One day during our Istrian holiday, we decided to make a trip to Fažana, a small fishing town, go on a tour of the National Park Brijuni, and spend an afternoon in Pula, the Istrian largest city. If you think that you won't have time for all that in just one day, I assure you that it's manageable. We even had time for a swim and relaxation on the beach in Fažana.
Brijuni National Park
Tour around the National Park Brijuni lasts about 4 hours and it costs 220 kn. You'll ride a tourist train around the main Veliki Brijun Island, see a small safari, old hotels and palaces, beautiful nature, a 1700-year-old olive tree, and smaller islands in the distance (Mali Brijun, Vanga).
After the ride, your guide will take you to the Gothic Church of St. German to see an exhibition of frescoes and Glagolitic inscriptions, a medieval cultural heritage of Istria and Kvarner. Your guide will also show you a permanent exhibition of photos describing Josip Broz Tito's stay on Brijuni, and a large collection of stuffed animals from Tito's safari. You can read more about the National Park Brijuni in a special blog post.
Fažana – a fishing village with a long tradition
We were back in Fažana before 2 p.m., which left us some time to refresh on the nearest beach to the port. Fažana is a small picturesque town with colorful streets full of charming cafés and restaurants. In its center stands the parish Church of St. Cosmas and Damian from the 16th century, which we saw only from outside.
Fažana is known for its famous sardines. One of the biggest sardines factories on the Adriatic Coast was located here until the mid-20th century. Locals claim they know more than 100 ways to prepare this delicious dish. We wanted to try local sardines, but we didn't find the right restaurant to do it. Instead, we walked along the seaside promenade to find various alternative sculptures of sardines in the local park. Interesting!
Unfortunately, we just missed an annual Festival of Sardines (Fešta od sardela), which is held at the beginning of August in Fažana. During the festive days, you can learn more about the fishing tradition of Fažana, try your luck with a fishing rod, and you can eat all kinds of sardine specialties.
The Festival of Sardines is not the only event describing the village's fishing tradition. Every year at the end of April or in early May, you can participate in an open “cooking class” about salting sardines (Fažanska škola soljenja).
Before refrigerators, food could only be preserved by salting. This technique and tradition is exactly what more than 2000 participants learn every year here in Fažana. Sardines then have to rest for a few months until August when they'll be presented to the judges, who will choose the best-salted fish.
The Salting School manifestation is accompanied by other interesting activities such as workshops (for example, making fishing nets), games, rich gastronomic offer, “Sardela Run”, etc.
Pula - the centre of Istria
We arrived in Pula at 3:30 p.m., parked for free in a neighborhood just 10 minutes from Arena, the main landmark of Pula.
Pula is the largest city in Istria (around 57 000 inhabitants). It's the center of the Istrian region. It's the city with a rich and turbulent history that left its traces in many monuments all around Pula. According to the Greek legend, Pula was founded 3000 years ago by Colchidian seafarers searching for Argonauts, who stole them the Golden Fleece.
During the Roman period, it was an important administrative and mercantile center. You can still see many well-preserved Roman remains in Pula: Hercules and Twin City Gates, Temple of Augustus, Arch of Sergii, two Roman theatres, a unique mosaic, and the most spectacular - the amphitheater Arena.
In the following centuries, Pula was still a well-known center under the Byzantine and Frankish Empire. The city cathedral and the small Romanesque Church of St. Mary Formosa were built during that period.
In the 12th century, the city fell into the hands of the Venetians to stay under the Venetian rule until the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the 19th century. The city descended and lost more than half of the population to the various epidemics (plague, malaria) during the Venetian rule.
Under the Austro-Hungarian rule, Pula once more became an important naval port and an administrative center of Istria. It stayed that way until today.
What to do in Pula
1) Visit the Arena amphitheater
Rome has the Colosseum, but Pula has Arena. Both are stunningly preserved Roman amphitheaters from the 1st century AD. While the Roman Colosseum is a four-story amphitheater, the Arena has only three stories. The Arena could seat about 23 000 spectators (today only 5 000), while Colosseum had the double capacity.
Arena is the 6th largest Roman amphitheater in the world and the only one in Croatia. It's the landmark of Pula and the whole Istrian region, and you can find it on a 10 kuna banknote.
Arena had and has the same purpose – mass entertainment on the open air. What once was an Antique battlefield for bloody gladiator fights, today is a stage for many concerts and Pula Film Festival. Croatian and international singers performed here - famous interpreters such as Eros Ramazzotti, Andrea Bocelli, Cesaria Evora, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Norah Jones, Oliver Dragojević, Đorđe Balašević, and many others.
The entrance fee to the Arena is 50 kn. If you want to feel like a mighty gladiator standing in the middle of the Arena, take a selfie as a spectator of Ancient games or take a peek into the old changing rooms for gladiators (where today there is an exhibition of Olive and Wine Cultivation in Ancient Istria), pay the entrance price.
