There is something infinitely fascinating about a gaggle of Brits suddenly transposed from their dour, grey climes into warm, sunny 24- degree weather. Once the coats and jackets begin to lift, the noise levels increase. I suppose nothing says ‘your holiday begins now‘ more succinctly than being hit by a wall of hot air. On this occasion though, before the holiday properly begins, we have to navigate the small matter of customs and passport control at Pula Airport. Thankfully, it is a lot less painful than before, thanks to new passports, and good timing – just before the rush of traditional holiday season.
Giancarlo, our Croatian guide with an Italian name, does a good job of finding everyone on our bus in time, and keeping us entertained with useful tattle as we make our way to the various hotels to drop folk off. The views from the window of our coach – red earth, plenty of greenery and (mainly) quaint, boxy buildings – suggest this is a place very much in its own image, yet to become fully subsumed in serving a tourist culture. That does not spare it from the long arms of globalisation though, the Lidl store not far away from the local Plodine underscoring some of the pressures behind the Asda – Sainsbury tie-up. Our hotel, the Park Avenue Histria, is the last stop, a walking distance from the Verudella marina. At first blush – grand facade apart – it doesn’t have the spanking new look of the Movenpick from Marrakech or the King Evelthon from Paphos, but once we are settled in, it feels like a good enough compromise between price and location, given what views of the sea we can see from our windows. The rest of that first day is spent catching our breath, having been up at 4.00 am for a 7.00 am flight from Gatwick (which ends up significantly delayed).
The next day, having been suitably energised by a good night’s sleep – and a hefty breakfast – we made a beeline for reception, where we found a walking tour of the city just about to set off. A wizened widower, returning for the first time since the loss of his wife, a retired banker who had taken up writing as a second career and his wife, and a couple from Montenegro now living in Berlin were in our group as well as a couple of British couples and ourselves. Our guide was yet another Croat with an Italian name, Romeo. The first stop on that tour was the local market where we mingled with the crowds eyeballing fresh fruit, vegetables and cheeses, with the smell of fresh fish from the adjoining fish market following us around. It was here we saw our first black face, in one of the stalls selling cheese. We did the thing, that barely perceptible nod that black people who find themselves
interloping in the middle of a sea of other faces do to acknowledge each other. Once done with the market, our walk took us through the Golden Gate (more properly the Arch of the Sergi), then up steep, narrow side streets toward the maritime museum. Highlights of the route we took were James Joyce’s residence in Pula (click here for the fascinating story behind that) and the great view of the harbour with a few semi-subs in for maintenance. The shops along the way all had football shirts – Croatia had two players on the Real Madrid team which won the UEFA Champions League final, and will play in this year’s Football World cup. Football also came up in conversation with Romeo, when it came to light that we were Nigerian. The most breathtaking aspect of the tour was the old arena, its magnificent facade towering over that section of town – it is supposedly the most complete/ outstanding amphitheatre outside Rome. Once done, our group broke up with quite a few folk wanting to have a wander about the insides of the arena whilst others wanted to press on elsewhere. We made mental notes to return to the arena and the maritime museum later in the week.
It was a good thing we did the city tour when we did as the next two days ended up being miserable and wet, ruining our plans to go out on a boat tour. The silver lining from those days was running into Romeo at reception, alongside the writer and fashion buyer couple from our second day. At his prodding, we headed off to the sports facilities to golf in the rain and afterwards enjoy a mini table tennis tournament. When the rain let up on our fourth day, we visited the nearby aquarium, housed in a re-purposed Austro-Hungarian fort. The grey, boxy fort brought back memories of Vienna, and the Haus Der Meeres – housed in another re-purposed military installation.
The rest of our stay served up much better weather, which we took advantage of with a couple of packaged tours. The first of these, the flavours of Istria tour which we booked via our TUI representative, took in a number of the main tourist cities (Medullin, Vodnan, Bale, Porec and Rovinj) as well as a few out the way places (Zminj & Grzini from memory). Lunch was at an agro-tourism restaurant in Zminj (the Familija Ferlin) where we had a soup (manestra) for starters, hand made potato dumplings in a ragu sauce for the main and some fritule for dessert. Although our guide compared them to doughnuts, the more pertinent association in my inner Nigerian mind was to puff-puff. The second was a boat ride out of Medullin with a pit stop at caves for the more intrepid divers to explore and a grilled lunch aboard.
The long and varied history of the Istrian peninsula – from being first populated by an Illyrian tribe through various conquests and interactions with the Greeks, Romans, Franks, Goths, French, Venetians, the Austro-Hungarians, modern day Italians, Germans, and being part of Yugoslavia – was on display all through the whistle stop tour in the arena, numerous temple ruins, Rovinj with its colourful buildings down to the edge of the water, old church buildings with detailed murals and paintings, forts and military installations. This is a region of Croatia which has clearly been enriched by its various interactions with people over its history. How that history has affected the demographics of the region is a subject I cannot pretend to know enough of from a few days spent here but amidst the clamour of voices suggesting it has been good for the region there was the odd voice of discontent praising the central region for never being subsumed into the Venetian republic. Tito’s legacy was also another subject that spurred vigorous discussion. For all the vitriol lobbed in his direction in the West for being a dictator, I got a sense that he was venerated in many quarters in Pula. As one guide put it, even now we struggle to paint the things that Tito built.