By: Amanda Allbee
“The people are the best thing about Pula,” said the town butcher after tossing back a glass of honey rakija, the bittersweet nectar of Croatia. A colorful sleeve of tattoos covered his arm, wrapped in plastic, as it was freshly etched into his skin earlier that day. Out of his unbuttoned shirt peeked a black-inked portrait of his mother and his father in a soldier’s hat, gazing at each other across the city, separated by buildings and the shipyard. “We take in everyone, we don’t tell anyone ‘no.’ We don’t give a shit,” he explained in between each “ciao” he called out from our outside table at Fiorin Jazz Club to the passers-by he knew, which happened to be everyone. Čobe, a butcher of Pula who was born and raised in the small city on the Istrian peninsula of Croatia, embodies the gritty attitude of this often-overlooked coastal destination.
Pula is a city that lives for tourists; however, tourists often choose Croatian cities down the Dalmatian coast that are far more polished, heavily advertised hubs that draw in visitors with picturesque views of the Adriatic from cutesy seaside cafes, prime shopping from the plethora of local craftspeople selling their trinkets and Croatian-made products, and perfect rows of vibrant buildings lining cobblestone streets. Pula is a blue-collar town with the only working shipyard in all of Croatia. Though shopkeepers and waiters will not reply in perfectly rehearsed English, and there is not even a promenade for seaside strolls presenting a prime photo-op for visitors, Pula has a character similar to Čobe’s: it needs to be given a chance to reveal its idiosyncrasies and charm.
With each fleeting glimpse of turquoise water, I ached for the sea more and more while traveling by bus to Pula from the inland capital city of Zagreb. I arrived at Hotel Veli Jože in the late afternoon. The cheerful façade of Veli Jože augmented my desire to take a dunk in the Adriatic; light-washed brick walls framing a charming blue door, and matching widely opened shutters that welcomed in the salty afternoon breeze illustrated the aesthetic of a seaside inn. From Veli Jože, it is a quick twenty-minute walk past a cemetery and apartment buildings to a spot where locals sunbathe on flat rocks surrounding the gentle waters of a sheltered harbor of the Adriatic Sea. There is no pointed-arrow sign indicating “beach: this way,” but an opening through the trees where you are able to see clear blue water in the distance. Locals sprawl across flat slabs of rock along the water, languidly basking in the sun. There is one establishment rooted in the middle of the rocky shore, a bar called Šumi More that makes a mean mojito with a homemade blueberry compote of which the owner gives you extra, made from fresh blueberries that are in season during the early summertime.
A trek to the city center from the water after an afternoon of sipping “blueberitos” under the sun is not a big deal; twenty-five minutes and you could find yourself smack dab in the middle of Pula. When I first stood in the center of town, I was in disbelief that it was real. Roman architecture still standing so in-tact surrounded by cafes of people sipping on cappuccinos and puffing cigarettes; this scene was not simply fabricated within the past twenty years to give the appearance of rich history as means to attract tourists. There are no red velvet ropes protecting the temple of St. Augustus from hands curious or destructive, it is simply incorporated into the livelihood of the locals. A tradition for newly-wed couples is to take a picture in front of the temple, and on Saturday afternoons when weddings are held in town, local women gather at the cafe next to the temple to watch and make commentary about the bride’s dress. A church built in the sixth century stands nearby, and behind is a view of Uljanik, the shipyard which employs two thousand Croatians. Locals pride themselves on more than just the incredible beauty the Romans left for them; they take pride in what they have built for themselves over the past twenty years since economic progress in the newly-independent state was reestablished. “We live with this shipyard,” said tour guide and local Mariam Abdelghani. “Every time they finish a new ship, they invite the citizens to see. We are a very proud people.” There are two shifts per day; morning-shift workers chain up their bikes and are relieved by the next shift in the afternoon.
