Cat and I are at the end of a short holiday in a lesser-known corner of Europe, and a fascinating corner it is.
Week 40 is the annual autumn holiday week in Norway, meaning flights are hard to come by. Affordable flights, at least. But there we were, kinda last minute, trying to agree on a destination. I vetoed anything that would cause major jet lag, since we only had three days, so no Tokyo. Cat vetoed anything that sounded boring, so no Zurich or Prague or Budapest or Vienna (what does she know…).
We were almost ready to throw in the towel, when she spotted a flight to Pula with plenty of empty seats. Agreement, at last.
Last time I was in this area, it was Yugoslavia. Today, Croatia meets Slovenia and Italy here.
I was in Portorož back then (in present day Slovenia). Except for a walk to picturesque Piran next door, we didn’t see much; beach life and dancing till the early hours was the name of the game. What can I say… I was 18.
Today, I’m here with my young ‘un, and the game has changed. More pool than beach (it is October, after all), and partying has been swapped for exploring (don’t really want to go clubbing with your mum anyway, do you).
There’s lots to see in this little corner of Europe, in all three countries: cute little towns and beauty spots abound, and there is even a major city – Italian, no less – should you feel in need of some retail therapy.
We fly to Pula – and we stay in Pula as well, in a villa in Štinjan, a nice, quiet neighbourhood close to the beach, and with a pool!
The friendly owners let us in when we arrive at 9 o’clock, even though check-in is 5 hours later. We left home at 3am, so a power nap in a proper bed makes a big difference on our first day.
Complete with warnings in 4 languages
OK: a quick sleep, an hour or so by the pool, then into Pula for a look-see.
Pula Arena: Croatia’s Colosseum
Pula’s main claim to fame is the impressive amphitheatre known as Pula Arena, venue of spectator sports (no doubt horrific ones) in Roman times, and more peaceful ones today: opera and ballet, sports, film festivals and concerts. Pavarotti, Sting, Elton John, Sinead O’Connor and numerous other hot shots have performed here.
Some scholars say this very well-preserved amphitheatre is from 1st century BCE, others 1st century CE. I’ll just say Year 0, then.
Relatively empty now at the very end of the tourist season
I’m imagining gladiators coming out on the grounds. But try as I might to teleport myself to Year 0, all I can see in my mind’s eye is Russell Crowe.
Are you not entertained? Are you NOT entertained?
Maximus Decimus Meridius
Fantastic movie! Fantastic soundtrack!
Pula Old Town
Time for breakfast/lunch/dinner. I can never decide what to call that all-in-one meal (usually at around 4pm) that seems to have become my default when travelling. We choose the first restaurant we see that doesn’t have a plastic menu with photos of food – and it turns out to be excellent.
Then, a lazy couple of hours wandering through the old town, stopping for a drink here, an ice cream there, snapping photos everywhere. That is, I’m snapping. Cat is about to impose restrictions on photos of her. (Max 3 per day).
Human remains from the Neolithic Era have been found here; that’s 6,000 – 2,000 BCE. An ancient city, any which way you look at it, tossed around from one empire to the next: Rome, Byzantium, Frankish, Habsburg, and – until relatively modern times – Italy. (The city’s name in Italian is Pola). Since Italy ended up on the losing side after World War II, Pula – and the rest of the Istria Peninsula – became part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
Forum Square is the centre of the old city, with an interesting mix of architectural styles.
The Roman Temple of Augustus, next to the mediaeval City Palace (i.e. town hall) on Forum Square
Pula street scenes, and the quirky retro decor of Cafe Cvajner
Golden gate and James Joyce
A block or two from the square, is the Arch of the Sergii, Pula’s triumphal arch doubling as city gate, and the only remaining part of the ancient city walls. It is also known as the Golden Gate, although most of the gilding has faded over the centuries.
Still looks golden in the setting sun, though
Just inside the gate is James Joyce (top of the steps on the left), looking a bit standoffish. When he was 22, James lived here in Pula for 6 months, teaching English to Austro-Hungarian naval officers.