Otherwise, you can see and photograph almost the whole Arena from outside. You can have a coffee sitting right next to the walls of Arena for only 15 kn. Don't order the iced coffee because it's not on the menu and they'll charge you 40 kn!!
Another way to experience the Arena in whole its glory is to go to a concert. There are plenty of concerts during the summer and you'll definitely find something of your choice.
2) Follow the Roman Route
Since we had only one afternoon in Pula, we were concentrated on seeing the most important monuments of the city. This primarily included the Arena and the rest of the Roman remains: two of the old city gates, the Arch of Sergii, Temple of Augustus, the Roman mosaic, and the two smaller theaters.
It's not hard to follow the Roman Route throughout the city. After you've visited the Arena, just take Istarska Street towards the city center.
You'll found yourself in front of the spectacular Twin Gates from the 2nd and 3rd century AD. The Gates are well preserved and connected with the central pillar with a Corinthian capital. During the Roman colony Pola, the Twin Gates were used as the entrance to the smaller Roman theater (unfortunately, we couldn't see it because of the construction works).
Nowadays the Twin Gates serve as an entrance to the Archaeological Museum of Pula, which, among other unique objects, stores many archaeological remains from both Roman theaters.
The larger Roman theater is located on the north slope of the Mount Zaro outside of the city walls and it could seat about 4 000 spectators.
The oldest Roman monument are the less impressive Hercules Gates south from the Twin Gates. Pula used to have 12 gates or entrances into the old Roman town, from which only two are still preserved today.
Still following our Roman Route, we passed the underground tunnel and walked towards the old Roman Forum. At the center of Ancient Pula stood and it still stands the Temple of Augustus from the beginning of the 1st century AD. The Temple is in excellent conditions and today it houses the exhibition of Antique bronze and stone sculptures. The entrance fee 10 kn.
The most interesting Roman remain is the floor mosaic depicting the punishment of Dirce, a mythological scene in which Dirce is tied to the bull's horns as a punishment for insulting her mother. The mosaic dates from the 2nd/3rd century AD.
You could say that the Roman mosaic is a hidden gem of the city and it's a bit hard to find it. It's in a courtyard of a store behind the Sergejevaca Street, close to the small Church of St. Mary Formosa in Byzantine style. You can also follow the arrows that will point you in the direction of the mosaic.
The last, but the most impressive one of the Roman monuments is the Arch of Sergii in the center of the picturesque Portarata Square. It was built in honor of three members of the Sergii family, an important Roman patrician family. The arch is richly decorated with Corinthian capitals and reliefs depicting war scenes, plants, and animals.
Next to the Arch of Sergii, there is a large square full of stands with souvenirs. Here you'll find the cheapest magnets, postcards, and other gifts for your friends back home.
3) Walk through Pula's underground tunnels
Through the center of Pula goes a 400-meters long underground tunnel called Zerostrasse. It was built during the WW1 to serve as a shelter for people in case of air raids. The tunnel has 4 entrances on different sides of the town. The corridors meet in the central area, which is used for cultural exhibitions and social events.
The entrance fee to the tunnels is 15 kn. We entered the tunnel next to the Twin Gates, walked through the passageways on pleasant 14°C, and saw a temporary exhibition about old trams in Pula. The exhibition was pretty interesting. We read old newspaper cuts about the first trams while listening to the sound of trams on the speakers.
4) Climb to the Venetian Citadel
If you want to see Pula from above and have a great view of the Arena in whole its glory, climb to the Venetian Citadel. Follow the street called Gradinski Uspon and you'll find yourself in front of the large square-shaped fortress from the 17th century.
The Citadel today hosts the Historical and Maritime Museum of Istria with more than 40 000 exhibits. The entrance fee is 20 kn. You can also take a photo on one of the many cannons in front of the fortress entrance.
If you turn to the left from the Citadel climbing the fortress walls, you'll get to the plain with a great view of the Arena amphitheater and the Church of St. Anthony. The best thing is that the stunning view is completely free!
5) Visit the Archaeological Museum
The Archaeological Museum in Pula preserves findings from the daily life in Istria from prehistoric to medieval times. The collection includes mostly stone monuments found in prehistoric caves, Roman houses and sacral buildings such as the Temple of Augustus, jewelry, metal and glass artifacts from Slavic necropolises, etc.
Due to the reconstruction works, the museum is at the moment closed for public. Hopefully, it will be open soon for you to enjoy the reminders of the rich Istrian history.
Our afternoon in Pula was slowly coming to an end and we had just enough time for a nice Mediterranean dinner on the Dante Square. We chose the Citta Vecchia restaurant, which had good food for decent prices. I had an octopus stew with polenta (about 90 kn) and my boyfriend finally got to enjoy our ćevapčići (about 65 kn).
We walked along the seaside and said goodbye to Pula with the lightened Uljanik Shipyard in the background.