A city guide to Pula
Inland, Istria is hilly and green. The coastline is an unbroken blue. Here, rising above the Adriatic Sea on the southern tip of the peninsula is the largest city in Istria, Pula. A natural summer destination along with other coastal pearls such as Rovinj and Porec, but also an independent shipbuilding city proud to its marrow. Bilingual Pula, built on its seven hills, has plenty to look back on. There’s always been a strong Italian influence, from the Romans to the Venetian Republic. In 1813, Pula became part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire but the local population continued to speak Italian. At the end of the First World War, Istria became Italian once again until 1947, when it became part of the newly formed country of Yugoslavia.
To this day, the residents of Pula speak warmly about their amphitheater, or the arena as they call it. And naturally, this Roman amusement park of antiquity is quite exceptional – and a never ending story. It was built as a replica of the Colosseum in Rome by Emperor Vespesian for his lover Antonia Cenida 2,000 years ago. Today, the Arena is the signature monument of Pula and forms a completely natural part of everyday life here. From the passages where lions met gladiators, hockey players now sit in the replacement bench waiting for the next changeover. Hockey is played here in the winter. In the summer, the arena’s a popular venue hosting everything from iron man competitions to concerts to the world's largest outdoor movie theater during the Pula Film Festival. The concerts themselves range from opera to rock n'roll under the star lit night sky.
“Pula has been constructed in three layers, during the Roman, Venetian and Habsburg Empires, followed by Yugoslavia after the Second World War. Which helps explain why we’re such an incredibly mixed and international city. The 60,000 residents include 28 different nationalities,” says history teacher Igor Jovanovi as he stands in the middle of the arena that was originally covered in sand.
He takes us through the Roman Arch of Sergius and into the historic parts of Pula to give us a flavor of the cultural personalities who have lived in the city.
Exiled from his beloved Florence, Dante stayed in Pula for a time and wrote about in his Divina Commedia. A few blocks away is what’s now Uliks Bar, where James Joyce ordered his daily caffeine kick. The Irish author lived here at the beginning of the 20th century when he taught English to Austrian officers.
“At that time, Pula was the most important port in the Habsburg Empire. A few recent theories claim Joyce might possibly have been a British spy,” Jovanovic says with a conspiratorial smile.
Brijuni National Park
14 small islands just north of the city became a national park in 1983. Brijuni has been an enchanted place for Croatians every since former Yugoslavian President Tito acquired a summer residence on one of the islands. In addition to hundreds of archaeological finds, Brijuni is famous for its long beaches. In other words, the perfect place for a day trip from Pula.
The peninsula just south of Pula is lined with beach hotels and is perfect for walks along the dramatic coastline and up to into the pine scented hills. The whole area’s infused with the most relaxed Mediterranean atmosphere. You can bathe pretty much all along the coast with special mention given to the family friendly Hawaii and Ambrela beaches.
A few kilometers south east of Pula, Medulin is a small coastal landscape of beach communities with swimming, bars and several hotels. Rock beaches dominate here, but you can feel sand between your toes on Bikini Beach where the water is like a lagoon. Don’t miss the beautiful and more adventurous Premantura at the southern tip.
Elegant vaulted cellar dating from the late 19th century Austro-Hungarian days. The original wine cellar has been fully renovated and Kantina still has an excellent wine list, the perfect match for the local Istrian cuisine. Plenty of BBQ meat and hearty soups in the cooler months, while the menu revolves around spanking fresh fish and shellfish in the hot summer.
The square in front of the restaurant pays homage to the Florentine poet Dante Alighieri. As does this Italian influenced institution that has served la cucina italiana since opening in 1937. Classic black and white movie photos on the walls.
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Hotel & Restaurant Milan
The Milan is both a three star hotel and restaurant with an authentically sober art deco aura. It’s not just Italian by name. Like its neighbor across the Adriatic, the people of Istria lunch all afternoon and then head to the Matic family for long, lazy summer meals after nine p.m.
Park Plaza Histria
Sensationally seductive location on the Verudela peninsula. Originally a throwback to the former Yugoslavia, the recently renovated 368 room Park Hotel has little to remind you of the concrete brutalism of the communist era. The rooms are large and airy and all have sea views. When you stand on the veranda looking out over the water, you almost feel you are on an archipelago island.
The city market hall is a wonderful cast iron temple dating from 1903 by Narodni Square in the city center. The building was so popular it was adopted as an emblematic motif for postcards of Pula. Outside the large glazed windows is the smaller and more chaotic Green Market.
Galerija Makina is one of the most active galleries in Pula – intellectual yet playful and with regular exhibitions in the square outside. Inside, the artwork exhibited is often related to Istria. Charming owner Hassan Abdelghani lived in Copenhagen for 18 years but longed to move back to Croatia.
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Don't miss out on a visit to young, organic wine maker Bruno Trapan, a couple of kilometers outside Pula. Considered by some to be Croatia's enfant terrible on the wine front, Trapan's wines have blazed a comet like trail from the mineral rich soil in Sisan to world cities like New York and Tokyo. His Nigra Virgo Revolution red is a magical mix of classic cabernet, merlot and syrah – with a touch of the indigenous teran grape.
Giordano Dobran 63, Sisan
Text: Lars Collin
Find the places in Pula with this interactive map