Rick Steves, the oracle of European travel, says Pula has “the soul of a Roman poet” and the sights are “top-notch”. So, we stuff our bags into the tiny, gutless rental car and head south. We take the scenic route, and thankfully, perhaps because it is a Sunday, the most ferocious of Fiat drivers are taking a rest from terrorizing the roads and terrifying unsuspecting tourists. So, we actually enjoy a lovely, scenic drive through the rolling, forested hills of Istria, marveling at the red-roofed villages tucked into the dells and valleys. We pass through towns with names like Matohanci and Crnjova stancija, Larry gleefully creating word-plays out of each one.
Before long the industrial sprawl of Pula begins and we easily follow the signs towards centar, until the Roman amphitheatre looms up in front of us. By now, it’s high noon, and the sun is blazing hot. I douse myself in sunscreen, and we dig out sunglasses, hats and water before trudging off to see the sights.
The amphitheatre is pretty impressive. Completed in AD 80, it is in remarkable condition. We skirt around the edges, shuffling between shady spots to gawk at the enormous structure and snap photos. We climb up into the curved, stone stadium seating, sweating profusely, and gaze up at the VIP box carved high into the wall, pondering the lose-lose implications of a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. We trundle through the middle of the arena, surprising small in circumference, which would have provided quite a close-up view of every severed sinew. The ancient stone arches create a time-warped frame for the huge, modern shipyard cranes looming against the sky. In search of some relief from the sweltering sun, we head underground, where the gladiators and wild animals were once housed before being sent up the passageways to perform their final, desperate acts. In this dark, cool space there is a museum dedicated to, of all things, the amphorae pottery used to transport goods, and olive oil production techniques. We putter around reading the signs conveniently displayed in five languages – Croatian, Italian, German, French and English.
Sufficiently cooled off, we follow Mr. Steve’s map towards the promise of a town gate and a hilltop fort. Trudging up the hill, we pass through a dilapidated pile of rocks littered with garbage, beer cans and cigarette butts. Along the remains of the fort walls, squinty-eyed teenagers loiter, smoking like chimneys. This appears to be the place in Pula to party. We move on. We spy an old church, notably not on Mr. Steve’s map, which is converted into a museum, free of charge, so we duck inside to gander at the exhibits and soak in the air-conditioning.
The rest of the walking tour includes the fenced off, crumbling remains of a Byzantine chapel, a very austere Cathedral, and the dusty, shade-less town square with the Temple of Augustus sitting forlornly on the edge of a busy road.
“Pula is the pits,” I grumble to Larry, who is distracted with locating a gelato shop.
Cutting our losses, we make a bee-line for the air conditioning of the car. We drive over the small Raska Draga mountain range, twisting through forested gorges, punctuated with small towns suspended along the steep slopes. The road turns and parallels the deep, sheer cliffs of the Uvala Plomin Luka fjord, the turquoise water glistening far below. Where the fjord meets the sea, the road turns north along the Kvarner Gulf, hugging the coastal cliffs towering above the water, gradually dropping in elevation until it reaches sea level. At many points along the way, clutches of cars are haphazardly parked beside the road, squeezed into make-shift parking spots against the cliff edge, bumpers protruding into the narrow road. Steep, stone steps lead down to rocky coves where Istrians are gathered to enjoy their day of rest.
Europeans have a couple of unique differences in their approach to a day by the sea. One is the unfathomable ability to lie prone directly on bare rocks or a concrete slab for hours of sunbathing. The other is a nonchalant attitude towards bare breasts. Whether they are pert and perky, or drooping and undulating, there is a completely unconcerned attitude towards letting them hang free. I do have to admire the apparent sense of ease with one’s body, no matter its size or shape. I, however, intend to keep mine under wraps.
When Americans read about the beaches in Europe, they are warned that they are rocky, or pebbly, often paved over with concrete slabs, and our reaction is often one of disappointment, and even contempt, for the obvious inferior quality. But once one realizes that Europeans basically identify the sea as one big swimming pool, conveniently located in their back yard, then all the concrete, step ladders, and lane ropes make perfect sense.
We conclude our day in Opatija, the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s answer to the Cote d’Azur. The town is filled with ornate, nineteenth century mansions, built by the wealthy elite of a by-gone era, now converted to hotels. We stay in what was once the servant quarters of the Hotel Opatija, located above the kitchen, overlooking the tennis courts. The main attraction though, is the lungo mare, a tree-lined, travertine promenade curving along the rocky seafront. As the sun sets, and a full moon rises, casting shimmering light across the placid sea, the sunbathers put their clothes back on, and amble along in the warm, summer air. We join them for a delightful evening stroll.