Monday, March 28, 2011

Roman History in Croatia (Pula, Croatia)

Not many cities can boast a Roman amphitheatre in the centre of town. Pula is strategically perched at the bottom of the Istrian peninsula in the west of Croatia and is dotted with several monuments from the Roman era. It isn’t difficult to imagine toga-clad men walking the streets and gathering in the main forum in a city whose layout appears unchanged for two millennia.

Several Roman gates all built around 2000 years ago lead to a city with a number of cobbled streets highlighting a rich history of Roman, Byzantine, Venetian and Austrian occupation. With their remarkable engineering and architecture it is little wonder that there is more evidence of the Romans than any other, including a temple, mosaics and an old theatre. The oldest Roman city entrance is the elegant Gate of Hercules (with surrounding town walls built later) with the badly eroded carving of Hercules and his club at the top of the arch and the names of the two Roman officials (one was the brother of Cassius who killed Julius Caesar) who led the building of the city.

The main square was once the Roman Forum and boasts the harmonious columned Temple of Romae and Augustus. Around 2000 years old, I wonder how many of today’s building will be viewed in the same majesty 2000 years from now. Mind you, this one didn’t survive a bomb late in World War II and was carefully recreated after the war.

However the undoubted highlight of Pula is the Arena, a large Roman amphitheatre that held over 25000 spectators in its day and continues to see concerts and performances today though only with audiences of 5000 (varying from Pavarotti to Elton John). Engagingly lit at night and the same age as its famous cousin in central Rome, it was sadly denuded internally over the centuries (the seats and some of the underground areas) to supply building material for other projects by the Venetians (including the four-pointed star shaped castle which provides the best external view of the Arena and now hosts the Istrian History Museum). At one point, the Venetians considered dismantling the whole amphitheatre and re-erecting it in Venice, but Pula eventually got to maintain its treasured attraction.

The Arenadesign is impressive with the stadium being three levels on the side facing the sea and two levels on the other side to account for a marked incline in the land.

The underground areas have been replaced but with a fairly thoughtless and careless cement and concrete approach. However, it does give a good sense as to the complex arrangement of managing the various wild animals, sets and gladiators that provided entertainment for a lusting audience.

In the spirit of remarkable engineering, structures at the top of the 30 metre well-preserved walls of the amphitheatre show that the complex could be fitted with awnings for hot or wet weather and the towers contained water tanks to provide fountains during the shows (the Romans think of everything!!).

Croatian pride in their Roman treasure includes featuring it on the ten Kuna note (around US$2) though the mint uses artist’s discretion to remove the various scaffolds and repair areas that mar photographers’ efforts!!

Pula provides an excellent day wandering the Roman monuments that dot the city and provides an excellent base for exploring the Istrian hill towns, including such travel wonders as Matovun, Buzet, Labin and Hum (the smallest city in the world). Make sure that you grab a copy of the Arena audio tour to discover the innovative building and design methods used in constructing this superb entertainment centre of over two thousand years of age.


Barbara Weibel said...

At first glance I could have sworn I was looking at the Colisseum. I had to really look closely and read your article before I realized it in Croatia. So strange. I guess it makes sense, since the Romans traveled far and wide and Croatia is, after all, just across a narrow sea from Italy. But it was a double-take moment for me. Croatia is high on my list of places to see. I keep saying that - seems my list grows longer with each day. Great article.

Mark H said...

@barbara: I'm with you - it looks so much like the Colosseum (I guess there is little need to change a winning design for the Romans). I've also seen a couple of impressive Roman amphitheatres in southern France in Arles and Nimes (and in Nice too I think) and also Verona. Out of all those, I like the Pula one for its state of repair and the surprise factor of finding one in Croatia.

Heather on her travels said...

I was in Istria a couple of years ago, although we didn't get as far south as Pula - the ampitheatre is just as impressive as the colisseum and I'm sure there are half the crowds - I never understood what the facination was with the colisseum when there are other Roman remains that are just as impressive but without the endless queues.

Mark H said...

@heather: I guess the Roman Colosseum is one of those things that people have to see. You are right - the queues are ridiculous.

LoveToEat said...

Thank for the info! We will be heading there in a few days. Very excited!

Mark H said...

@lovetoeat: I hope you have a great time in this beautiful Croatian city. Make sure you check out the superb Roman amphitheatre.

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