Families that do not have a tradition of working at Uljanik contribute to the city in other ways. Going shopping on the streets of Pula, it seems as if your eyes are playing tricks on you as you may see the same person who was behind the register at the candy shop now in the jewelry store, and then again at a perfume store. If this exact scenario plays out, it is more than likely a member of Vilmia Andreja’s family. Like many families of Pula, they own multiple shops in town: two candy stores, a perfumeria, and a jewelry gallery. Although the Andreja family owns so many businesses within the city, their tradition for five generations has been jewlery making. She, her husband and her son craft every piece of jewelry in their gallery, Andrej Galerija Nakita, by hand. They use unpolished coral, amber and lava from Dalmatia. Not every store in town exclusively sells handcrafted Croatian products- on the same street you will find a seemingly out-of-place contemporary art gallery which features the work of Croatian, Serbian, English, Slovenian and Austrian photographers. Curious as to what a high brow gallery like Galerija Makina was doing in the middle of a city like Pula, I entered the showroom. The work of Slovenian photographer Peter Rauch was on display, his modern black and white photographs of houses looked expensive, and owner Branka Cvjetičanin confirmed that they were. “It’s mostly tourists who buy them,” she explained. A bold move, I thought. A sophisticated gallery would undoubtedly generate more income and notoriety in an urban setting such as Zagreb, yet it is another confusing and quirky facet of Pula that makes the city so interesting. I smiled at the thought of shipbuilders coming after their shift to picking out a black and white contemporary piece, tracking grit and oil onto the polished floor of the gallery.
Walking through the center of Pula, whether your intention is to shop, eat, or enjoy the day, the history of the city is inescapable; it is intertwined with the lives of those who inhabit the first colony of the Roman empire today as it is a relatively new independent state. After picking up in-season cherries and strawberries from the Trznica market, a building that was constructed during Austrian rule, you will find yourself confronted by the “Golden Gate,” the Triumphal Arch of Sergi constructed in the end of first century BC during Roman times. To the right, the entire history of Pula stretches out before you through the architecture of each consecutive building: from the Austrian Empire, to Venetian rule, the Fascist rule of the Italy. It is a sight that transcends time; it makes you feel as if the world is spinning around you as you attempt to dissect each piece of history and compartmentalize its significance to the city. But in a place like Pula, such a separation of time is impossible. In a place where buildings from the year 600 act as a centerpiece for rows of cafes, and a church dedicated to the first Roman Empire in 2 BCE serves as a backdrop for wedding photos, where the most well-preserved amphitheater in the world is consistently a venue for concerts and film festivals to which seven thousand people sit on the same worn stones Romans carved their initials into during gladiator fights, and where chipped away blocks of the amphitheater were to be used for a temple constructed over one thousand years later, history simply builds on itself like layers of the Earth’s crust. “If you dig here, you will find ruins,” said Abdelghani. When attempting to build a parking garage on the outskirts of the center, which is the farthest point to where you may drive your car, it was not long before the metal machinery clanged against archaeological ruins pre-dating the Romans and up until the last one hundred years. The exposed ruins surround streamlined apartment buildings a mere few decades old; a view in some cities tourists would pay for, the residents nonchalantly coexist with it. Sitting at a cafe in front of a piece of architecture thousands of years old, sharing drinks with friends is nothing out of the ordinary.
“When you drink rakija, your conversation gets better,” said Čobe the Butcher with an unflinching face after another hearty gulp of the golden liquid. Like a conversation that grows more fluid and intimate with the social grease of liquor, the magic of Pula is exposed steadily as it is chipped away at by the pick of a curious traveler, chunk by chunk like the archaeological ruins of the Romans. It is a town that refuses to succumb to the constraints of a velvet rope, to chain up its foundations to put on display like sculptures in an art gallery, warding off sticky fingers with a “DO NOT TOUCH” sign. A long time ago, Pula chose to live with its history, to pour life into it so that it remains warm and awake. It is surely something not many people have encountered before, I certainly had not. It felt unnatural, stroking the stone of a two thousand year old structure, like it might crumble and seep through my fingers like sand; it was powerful and nearly spiritual to do so without any repercussions. The people of Pula do not allow this power to get to their heads- hardworking and humble, they graciously allow guests to experience the awe-inspiring wonders of their curious little city.