What would 22-year-old James from 1904 and 22-year-old Catarina from 1923 talk about?
A new day, a new town to explore. After sleeping in (C.) and lazing by the pool (me), we are ready to delve into Istria. I want to see Opatija, so we need a car. ‘A very good idea,’ says the Uber driver that takes us to car rentals at the airport. He is the same we had yesterday, at least once. (Not tired of us already, are you?)
We head east along the coastal route in the little yellow one.
Opatija has been on my wish list for ages, mostly because of Sissi. The Empress of Austria-Hungary, whose life was so filled with tragedy, has fascinated me since I first bumped into her at Schönbrunn, whilst searching for another queen, whose life was also sadly tragic.
Sissi hung out in Opatija, along with hubby Franz Josef I, Germany’s Emperor Wilhelm, Isadora Duncan, Giacomo Puccini, Anton Chekhov, Gustav Mahler, and other 19th century crowned heads and artists.
It’s easy to see traces of that romantic era in Opatija, in the villas…
the historic hotels…
the green verdant parks…
The max 3 photos per day is reduced to 2, if weird poses are required
the Adriatic promenade with the tiny harbour and striking sculptures…
Maiden with the seagull – and an extra gull posing
A day of border hopping: Slovenia and Italy
Day 3, and we go north. Across the border in Slovenia are two fascinating places: one is all about horses, the other is the world’s largest underground canyon.
Heard of Lipica? No? What if I give you the Italian spelling: Lipizza? Ah, I can hear you say. The Lipizzaner horse. Vienna’s world-famous Spanish Riding School.
That’s right. This is where they are from, these gorgeous white horses. Lipizzaners have been bred for 400 years at the stud farm here in Lipica.
You can visit the farm, see dressage shows, take a guided tour or wander around on your own and explore the property. If you’re here at 10am, you’ll see the mares running out to pasture.
About 13 km from Lipica are the Škocjan Caves. You need to join a guided tour if you want to go underground, and rightly so. Don’t want anyone to get hurt 100 metres below ground, in the dark. Photos are not allowed, either with or without flash. I wonder why. Are the stalactites and stalagmites that vulnerable?
We meet the guide at the reception centre, and walk to the cave entrance in the Globočak sinkhole. It’s a bit of a trek. Entering a dry fossil tunnel, we walk down stairs, up stairs, and down stairs again, and end in the large hall in the Silent Cave. The path continues through the world’s largest underground canyon, across the Cerkvenik bridge (don’t look down if you’re afraid of heights), and then down, down, down, to the roaring River Reka.
On the way, we see markers where flooding has occurred: in the 1960s, the water level rose 70 metres. In 2019, it increased even higher, 90 metres. I ask the guide if they saw the flood coming. She reassures me the water level is continuously monitored.
We see remnants of the old path, an old bridge and old stairs – all very narrow, very rickety, with no guard rails. This is the path they used, those early underground explorers. Terrifying!
We walk along the lit path. The lower path is the old one. Photo pinched from Skocjan Caves website
It is a very cool, almost mystical experience, walking through these caves.
The tour is about 5 km and has ca. 1,000 steps, mostly on slightly wet surfaces, so we must be careful. I ask our guide (yes, I am that one who can’t stop asking questions) if people have slipped, twisted ankles and so on. Not surprisingly, the answer is unequivocally yes. ‘This is why photography is not allowed,’ she says. ‘People get so busy snapping away, they forget to look where they’re going, and accidents occur. Many accidents.’ I have my answer, and it makes perfect sense.
As we approach the exit, we’re finally allowed to photograph.
Back in daylight, we walk through a large valley, along paths, across a bridge, up more stairs, and to a funicular whisking us up a steep hill. Phew! No more stairs. Or so we think. Leaving the funicular, we head back up towards the reception centre. The guide warns us there’s a final set of stairs. ‘Only 67 steps,’ she says encouragingly.
The tour takes about 2.5 hours. I don’t need to tell you to wear proper shoes, do I?
It’s getting on for that breakfast/lunch/dinner thing again. But where? Slovenia? Croatia? No, let’s go to Italy!
To Trieste, then: for food and perhaps a little shopping. We have already crossed the Slovenian/Italian border a few times.
Trieste is 30 min from Škocjan. Cat is driving, it’s her first time driving in Italy. Bit of a challenge for many, but perhaps especially for her, who insists on following rules and is particular about treating cars well. Pretty much the opposite of the Italian way. Baptism by fire.
Looking for parking in Trieste is like in all Italian cities: a nightmare. If you want to park in Trieste, I suggest you plug in Molo IV to your SatNav. Easy to find, easy to park, and chances are good your car will get out scratch-free.
Piazza Unità d’Italia, Trieste’s main square, is spacious and surrounded with handsome buildings. Today, however, the buildings are partly hidden behind tents and various temporary structures. It appears we have arrived just in time for Barcolana55, the world’s greatest sailing regatta, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.
We have pasta at Caffe degli Specchi, an old world establishment on the square, where every drink comes with a large bowl of crisps and three little savouries. Nice touch.
Then, a few hours browsing Trieste’s fashionable shops, before heading back to Pula.
But wait… just one more stop:
Across from Trieste railway station on Piazza della Liberta, is a little garden. And here she is once again, our Sissi, in bronze, flanked by marble admirers. The imposing monument was erected just after she was assassinated by an Italian anarchist in Geneva in 1898. Turns out the Triestini think of her as their princess. Books, songs and TV programmes are created in her honour even today.
I seem to find Sissi everywhere.
On the way back to the molo, we pass Canal Grande.
It is not Venice, but still… a nice sight in the fading sunlight.
It is our last day in Istria. We have seen a lot, but are not quite done yet. I want to see the Euphrasian Basilica in Poreč. When I mention this to our lovely host over morning coffee, she suggests we visit Rovinj instead. ‘It is much more beautiful’.
Well, our flight home isn’t until 21.45; we basically have the whole day. Really, there is no reason not to see both.
Let’s begin in Poreč.
As luck has it (whether good or bad luck, I’m not sure), we arrive just as the first contestants cross the finish line of the Istria300 Poreč bicycle race. Busy town today.
Poreč’s main claim to fame, other than being a nice seaside resort town on the Adriatic, is the UNESCO-listed basilica, so that’s a must. And of course we must climb to the top of the clock tower (thankfully with a great deal fewer steps than yesterday) for spectacular views in every direction.
Else, if you’re in Poreč, I suggest a stroll around the old town, stopping for a drink here, an ice cream there, and snapping photos everywhere. (Sound familiar?) All in all, Poreč is a pleasant enough town. But I’m curious about Rovinj, rumoured to be such a beauty, so after another hour or so, we move on.
Bye bye Poreč
At first glance, this little fishing port reminds me of Cinque Terre.
Rovinj’s old town is on a promontory with colourful houses in front, and the Church of St Euphemia on top of the hill. Together, they create the perfect skyline.
… and from the backside
Rovinj’s restaurant offerings spoil you for choice, including two with Michelin stars and one Bib Gourmand, as well as simple pizzerias and seafood galore.
Inside the old town is a labyrinth of cobbled streets and stairs leading down to pebble beaches.
The food is excellent, but the settings: OMG!
Everything they say about you is true, Rovinj!
Is there a more romantic place anywhere? I think not. In fact, just this minute, I’m not sure I want to spend an evening anywhere else. Ever.
Getting to Istria
Pula and Rijeka airports are both on the peninsula. Trieste airport is also within easy reach, and a little further, Ljubljana, Zagreb and Venice. There is also a ferry across the gulf between Venice and Pula, Porec and Rovinj.
Škocjan Caves and Episcopal Complex of the Euphrasian Basilica in the Historic Centre of Poreč are UNESCO World Heritage sites. Here are more UNESCO World Heritage sites around the world.