Pula, a seafront city on Croatia’s Istrian Peninsula, is best known for its surviving ancient Roman buildings including a 1st century amphitheatre where you can experience the buzz of the arena and the gladiators.
Like Rovinj, Pula has layers of history as the Istrian region of Croatia fell under different political control including the Venetians, French, Austrian, Italy, Yugoslavia and now Croatia. Pula’s history dates back to the 10th century BC and is best known for its many Roman ruins which have survived despite the city being sacked by Roman, Byzantine, Venetian and Habsburg Wars. The town was heavily developed by Austria from 1856 to the end of WWI as a port town for their navy fleet (Sound of Music Gen Von Trapp was stationed here) and today it is an industrial port town of ~60,000.
The old town with its Roman ruins still survives and this was the area I wanted to see. Walking through the city’s old quarter of narrow streets, lined with Medieval and Renaissance buildings, the walkways are still surfaced with ancient Roman paving stones leading to one Roman ruin after another… Leaving the best for last on this post – The Arena.
The Arch of Sergii
This triumphal Arch dates from the 1st century B.C. and marks the edge of the original Roman town. The arch honors Lucius Sergius Lepidus who fought on the side of the triumphant Augustus in the civil wars post Julius Caesar’s assassination. You can still see the inscriptions “Sergivs” on each block and an eagle (Symbol of Rome) clutching an evil snake in its talons.
Roman Forum & Temple of Augustus
The Roman Forum still exists including the 1st Century AD Roman Temple of Augustus. This building took a direct hit by the Allies in WWII and the Allied Monuments Men did their best to patchwork it back together on the back. To the right of the Temple of Augustus was the Temple of Juno. The Juno Temple is now incorporated into the 13th Century medieval Town Hall. The Forum still functions as a town center. Lined with cafes, this is not a bad spot to enjoy a cappuchino where I took this picture.
Roman Floor Mosaic
Behind the forum lies a hidden Roman mosaic dating to the 3rd century. The floor was discovered six feet below the ground level by locals cleaning up after WWII bombs hit the area. The floor tells the story of the punishment of Dirce. King Lykos of Thebes was bewitched by Dirce and abandoned his pregnant queen. The queen gave birth to twin boys (shown in the mosaic), who grew up and killed their deadbeat dad and then tied Dirce to the horns of a bull to be bashed against a mountain. You have to wonder why the Roman residents 2,000 years ago chose this mosaic for the entryway??? One of the most beautiful mosaics I have seen in its original location (Pompeii’s are amazing but mostly in the museum)
Basilica of St. Mary Formosa
The church is Roman dating to the fifth century AD and the bell tower is Venetian Baroque dating to the 18th century. Below the church is a Temple to Jupitor and the bell tower is made from stones scavenged from the arena – Historical recycling.
Gate of Hercules
The Gate of Hercules dates from the 1st century and now connects two medieval towers. At the top of the single arch one can see the bearded head of Hercules. A damaged inscription contains the names of Lucius Calpurnius Piso and Gaius Cassius Longinus who were entrusted by the Roman senate to found a colony dating Pula to between 47 and 44 BC.
The 1st-century amphitheatre is the six largest surviving Roman arenas in the world. In Roman times the arena held 25,000 people and was surrounded by temples of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. The arena has been scavenged for both the stones and iron fasteners in medieval times and there were plans to relocate it to Lido, Italy in the 1930’s-40’s. Fortunately, the relocation was abandoned and it remains today as one of the best preserved amphitheatres from antiquity.
It is still in use today during summer film festivals and a weekly gladiator show which I attended. This was a pretty unique experience. The Colosseum in Rome is a sight to see, however being able to sit with 7,000 others and see gladiators fight (aka act) and feel the crowd urge for the gladiator to be saved or killed was an experience.
There were about 10 different gladiator fights. Though I am sure it is all choreographed, you could hear the armor and swords clanking together.
I was most impressed with the entertainers who gladly posed for pictures and engaged with the crowd. Just the right amount of tourism which is what I found all over Eastern Europe; entertaining tourists without it being overdone and staying personal to create memorable individual experiences.