Travelling Light

Day Trip To Pula, Croatia, September 18, 2014

We had never heard of Pula before Hannah mentioned its name as the nearest large town to Medulin, and the place from which to catch the bus. We had no idea that it had been a significant city in Roman times, and is home to the sixth largest Roman arena in the world, and an intact Temple of Diana.

We were keen to look around Pula, so we took a day trip there on Thursday. We got a taxi to the middle of town, and were dropped at the produce market.

Wine and olives were the important agricultural exports in Roman times, but these days Istria has branched out, and its foodie delights include garlic, honey, and truffles.

They make honey in just about every possible shade here!

From the market, we went to the old town wall. Roman arches still stand today from two thousand years ago, marking where the city gates used to be.

On the top of the hill which the old wall surrounds is a fortress – a much later design than Roman times, because the corners are shaped like spear points, to allow defenders to flank anyone attacking the gate with a battering ram, and that was a much later innovation.

The main street of the old town circles the base of the hill, and all the side streets going inwards are quite steep.

On the downhill side facing the sea, you can often see the harbour between the buildings. There is a big shipyard in the harbour, a product of the reign of the Austro-Hungarian Empire over this part of Europe. Pula became its main naval base. These days, the shipyard builds commercial ships.

The infuence of the Austro-Hungarian period can be seen in the architecture, too. Many buildings were built in that time, and remain in use and well-maintained today.

The fortress is now a museum – we didn’t go inside, though, because we wanted to get on to the Roman buildings.

And, there it was –  a classic Roman temple! Looking just like all the pictures (and like the icons in the computer game, Caesar).

As Australians, we are still completely amazed that you can just stand inside a building that has been there for two thousand years!

Pula is even older than the Romans, because the Greeks report a fortified town on the hill here in 1000 BC. The Romans conquered the area in 177 BC. The amphitheatre seems to have been started some time BC, and then expanded and improved, reaching its final form in the first century AD.

The town is pleasantly normal – there is no line of tourist trap market stalls on the approach to the arena. There was one choose-your-own sweet shop that had a Roman amphora theme, but there was one across the road with a pirate theme, so it could be excused.

And then, the amphitheatre.

It is so hard to describe in words, or even photos, what it feels like to stand in a building like this one. The size doesn’t translate.

Even though it was quarried for stone in the Middle Ages (quarried! A Roman arena!), most of it is still intact – the outer walls, the seating built into the hillside, and the lower courses of most of the interior walls.

By extreme co-incidence, another Sydney-sider was in Pula this week – Geneva – and we had arranged to meet her outside the amphitheatre. Once we were safely through the barriers, the first order of business was a picnic in the ruins!

The underground parts of the arena used to be exposed to the sky, but the arena floor was restored, and the amphitheatre is now used for performances. Our friend Vanessa has been to a ballet here.

The underground area is now a museum, with exhibits of the water pump and bowl system used to provide water for the animals who fought in the area, amphorae of various periods found in the area, and a copy of a Roman map of the Imperial road system, the original of which is in a museum in Vienna.

In true tourist-management style, the exit from the area is through the souvenir shop, complete with staff in themed costumes!

From the exit, we retired to a cafe overlooking the amphitheatre for iced coffees and WiFi. Unfortunately, a man started using a concrete saw to cut a long slice into the road surface, so we decided to move on, rather than have a second round.

You can see all the photos of the Roman arena here:

The next order of business was ducks.

Like many other tourist towns in Europe, Pula has a brass model of the town in a public park (though without the Braille street names which so impressed us on the one in Szentendre).

And Squeek has five rubber duckies and a fishing rod.

You see, Pula’s brass model had a fountain, and Squeek’s ducks need to bathe in fountains regularly.

So, the ducks swam, folk fished, and other bemused tourists tried to use the map to get their bearings while ignoring the eight-story high yellow ducks about the place.

Fortified by duck shenanigans, we moved on to examine the old church. It dates back to the fifth century AD.

On the way to the church, we passed a corn vendor, and Hannah and Squeek yielded to temptation. Corn on the cob is street food in Europe, maybe because they tend to put salt on it instead of butter.

The vendor was Hungarian, so Tom got to practice his Magyar.

After a brief look at the (realtively plain) interior of the old church, the most important activity of the day began. There were two members of our party who had never had topla ciokolada (the incredibly thick European version of hot chocolate that is more like chocoalte pudding than any drink).

We remedied this tragic missing in their lives in the town square, where Squeek’s other travelling companion, Fozzie Bear, woke up and came out for a crack ot the topla ciokolada as well. Fozzie was thrown in a dumpster (boo, hiss, can you imagine?), but was rescued by a friend of Squeek’s, and now lives a pampered life involving chocolate, tourist attractions, and long naps in Squeek’s shoulder bag.

Somehow, we managed to linger over the topla ciokolada until it was dinner time, and then linger over the pizza and pasta until it was time to get the bus back to Medulin.

While a more Germanic approach to the day may have produced more photos of more historic buildings, and filled our heads with more historical information, we prefer to take life a slightly slower pace, and have time for extended conversations, multiple hot chocolates, and fishing for ducks in fountains.

More photos of Pula here: