So you’ve circled Dubrovnik’s city walls and wandered the ancient alleys of medieval Split? Then the laidback and cosmopolitan city of Pula, home to some of the most impressive Roman ruins outside Italy, should be next on your list.
While some Croatian destinations along the glittering Adriatic coast can sag beneath the weight of the tourist multitudes in summer, Pula retains a refreshing sense of authenticity – its compact historic centre is as picturesque as any in Croatia, yet the giant cranes of its shipyard, the only profitable one in the country, are an ever-present reminder that this is a working town.
It’s also an ideal hub from which to explore the hinterland of Istria, an enticing region of Venetian-built towns, olive groves and fragrant pine forests.
What should I see?
Pula’s highlight is undoubtedly its first-century Roman amphitheatre, whose imposing outer walls are the best preserved after Rome’s Colosseum. Booking up an evening performance in the arena is the best way to connect to the ancients – it provides the spectacular setting for summertime events from gladiator fights to the glitzy centrepiece of Pula’s annual calendar, the two-week film festival.
Elsewhere, Pula’s languid old-town streets reveal a fascinating historical jumble, from Byzantine chapels to weatherbeaten Venetian townhouses and grand Hapsburg palaces. The most graceful Roman remnant stands proudly in a corner of the bustling Forum, Pula’s main square for over two thousand years: fronted by tall, slender Corinthian columns, the Temple of Augustus is one of several ancient sites providing the backdrop for the summertime Spectacvla Antiqva, a slightly surreal, toga-clad celebration of Roman street theatre and food.
Where can I hit the beach?
Once you’ve had your fill of classical antiquity, pick up a bike and pedal out to the secluded, pine-forested Verudela peninsula, 5km south of town, where a sequence of fine white-pebble beaches fringes the aquamarine Adriatic waters. Verudela is home to several big hotels but development is discreetly tucked away from the shore and the coves are as popular with townsfolk as tourists.
The so-called Holy Rock at the peninsula’s western tip is a dreamy vantage point from which to take in the sunset, with dolphins often glimpsed just offshore.
Where should I go for a day-trip?
To find a stretch of beach all to yourself, jump on a ferry from the pretty nearby village of Fažana to Veli Brijun, main island of the idyllic Brijuni archipelago. Protected as a national park, and ringed by pristine coastline and blissfully clear waters, the islands will forever be associated with Yugoslavia’s erstwhile president, Maršal Tito.
A cult icon of the Cold War who – unique among Eastern European dictators – retained a popular appeal that endures to this day, Tito’s tireless diplomatic machinations are recalled in the oddly obsequious Tito on Brijuni photo exhibition, by Veli Brijun’s ferry dock. Pictured entertaining foreign dignitaries and film stars from Fidel Castro to Sophia Loren at his Brijuni base, the dapper, handsome, ageing statesman cuts a genial, avuncular figure: more late Bond-era Roger Moore than Cold War villain.
Elsewhere on the island there are Roman ruins, cycling routes and forest trails to explore, and you can even visit the remaining denizens of Tito’s private zoo.
What’s on the menu?
With a strong Venetian influence and an abundance of local ingredients, eating out around Pula is a joy. The region’s truffles are justly famous, and so rich in flavour that they’re best served simply grated over pasta.
Istria was recently declared the top olive oil-producing region in the world. A revelation if you’re used to supermarket brands, the genuine article unleashes a warm, spicy kick at the back of the throat; long-living locals swear by a spoonful a day.
Local chefs, meanwhile, proudly proclaim Istrian waters as home to the densest concentration of seafood in Croatia; typical dishes include brodet sa palentom (fish stew with polenta), stuffed squid and crni rižoto (risotto with cuttlefish ink).
Good central restaurant choices include the Dolce Vita-themed Bistro Alighieri and the breezy vine-covered terrace at the ever-popular Pizzeria Jupiter, though for the best Istrian cuisine you’ll need to head out into the suburbs and nearby villages.
In a gorgeous position overlooking the bobbing yachts of Pula’s marina en route to Verudela, upmarket Ribarska Koliba is famed for its seafood, while Fažana’s standout choice is the simple, budget-friendly Stara Konoba, right on the harbour-front; don’t miss their njoki s tartufima (homemade gnocchi with truffle).
What about the local drink?
Highly drinkable, Istrian wines run the range from crisp, floral Malvazija whites to the deep, rich reds of the Teran (Terrano) grape. For a tasting session pull up a stool at the welcoming Brajda wine bar and work your way through the forty-strong menu. A short way off the tourist drag, smoky Skandal Express is a grungier, more alternative drinking hole, though no less inviting.
Craft beer aficionados should make for the congenial beer garden of Beer Club, 2km south of town, where Croatian microbrews on offer will normally include several from Istrian brewer San Servolo; look out for their powerful, hoppy APA.
Finally, where should I stay?
Pula’s smartest hotels and apartments are clustered on the Verudela peninsula. With a more intimate feel than most, and handily close to the lovely Havajka (Hawaiian) beach, top choice is the recently renovated Park Plaza Arena.
Homely Scaletta and arty, backpacker-oriented Pipistrelo are good central options, while literary types should make for the newly opened Boutique Hostel Joyce, so called as it occupies the language school where the struggling young Irish author once taught English; it’s a supreme spot from which to survey the remarkably well-preserved Arch of the Sergians, Pula’s most ancient Roman monument.