Written by Missy Johnston
Pula, in northern Croatia on the western coast of the Istrian Peninsula, has long been favored as a settlement location throughout the millenniums, especially by the Romans as can be seen by the extraordinary arena that is still a focal point of Pula today. Pula has a very long history, a great protected harbor with a major marina, and is a gateway into Istria, known for wineries, truffle hunting, shell farming, honey, and the production of olive oil. Pula also has been a center of ship building. As the first mainland port north after cruising through the Cres-Losing group of islands in the Kvarner Gulf, Pula is a natural port of call on a yacht charter in Croatia.
Pula is located in a naturally protected location along the western coast of the Istrian Peninsula, which civilizations have long beneficially used with evidence of settled life being found in the area from over a million years ago. There are remains from both the Bronze Age and the Hellenistic Age, however, the greatest impact, at least that which is seen today in Pula, was that of the Roman Empire. The Pula Arena was built between 27 BC and 68 AD, much of it still standing to this day anchoring the harbor front area of the city. The Romans also created both a water supply and a sewage system for the city and built strong surrounding fortification walls with ten gates. The remains of some of the walls can still be seen today within the city along with several of the gates including the triumphal Arch of the Sergii, the Gate of Hercules (in which the names of the founders of the city are engraved) and the Twin Gates. It was in Pula that Crispus Caesar was executed in 326 AD and Gallus Caesar was executed in 354 AD. After the Fall of Rome, this part of Croatia went through various rulers just as was the fate of other areas of Croatia.
Identifiable as an arena, as the structure is built in an oval shape, the arena in Pula is the only remaining Roman Arena in the world with a complete encircling wall. Undergoing cleaning, today one can see the original color of the cleaned part of the arena white stone wall gleaming against the remaining stone wall as darkened by modern pollution and imagine what the Arena once looked like, and will look like again when fully cleaned with stark white walls against the bright blue sky. With the cleaning, one can perhaps understand the impact this huge Arena made in Roman times on those arriving in Pula harbor. Built to host 20,000 spectators, we know today by the post holes remaining in the arena structure that those spectators sat in comfort as a huge cloth cover, soaked in bee’s wax to repel rain, came out over the seating area for sun and rain protection. Today, the labyrinth of space underneath the Arena where animals were housed before the events, and where Warriors and Gladiators prepared are open to the public with explanatory signage.
Not far from the Arena is Pula Old Town, once the Roman town which was further enlarged during medieval times and is filled with little winding walking streets. The easiest entrance is through the Roman built Arch of the Sergi, also known as the Golden Gate. This majestic arch was erected around 27 BC by the Sergi Family to commemorate three brothers who fought in the naval battle of Actium where the future emperor Augustus Caesar defeated Marc Antony and Cleopatra on the Greek mainland. It stood at the entrance to the Roman town, the remains of the corresponding walls of which can still be seen along the road leading to the gate. The walking streets open up into a lovely piazza housing the perfectly proportioned Roman Temple of Augustus built between 2 B.C. and 14 A.D. Fronted by a high porch supported by six Corinthian columns, the temple survived the Christian time period by being converted to a church only to be destroyed by a bomb when Pula was heavily bombed during WWII in 1944. The Temple was painstakingly re-constructed stone by stone after WWII, and now houses a small archeological museum.
It is in Old Town Pula where all comes alive at night, although the harbor are is also quite active with a light show that plays for 15 minutes on the hour at the city’s 19th-century Uljanik shipyard, one of the world’s oldest working shipyards. Created by renowned lighting designer Dean Skira, the shipyard’s iconic cranes are lit up in 16,000 different color schemes. In Old Town, the bars and night clubs are very active, particularly in the piazza where the Temple of Augustus is located where cafes and bars have outdoor seating around the piazza with the Temple artfully lit at night.
When in Pula, don’t miss spending a day exploring the rest of Istria, perhaps heading to Livade for an hour long Truffle Hunting Exhibition to learn all there is to learn about Truffle Hunting; after which to enjoy a lunch filled with truffles at Zigante Restaurant. Also, when in Istria, there are many boutique wineries to visit for a wine tasting, and farms advertising tastings of olive oil, honey, and even donkey milk. Perhaps also visit the medieval walled village of Motovun.
What to Do and See in Pula, Croatia
Roman Arena: Have a private guided tour of the arena, or wander through yourself. Be sure to look for the entrance to the area under the arena, which few remaining Roman arenas or coliseums have excavated and open, to see into the fascinating belly of the arena.
Old Town: Filled with shops, cafes, bars, and restaurants, enter through the Arch of Sergi and wander the little walking streets. The most active area will be the piazza where the Temple of Augustus can be seen. Visit the archeology museum inside the Temple. Old Town has a very active night life.
Kastel: Located in the middle of Pula, on the water, this Kastel was built when the Venetians controlled Pula in the 1600’s. Built in a star pattern, considered “state of the art” in fortress building after gunpowder became wide spread in use, the Kastel was built to defend Pula’s harbor as well as the upper Adriatic Sea.
Small Roman Theatre: The only one of a pair of smaller and one larger theatres built by the Romans in the Pula area to compliment the arena, making Pula a center of entertainment in this part of the Roman Empire.
Pula Aquarium: Built within the Austro-Hungarian fortress Verudela, this Aquarium is the largest in Croatia and features tanks of fresh and salt water species native to Croatia including a shark tank, along with tropical displays, a turtle rescue center and an entire room featuring sea horses.
Well located on a natural safe harbor, civilizations for over a million years have settled in and around the Pula area and today is no different. Be sure when chartering in Croatia to include Pula as a stop or start or end a charter in Pula when cruising in northern Croatia.