Once the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s chief naval base, Pula (in Italian, Pola) is an engaging combination of working port and brash Riviera town. The Romans put the city firmly on the map, bequeathing it an impressive amphitheatre whose well-preserved remains are the city’s single greatest attraction, though it’s just one of an easily accessible cluster of historical sights in the city centre. Pula is also Istria’s commercial heart, possessing a gruff urban character that makes a refreshing contrast to the seaside towns farther along the coast. Central Pula doesn’t boast much of a seafront, but there’s a lengthy stretch of rocky beach about 3km south of the city centre, leading to the hotel complex on the Verudela peninsula, built in the 1980s to accommodate package-holidaying Brits.
According to legend, Pula was founded by the Colchians, who pursued the Argonauts here after the latter had stolen the Golden Fleece. The prosaic truth is that the city began life as a minor Illyrian settlement, and there’s not much evidence of a significant town here until 177 BC, when the Romans arrived and transformed Pula into an important commercial centre endowed with all the imperial trimmings – temples, theatres and triumphal arches – appropriate to its status.
The chief reminder of Pula’s Roman heritage is the immense amphitheatre (Amfiteatar or arena), just north of the centre, a huge grey skein of connecting arches whose silhouette dominates the city skyline. Built towards the end of the first century BC, it’s the sixth largest surviving Roman amphitheatre in the world, with space for 22,000 spectators, although why such a capacious theatre was built in a small Roman town of only five thousand inhabitants has never been properly explained.
The outer shell is remarkably complete, although only a small part of the seating remains anything like intact; the interior tiers and galleries were quarried long ago by locals, who used the stone to build their own houses. It is, in fact, lucky that the amphitheatre survives here at all: overcome by enthusiasm for Classical antiquities, the sixteenth-century Venetian authorities planned to dismantle the whole lot and reassemble it piece by piece in their own city; they were dissuaded by the Pula-born patrician Gabriele Emo, whose gallant stand is remembered by a plaque on one of the amphitheatre’s remaining towers. Once inside, you can explore some of the cavernous rooms underneath, which would have been used for keeping wild animals and Christians before they met their deaths. They’re now given over to a display devoted to Roman-era wine production in Istria, with an atmospherically lit collection of olive presses and crusty amphorae.
In October 1904 the 22-year-old James Joyce eloped from Ireland to mainland Europe with his girlfriend (and future wife) Nora Barnacle. He sought work with the Berlitz English-language schools in Zürich and Trieste, but the organization found him a post in Pula instead, where he was paid £2 for a sixteen-hour week teaching Austro-Hungarian naval officers (one of whom was Miklos Horthy, ruler of Hungary between the wars). Despite their straitened circumstances, the couple enjoyed this first taste of domestic life – although Joyce viewed Pula as a provincial backwater, and, eager to get away at the first opportunity, accepted a job in Trieste six months later.
Though Joyce had a productive time in Pula, writing much of what subsequently became Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the city made next to no impact on his literary imagination. In letters home he described it as “a back-of-God-speed place – a naval Siberia”, adding that “Istria is a long boring place wedged into the Adriatic, peopled by ignorant Slavs who wear red caps and colossal breeches.”
There are few places in modern Pula that boast Joycean associations; however, you can always enjoy a drink in the café-bar Uliks (“Ulysses” in Croatian), situated on the ground floor of the apartment block which once housed the language school. The terrace boasts a life-size bronze sculpture of the artist sitting on one of the chairs, and there’s a small glass cabinet containing Joyce memorabilia inside.
Ever since 1953 the amphitheatre has hosted the Pula Film Festival (late July/early Aug), which traditionally premieres the year’s crop of domestic feature films. Back in the days when the Yugoslav film industry produced several big-budget features a year, the Pula Film Festival was a major international glam-fest which attracted big-name stars – along with guest-of-honour President Tito, who revelled in the opportunity to be photographed next to actresses like Gina Lollobrigida, Elizabeth Taylor and Sophia Loren. Now that Croatia only produces a handful of (largely low-budget) films a year the festival has lost some of its former sheen, although the amphitheatre makes the perfect backdrop to what is still a great social occasion. The festival usually runs over two weeks, with an international programme of films (shown in the Kino Valli and open-air Kaštel cinema) preceding the Croatian programme in the amphitheatre itself.
Top image: Pula Arena in Croatia © concept w/Shutterstock