By Taylor Gordy
There is a corner in Pula, Croatia that encapsulates the city’s entire history with five buildings. It begins from the Arch of the Sergi and continues through the periods of Venetian influence, Austrian rule, Italian fascist regime, and communist revolution. The ancient and ornate gives way to the drab style of recent history, providing a visual explanation of Pula’s complicated history. Pula is a unique blend of historical importance and coastal leisure, which makes it an essential destination for any Croatian travel itinerary.
Pula is situated on the bottom tip of the Istrian peninsula, and it can be reached from the capital city of Zagreb in three-and-a-half hours by bus. Stay at the Hotel Veli Jože; A fifteen-minute walk in either direction from the hotel’s front door will put you right in the middle of the action, whether you turn left to end up in the city center or right to the rocky beaches of the Adriatic. The spacious accommodations include a desk room, bathroom, and bedroom with vaulted ceilings and large windows to let in the coastal breeze.
Upon arrival, make that right turn out the door and treat yourself to a cocktail with a seaside view at Café Šumi More. If you’re brave, you’ll sample Croatia’s take on schnapps: flavored liquor called rakija. While it’s available in flavors ranging from sour cherry to grape and even herbs, a sweet introduction to the liquor is medica, which has a strong honey taste and a bite that is subtle enough even for first time liquor drinkers. At this café, you will be served in a shot glass made of ice, which you can then fling into the Adriatic! The water around Pula is liquid crystal, so clear you can’t tell how deep it goes. Once you have had a drink, lay a towel down on the rocks and enjoy lounging by the water without getting sand in all your crevices—you won’t find any sand beaches in Pula.
Rested and refreshed, head down to the city center for some shopping before dinner. The streets are filled with stores from candy shops where you pay by the gram to high fashion names like Max Mara. With the Croatian kuna valued at around one-sixth of the USD, shopping in Pula is an opportunity to get plenty of bang for your buck. Peruse the produce market stalls for fresh strawberries, bananas and citrus fruits, and then take your purchases to an outdoor café to enjoy a coffee while you snack. Croatians often sit for hours at cafés nursing one drink, so it’s perfectly acceptable to relax and people watch for as long as you like.
A stroll through the pedestrian avenues of Pula provides insight into the way locals live. In the main square, women enjoy drinks at cafes while watching wedding parties pose for photos on the steps of the reconstructed Roman Temple of Augustus. Mariam Abdelghani, a tour guide based in town, says about the main square: “People in Pula love this square because there is always something going on here.” Just beyond the square behind the temple is a view of the shipyard, Uljanik, where colossal ships are still constructed today. Uljanik employs two thousand local residents, and the whole town takes pride in each completed ship. Pula was once the most important port in the Austrian empire; in fact, Admiral Von Trapp from The Sound of Music actually lived in Pula with his first wife and their children. When she died, he moved his family back to Salzburg, where the movie takes place. The shipbuilding tradition carries on today, though these days it’s car carriers being built at the port rather than naval vessels.
In Roman times, Pula was renowned as a place to enjoy and relax. People visited the town to attend gladiator games in the amphitheater, which held 23,000 spectators in its heyday. The amphitheater stands today; in fact, it is the only Roman amphitheater with the full outer wall still preserved. Concerts are still held within the amphitheater’s walls, though today only 7,000 viewers are allowed at a time. For 50kn you can tour the grounds, including the underground room from which gladiators and wild animals were catapulted onto the arena floor.
When it’s time to eat, there is no shortage of options in the city center. Pizzeria Jupiter, located across the street from the amphitheater, has a large menu ranging from pizza and pasta to seafood and grill items. The dining area is large with two levels and a red alcove booth in the stairwell. Despite its size, the restaurant, with its brick walls and dark wooden cross beam ceilings, still maintains a cozy atmosphere. Just as many locals frequent the place as tourists, which is a good omen for the quality of the food. Their most popular pizza is the namesake of the region, called the Istriana: a delicious combination of tomato, prosciutto, arugula and fresh tomatoes smothered in mozzarella cheese. Wash it down with a Croatian lager such as Ožujsko before heading out.
One of Pula’s selling points is its perfect positioning for day trips to other Istrian towns. For instance, Rovinj, which was under Venetian rule for hundreds of years and still has a large portion of its old town preserved, is a forty minute drive from Pula. Motovun, the classic example of a medeival hill town, is an hour from Pula in the interior of the Istrian peninsula. Motovun is also the heart of truffle country. Many families in the surrounding area subsist on gathering truffles and producing truffle-based products, which you can sample and purchase within the city walls. Having a base in Pula lends itself to seeing a large portion of Istria during your stay.
Pula is a town steeped in both history and opportunities for liesure, thus making it the perfect destination to include in a trip to Croatia. It is ideal no matter what type of traveler you are, whether you prefer educational tours, relaxing on the beach, experimenting with local cuisine and alcohol or experiencing the everyday life of a Croatian. Take the opportunity to explore this place that still few Americans have visited; you will not regret it.