A historic town at the southern end of the Istrian peninsula on the Adriatic coast of Croatia
. More a centre for mainstream tourism, it also has the odd point of interest for the dark tourist too.
More background info: Pula is absolutely ancient, having been inhabited since prehistoric times. In antiquity it became part of the Roman Empire. During the reign of Julius Caesar it was a major port town with a significant population of ca. 30,000. The great landmarks of Pula, in particular the famous large amphitheatre were erected during those Roman times.
As the Roman Empire began to crumble, Pula changed hands several times, from Goths to Byzantines, Franks and eventually Venetians. The alternate name of the town, Pola, dates back to those times and is still its name in Italian.
Pula had lost its former significance by the Middle Ages and fell largely into decline (with the population dwindling to just 3000). In the late 18th/early 19th century, Pula became part of the Austro-Hungarian Habsburg Empire and with the onset of industrialization was thriving again and became a shipbuilding centre.
So it came that Pula (under the Italian name of Pola) was the naval base for Austria-Hungary during WW1
, home to dreadnought battleships and other navy vessels, which from today's perspective sounds odd, given that both Austria
ended up landlocked after WW1.
After WW1, most of Istria and Pula became a province of the Kingdom of Italy
, with Pola as its capital. When Mussolini
's fascist regime took over, the region was subjected to a rigorous campaign of enforced “Italianization” (cf. also Slovenia
, and especially Kobarid
) and non-Italians, especially ethnic Croats became victims of repression.
When Mussolini's grip on power slipped as WWII
progressed and in 1943 Italy formally surrendered to the Allies, the northern half of the former fascist country was taken over by Nazi Germany
, and this included Istria and Pula. Its port now became a base for German U-boats and as such a target for Allied bombing raids. At the same time the Nazis launched a fierce campaign against the partisans.
Yet in the end the partisans prevailed and at the end of WWII most of Istria was held by Yugoslav communists, except Pula, which was administered by the British and US Allies. This lasted until 1947, when it became formally part of the new Socialist Federation of Yugoslavia
. At the same time, most of Pula's largely Italian population fled to Italy
. This period of conflict between Italians and Yugoslav partisans is still a very contentious subject (cf. Trieste
and Foiba di Basovizza
Pula remained part of Yugoslavia until 1991 when Croatia
declared its independence. In the ensuing War of Croatian Independence (known as the Homeland War within Croatia), Pula was fortunate to be far enough away from the front lines and was thus spared the destruction that places like Dubrovnik or Mostar
in Bosnia & Herzegovina
suffered during the Yugoslav Wars.
Today, Pula remains an important centre of shipbuilding, but tourism has become a major part of its economy too. On the one hand its exceptional Roman relics are a big draw, but it's also a convenient base for holidays on the Istrian peninsula. Gourmet tourism is another thing Pula is well known for, and rightly so. It's a connoisseur's paradise with local specialities comprising world-class olive oil, wine, seafood and rare seasonal treats such as wild asparagus and truffles.
What there is to see: Pula may at first seem to be an odd entry on a website about dark tourism, but it does have its dark elements, even if they are not so in your face.
First of all, there are those underground tunnels
, right under the Old Town, which were dug when Pula was part of Austria
and a major naval base during WW1
). Before and during WWII
, the tunnel system was expanded to provide air-raid shelters for the population as well. Apparently there are miles and miles of tunnels that could have given shelter to some 50,000 people.
Today only a small section is open to the public and marketed under the name “Zerostrasse
”. Unfortunately, when I was there in April 2018, it was closed. It's probably only operating seasonally (like so much in Croatia
, at least on the Adriatic), though I've seen conflicting information about opening times, with some claiming it's open year-round. Well, I found the entrances locked, and the official website says: June/September 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. and July/August to 10 p.m. – admission: 15 kuna. There are four entrances, two to the east, one to the west and one to the south of the central hill.
At the top of this central hill, which the Old Town kind of wraps itself around, sits a citadel (Kaštel)
. The fortification of this central hill also goes back to Roman times, but was mainly constructed during the 15th century by the Venetians. After having fallen into decline again, the site was reconstructed in the present layout by the Austrian
military during the second half of the 19th century. It remained a military site through the Italian
period and WWII
and the Yugoslav
era too, until the 1960s, when it was turned into a museum. Today it is home to the Historical and Maritime Museum of Istria
. Opening times: 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. in summer (April to September), 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. the rest of the year. Admission: 20 HRK.
The museum chronicles all the dark periods of Pula in modern history, from the Austro-Hungarian era and WW1
to the Italian fascist period, WWII
and the Nazi German
occupation, as well as the partisan campaigns and the Yugoslav
era. Quite a few interesting artefacts from all these periods are on display. In addition you get to see ancient cannon barrels galore, modern weapons and of course all those fortifications. The whole thing is topped with an old observation tower. And indeed you get excellent 360-degree views over Pula and the harbour and across the bay.
and its shipyards
are quite a sight to behold as well. Rarely do you get such facilities so close, directly adjacent to an ancient Old Town. The contrast is visually stunning (see photos
). Of course the shipyards and other harbour facilities that are in use remain off limits to ordinary people, but you can peek in through the gates and fences. And doing so you can see not only some fascinating heavy steel components and huge hulls of ships under construction, I also spotted a very odd Yugoslav-era partisans monument
just inside the Uljanik shipyard on Flaciusova ulica.
