Pula is situated at the southern tip of Croatia’s Istrian Peninsula and is the area’s largest city. Like all of Istria it offers gorgeous beaches, stunning natural beauty, and gourmet delights. The city boast 3,000 years of history. However, the Roman Ruins in Pula don’t reflect it’s earliest origins. The immediate surroundings are actually much older. Prehistoric artifacts dating to 1 million years ago has been found in the cave of Šandalja near Pula. There’s also been evidence of Neolithic and Bronze Age settlements.
About 3,000 years ago, Pula was part of Illyria, which describes the home of Indo-European tribes of the Baltic region during classical antiquity. It was at this time that the first hill-fort settlement was built on hill Kaštel and the fortification was named Histra, after the tribe called Histri.
Even Pula’s name has an interesting origin. I’ve come across two stories, there may be more. The first states that the name is derived from the Greek word Polai, meaning the city of exiles. According to Greek Mythology in the story of Jason and the Argonauts, Pula was the city where the of exiles from Colchis unsuccessfully attempted to recover the fabled Golden Fleece. The other origin story is that Pula was a name given by the Histri tribe to refer to the fresh water spring at the center of town. In this context, Pula literally meant “spring of water” in the Histri language.
In 177 BC, the Romans conquered the Istrian Peninsula. Pula is built atop seven hills, which parallels Rome itself. With its naturally well-protected port, Mediterranean climate, natural spring water, olive trees, and its already centuries old vineyards it quickly became a Roman colony and an administrative center.
Today, you’ll find 1st-century Roman ruins scattered throughout the city. The most visible and impressive of which is the well-preserved Amphitheater, built during the rule of Emperor Vespasian. It’s the 6th largest surviving Roman amphitheater in the world. Since Pula is a relatively small town, all the tourist points are in the historic center and reached easily on foot. In addition to the sites themselves, be sure to stop by the Archeological Museum of Istria and the Historical Museum of Istria.
Throughout it’s long history, Pula has had some notable visitors. In fact, as you near the Triumphal Arch of the Sergi, you’ll likely see a bronze statue of a man sitting at a cafe. That’s James Joyce. He lived in Pula in 1904 when he taught English at the local Berlitz school. Michelangelo sketched this very arch and the Italian poet Dante Alighieri, who had visited Pula, referred to the city in his Divine Comedy.
If you are planning a trip to Pula or are just curious to see the sites, the local tourism office has created an extensive and interesting virtual tour of the city’s main sites that is absolutely worth checking out.
Istria is such an incredible place with so much to see and explore. The amount of beauty and history that is held within this little heart-shaped peninsula boggles the mind. It’s hard to imagine that within an area of only 1,220 square miles, you can visit towns and sites that were part of ancient Illyria, the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Frankish Empire, that fell under Venetian rule, then the Austrian Empire, were part of Italy, then Yugoslavia, and now Croatia. How could you not fall in love?