What do you see in your mind’s eye when someone mentions Pula? The Arena, the Roman Golden Gate and maybe the Augustus Temple, right? Along with the pictures of Dubrovnik Old Town and the Diocletian palace in Split, the pictures of the Arena in Pula are one of the most used ones when promoting Croatia to tourists world wide. Is this city only for the “tick the boxes” style of travel or is there more to it?
My summer of mindfulness in Croatia started with Pula and I started on my own (check the recap of the whole trip here). The husband, being a welder and good with his hands, had no problems finding a new job in less than a week after being made redundant from the previous one.
Why was Pula my starting point? Two reasons – the plane ticket to Pula was only £10 (I do love a bargain!) and my youngest sister lives there. Win-win!
I spent four wonderful days with my sister, her boyfriend and her two ridiculously cute pets; a funny, long legged dog Minja and a cat called Princess Micenzo who nibbled my toes at 3 in the morning while I was trying to sleep.
We went to a different beach every day. The two of them got me on SUPs for the first time in my life.
We spent a day on Brijuni.
She showed me the less talked about history of Pula and the traces left by the Austro Hungarian empire.
I would just like to point out I would not call Pula a beach holiday type of city. The beaches are not that close to the city and are not really what tourists consider an amazing beach. They are rocky beaches with little or no shallows. I think Pula is better suited for explorers and people willing to put their walking shoes on and see where the road takes them.
A crash course in a cca 100 year long Austro Hungarian period in Pula: The city became the main military port for the empire, its population grew continuously and many famous families had their own villas built here (like the von Trapp family from The Sound of Music). Many villas, gardens and cultural centres (cinemas, theatre, etc) were built in this golden age of Pula. All that prosperity came to an end with the beginning of The First World War and Italy seizing Istria. *end of crash course*
Today, the old buildings and abandoned forts dotted around the city stand as a memorial to the golden age of Pula.
The fortification rings
In just over a 100 years, the Austro Hungarians built 26 forts, 60 artillery batteries, trenches, underground tunnels, you name it. There is a local legend saying that all the forts are connected with underground tunnels and the most juicy legend is the one about Fort Maria Luisa being connected directly to the Brijuni islands with an underwater tunnel.
Of course all these military buildings cannot fit into the city of Pula itself. They were built as 26 fortification rings, the first one covering Pula centre and the main port and the rest spreading outward in circles.
The forts are round in shape, or built like rings so any grenade thrown would just bounce off. All of them are in excellent locations with amazing views from the top. Honestly, apart from occasionally being shelled, it must’ve been sweet watching the world go by from the rooftops. Maybe with a beer here and there…
For more on the forts of Pula fortification rings, check here.
Fort Giorgio/ Sv. Juraj
From all the “central” forts, this one is a bit outside of all the happening (check photo above). It can be found on a meadow between two residential areas and close to a graveyard. It is surrounded with an overgrown path used by dog walkers, runners and youth looking for some place where adults will not interrupt their partying.
This is how we came to visit, by walking the dog.
Looking at the entrance, you can see how a horror film could have easily been filmed here. Metal gate half open, trees and bushes taking over the path and an old faded sign above the arched doorway. The first line of the sign clearly visible, “Sempre avanti ad ogni costo” – Always forward at any cost, the motto of the 74th Infantry regiment Lombardia, probably engraved during the Italian occupation in the Second World War.
The fort on its own looks in pretty good condition considering its age and use. If I had a bunch of money to throw into redoing abandoned buildings into homes, this one would’ve ticked most of the boxes – lots of space, not close to neighbours, massive terrace for topless sunbathing…
Jokes aside, it was interesting walking through hallways full of rubbish from decades of teenage drinking. It’s funny but abandoned building all kinda look the same where ever you go, at least in Europe – loads of graffiti, empty bottles of alcohol, smashed glass, maybe a stained mattress with a filthy pair of trainers, falling apart in the corner. And even though we were there in the middle of the day, I had a feeling someone might just appear from one of the rooms…
This is the part I wish we had more time to explore. There is a whole complex of old army barracks just in front of St Catherine, an island across from the city centre and the Arena. The island is connected to the mainland via a bridge. The barracks are nestled within a wooded area, completely surrounded by nature. After the fall of Yugoslavia, the Croatian army used the space but it has since been left to urban explorers.
It is quite a significant area and my sister and I only saw a fraction, the small beginnings of it on the way from city to the main complex. It was early evening, there was cold beer waiting in the centre and we did not want to roam this area after dark.
The area is very popular with young people, nature lovers and dog walkers. Apart from exploring old buildings, you can grab yourself a fishing rod, find a nice shady spot by the water and spend the day fishing. Or grab yourself a tent and spend the night under the stars.
One thing you should keep an eye on when on this side of the city are the mine zones. There are still a few left from WWII. As I mentioned earlier, Italian fascists took over Pula and parts of Istria so the peninsula has seen its fair share of bloody battles and death.
Don’t worry, they are clearly marked so you won’t just randomly find yourself in danger. The second phase of demining started in June 2020 so by the time you visit, the whole area might be cleared out.
There is something for everyone around Pula – culture, adventure, history and family options too (like the Aquarium). Don’t forget the food!! Pula can also be a great starting point for day trips, like the one to Brijuni or to smaller places by the coastline with secluded beaches.
How do you feel about visiting abandoned army buildings? Is there anything similar where you live? Let us know in the comment section!