On the other side of the bay of Pula, i.e. to the north of the shipyards, you can see lots of remnants of the old naval base
military installations from the Austro-Hungarian era, most of which are now abandoned
and thus a playground for those into urban exploration
The best bit of all this used to be an island called Otok Katarina that is connected to the mainland by a narrow causeway. I've seen very cool photos of the abandoned island and its old military ruins. But when I tried to get there I found that access is no longer possible. There are guards at the gate and when I was at the citadel and used binoculars I saw that some construction work was under way on and around the causeway. I had heard rumours that some re-development plan for Otok Katarina was in the pipeline (something like turning it into a kind of resort). It seems that this is now indeed in progress …
However, other parts of the abandoned structures on the mainland are still easily accessible, especially at the north-eastern end of the bay. Here I found several abandoned buildings, watchtowers and on a headland two ship wrecks that have obviously been salvaged from lying sideways in shallow waters. You could tell by the diagonal line the barnacles and dirt formed across the rear of the boats.
In addition there are several further remnants of the old pre-WW1-era forts and fortifications dotted around all over the coast, some of which are more accessible than others. These include Fort Monvidal, located on the edge of the Old Town a few hundred yards to the east of the Amphitheatre, or the large Fort Bourguignon (aka Fort Monsival), on the coast south of the Old Town.
Overall, though, these dark elements are just small additions compared to the main attractions of Pula, but still, they make a stopover in this pretty old coastal town worthwhile for the dark tourist too.
near the southern tip of the Istrian peninsula on the north-west of Croatia
's Adriatic coast, ca. 125 miles (200 km) south-west from the capital Zagreb
, but only some 55 miles (90 km) south of Trieste
Google maps locators:
Access and costs:
Pula is easy enough to get to, though some of the individual sites take more determination; relatively affordable, though – being a tourism hotspot – obviously not as much so as eastern Croatia
Pula is easiest to get to by car, both from the north (Trieste
, or Ljubljana, Slovenia
) on the E751, or from the north-west from Zagreb
, first along the E65 and from Rijeka the E751.
Pula also has its own airport, even with some international connections, at least in the summer holiday season.
Within the centre of town, a car is a hindrance rather than an advantage (parking can be a problem) and you're best off getting around on foot. But for the sites along the northern coast of the bay, a car, or a bike, is required.
Accommodation options are plentiful, and good bargains can be found. If you're here by car, make sure to book something that offers its own parking spaces.
As for food and drink
, the range is equally wide, from foul fast food to top-notch gourmet fare. I'd recommend the latter – especially as here it doesn't have to cost you an arm and a leg. I had an outstanding yet affordable regional dinner (in the wild asparagus season – wonderful!) at the restaurant in the Hotel Amfiteatar (which, as the name suggests, is right by Pula's main historical sight).
Istria is also a proud wine producing region, with the Malvasia grape being the most common one used, which has quite a flowery bouquet, and juicy palate. I must say I preferred the drier, more acidic wines from eastern Slavonia (see Vukovar
) … but that's a matter of personal taste, of course.
a day is sufficient to do all the dark aspects covered above, unless you're a real urbex
fan who wants to explore the abandoned structures along the north of the bay in depth. The Old Town is also compact enough to be easily covered in a few hours. If you also want to do all the old fortifications or visit some of the museums and all the Roman relics, you'll need a couple more days.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
The closest other site covered on this website is Brioni island
, a short distance north-west from Pula.
One place outside the borders of Croatia but quite conveniently reachable from Pula/Istria, is the grand port city of Trieste
in the north-easternmost corner of Italy
, which also has a couple of notable dark sites of its own.
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
Pula itself is primarily a non-dark travel destination, of course, but also a good springboard for excursions into the Istrian region and the Adriatic coast of Croatia
Within Pula, pride of place has to go to the Roman amphitheatre
that can rival anything in Italy
. It may not be quite as big as the Colosseum
(though it is amongst the six largest), but it has a completely intact ring of arched walls, which is pretty unique. Other notable Roman relics in Pula are the triumphal Arch of the Sergii
and the Temple of Augustus
in the Old Town centre.
The Old Town as such is Pula's tourist central, with loads of souvenir shops lining the cobbled alleyways and little squares. Landmarks here that are not Ancient Roman include various churches and also rather more quirky things such as a museum devoted to olive oil!
One famous former resident, if only temporary, who is celebrated quite a lot in Pula is the Irish writer James Joyce, who spent some time here between 1904 and 1905, teaching English to make ends meet. There's a statue of him outside a café/bar he used to frequent. (And since my middle name is Ulysses, after Joyce's most famous work, going there to meet this statue was of course something of an obligatory pilgrimage for me …).
- Pula 01 - classic
- Pula 02 - Roman amphitheatre
- Pula 03 - Roman temple
- Pula 04 - Roman arch
- Pula 05 - James Joyce was here
- Pula 06 - street in the Old Town
- Pula 07 - closed tunnel
- Pula 08 - steps to the upper town
- Pula 09 - citadel above the Old Town
- Pula 10 - citadel courtyard
- Pula 11 - museum in the citadel
- Pula 12 - Soviet relic
- Pula 13 - Nazi relic
- Pula 14 - Nazi dagger
- Pula 15 - Nazi helmet
- Pula 16 - another exhibition room
- Pula 17 - underground propaganda tools
- Pula 18 - Yugoslav history
- Pula 19 - more weapons outside
- Pula 20 - sculpture made of weapons
- Pula 21 - view from the citadel
- Pula 22 - view over the shipyards
- Pula 23 - Otok Katharina in the background
- Pula 24 - big ship towering over the waterfront
- Pula 25 - heavy metal in the shipyard
- Pula 26 - tug-of-war partisan sculpture in the shipyard
- Pula 27 - view across the bay
- Pula 28 - abandoned structures
- Pula 29 - former fountain
- Pula 30 - looks like a former prison wall
- Pula 31 - reaching right to the shore
- Pula 32 - salvaged wrecks
- Pula 33 - evidence of a long time spent semi-submerged
- Pula 34 - some bits are still down there
- Pula 35 - the Old Town seen from across the bay