in full uniform could span the width of the street. Pula’s decumanus is where ancient history meets modern art. Boutiques and galleries now line the road, occupying original architecture. The Galerija Makina, opened in 2010, displays contemporary photography by artists all over Europe.
“Almost every exhibition is for sale,” said owner Branka Cvjetičanin pointing to the black and white photographs. “But they are very expensive,” she added. The gallery had high ceilings, white walls and florescent lights. Cvjetičanin’s heels could be heard clicking on the floor a few feet behind. Slovenian photographer Peter Rauch’s exhibition “Die Umwelt” was on display.
A couple of buildings down, a jewelry store’s display shined onto the cobbled street. Inside, rows of glass cases displayed an array of coral, turquoise, amber and lava in both polished and natural form. Galerija Nakita Andreja is a family-owned business that has been passed through five generations. “The family tradition is jewelry,” says owner Vilma Andreja. “We have never imported…all of the jewelry is made by my husband and my son.” A small company like this is not uncommon in Pula. Families often pass on traditions and expertise.
The decumanus eventually drains into the main square. People gather to share gossip and cappuccinos at outdoor cafes, admiring the view of the Temple of Augustus. Pula has a distinctive character that stems from its unique building blocks: cultural tradition and ancient ruins.