It is almost late afternoon as we pull into Pula, Istria having driven around three hours from Trieste, the Italian port town tucked away on the border of Croatia and Slovenia. As the GPS directs us towards our Hotel Amfiteatar, my eyes take in the mammoth amphitheater in this Croatian town that basks in the glow of the sun. I am lost in the sheer size of this oval Arena, one of the 200 amphitheaters built by the Romans during the zenith of their empire. The sun is setting over this coastal town as the birds are coming back home and the boats are being anchored for the day. The Pula amphitheater, as it’s called is however the cynosure of all eyes as we watch the moon rise behind its limestone pillars. For a moment I believe in the Istrian legend that it was built by fairies overnight, who dragged the stone all the way from the mountains, chipped at it, and created the wonder overnight. No wonder, exploring the amphitheater is one of the things to do in Pula Croatia.
Built however in the 1st century as a small arena made of timber, the Pula amphitheater was later developed into this massive monument by various kings. One of the stories says that it was built by one of the emperors as a gift to his mistress. However, it is believed to be one of the six large Roman amphitheaters in the world and it is the only one remaining with four side towers and three Roman Architectural Orders being preserved.
Over 20,000 spectators would watch gladiators fight until death while convicts were thrown to the mercy of wild animals as tournaments and festivals were conducted in this arena until the 5th century. Overlooking the sea, the arena was the most popular venue for the locals who thronged to watch the Roman version of The Hunger Games. Today, most of the entertainment comes however from concerts and film festivals which are one of the tourist things to do in Pula.
The Croatians are so proud of their ancient relic that they fought tooth and nail when the Venetians were apparently planning to relocate the limestone arena to their town. My day begins with a guided tour and the first thing that my guide Vesna Jovicic says “Don’t photograph the lions, they are not part of the original structure and were added by the Venetians later.” The amphitheater is apparently portrayed on the Croatian 10 kuna note as well.
Walking into the basement through the underground passage, I get a glimpse of the erstwhile arena where the gladiators waited for their turn, their version of a dressing room. However, I see a small museum here inside the Pula amphitheater which portrays among other things, the olive oil industry and a flashback to the Roman era.
Pottering around the Old Town with Vesna. I see many monuments from the Roman era, which include some of the must-do things to see in Pula. The Arch of the Sergii, a triumphal Arch built in the 1st century to commemorate the Sergii Family, was an inspiration to none other than Michelangelo. The old Augustan Forum stands with the ancient temples.
At one time there were temples dedicated to Juno, Minerva and Jupiter, but today only the temples of Rome and Augustus stand. The Twin Gates stand with crumbled remains of the Old City walls while Vesna points to the Gate of Hercules, which has survived from the 1st century. We even stop by at an old burial ground.
I am lost in the charming cobbled streets of the Old Town where James Joyce once stayed and worked. Casa Trapp is an old villa that once housed the Von Trapp family, whose life was immortalised in the Sound of Music. Colourful cafes and quaint boutiques beckon me, Churches and basilicas dot the landscape. There are old Roman theatres as well besides the larger-than-life Pula amphitheater and exploring the ancient monuments are some of the fascinating things to do in Pula.
The medieval charm oozes out of the Renaissance buildings that huddle next to each other in these narrow lanes. The 6th century Pula Cathedral wears Renaissance garb after it was rebuilt in the 16th century. I trudge up a small lane that takes me up a little hillock from where I can see the entire town of Pula surrounded by the azure waters, lost in a world of its own. Dante might have referred to Pula as Hell when the plague hit the town, but seeing the new Pula Istria now, cradled in beauty, he might just change his mind.
Pula to Venice ferry
Istria is a peninsula that is a part of Croatia and it borders Italy. Known for its coastal old towns and its famous wines, every town here has a history. Pula is the largest town in Istria. Pula Amphitheater is one of the key attractions and there are walking tours besides other things to do in Pula Istria.