My grand plans were to explore the hill-top villages and get stuck into the local cuisine, but time and budget constraints – and our lack of stamina from being on the road for 15 months – reduced that to simply basing ourselves in Pula.
It’s exactly what we needed as our travels finally neared the end.
Arch of Sergijevac
Dean and I had previously been to Pula some fourteen years ago – hanging about for a couple of days and visiting a handful of its sights. The biggest attraction would have to be the Pula Arena – one of the best preserved Roman amphitheatres in the world.
It was completed around the same time as Rome’s Colosseum – from 27-68 AD – but the difference with this one today is its lack of crowds and it’s in way better shape.
The Arena, as the locals refer to it, is put together with limestone and was designed to host gladiatorial events with audiences up to 20,000. Today it still serves the population with a string of concerts and film screenings.
Entrance fee is 50kn.
Roman floor mosaic – The Punishment of Dirce
Temple of Augustus
Numerous monuments are scattered about this former Roman outpost – once called Colonia Pietas Iulia Pola – and they’re very accessible for all to see.
Aside from the obvious Arena, there’s the Arch of Sergijevac, Temple of Augustus, the Forum and some beautiful mosaics. Not without mentioning a couple of the old town’s entrances – the Twin Doors (Porto Gemina) and the Door of Hercules, plus the Communal Palace and Small Roman Theatre.
The Small Roman Theatre was constructed on the slope below the Kaštel in the 1st century. Its preservation doesn’t match that of the much larger Arena, but the stage foundations and part of the semi-circular viewing area are still in decent condition. Visiting this theatre has no entrance fee and can be easily accessed via The Twin Doors by the Archaeological Museum of Istria.
Small Roman Theatre
Crowning the top of the hill in the old town is Kaštel, a fortress built by the Venetians between 1630 and 1633. Its pentagonal walls conceal the Historical Museum of Istria – home to more than 75,000 objects of cultural, historical, political, military and ethnographic character.
Entrance fee is 20kn, though you can walk around its perimeter for free.
Pula Castle “Kaštel”
Pula Market – Narodni trg 9
Foodies can get their fill at the daily Pula Market, located in a beautiful iron and glass building completed in 1903, right in the commercial centre of Pula.
Here you’ll find fish mongers and butchers, more than 10 small grocers, a bunch of restaurants and many other services. Right by the market building is the green market, for all your seasonal fresh produce needs.
The dining scene in Pula is great, and had we not stayed in our Airbnb and cooked, we would have got out more to sample the local restaurants.
My number one place to visit was Konoba Batelina – located 6km out of town – but sadly that didn’t happen. Maybe on my third visit to Pula, I’ll make it. Whenever that may be!
On the main commercial street in the old town is Hook & Cook, a modern eatery with seafood at its heart. This joint venture between two local fishermen – with a menu curated by a Zagreb food blogger – focuses on local Adriatic edibles, fast food-style.
Whether it’s a tuna steak, sardine or mackerel burger, octopus stew or divine calamari deluxe (58) or fritto misto (48), Hook & Cook is sure to please.
Fritto misto at Hook & Cook – Ul. Sergijevaca 18
Istrian delicacies abound at the contemporary Kantina Pula, a stylish, yet casual restaurant just up from the main market.
The region is known for its truffles, so you can expect to see many dishes featuring this divine delicacy.
A complimentary starter of whipped cream cheese with truffle, beet and balsamic got things rolling, with a nice bottle of local red from the restaurant’s decent selection of vino.
Beef carpaccio (60) soon follows, generously topped with grana padano and local virgin olive oil. For mains we went for the pljukanci with truffle (85); the hand rolled pasta – native to Istria – was the perfect vehicle for all that truffle!
We can also vouch for their other pljukanci dish, this one topped with slow-cooked ox and goat cheese (80).
Kantina Pula – Flanatička ul. 16
Just 20km from Pula is the small town of Bale, a picturesque place I spotted from the bus as we travelled to Pula, from Piran.
I can only imagine that this is how medieval Croatian villages appeared before they were hit by tourism, and on this particular autumn day, we were the town’s only visitors.
The historic centre of Bale (Valle in Italian) is draped over a small hill called Mon Perin. Cobbled roads and passages radiate from the 15th century medieval palace of the Soardo and Bembo families, and the imposing 36 metre bell tower of the parish church that crowns the hill gives Bale its distinctive silhouette.
Medieval and Venetian gothic buildings fill the quiet streets, with beautiful stone archways, stairs and terraces decorated with potted plants and cascading flowering vines. Simply put – it’s a stunner.
Nothing was open on that particular Sunday, but that didn’t matter. Simply wandering its streets and absorbing its charming atmosphere was more than enough.
Fifteen minutes from Bale is Istria’s star attraction – Rovinj.
The sight of colourful houses and the imposing St. Eufemija Church jutting from the ripples of the Adriatic is one to behold. Medieval, Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque buildings and terraces can be seen everywhere in the old town, and the tight cluster of buildings harbours a web of cobbled streets that begs to be explored.
The main commercial street of La Grisia is difficult to miss. Expect to see plenty of souvenir stores, independent art galleries, bespoke jewellery and fashion and a few eateries.
Follow it all the way and you’re greeted with St. Eufemija and its 62m bell tower – the tallest in Istria – which was modelled on San Marco Campanile in Venice.
Restaurants and bars can be found throughout the old town, so whether it’s on the waterfront, or tucked away in a laneway, there’s much to choose from.
The budget conscious ought to look outside the old town in and around Ulica Carera, a pedestrian thoroughfare lined with shops, eateries and services. It may not be as picturesque, but you will save a few kuna. We had a decent lunch at Pizzeria San Giacomo, a homely joint found in a narrow passage that felt just like Italy. Hold on, and Croatia!
If gathering ingredients for a DIY meal, or if you’re keen on local markets, the outdoor Rovinj Market has plenty of food-related items available. Oils, preserves, chilli braids, plenty of fresh produce and the odd souvenir, just to name a few.
We picked up a hire car from Pula Airport. There is the local bus, but having the freedom with our own car made getting around easy and convenient.