Location: Pula, Croatia
Looking at a country or a region on a map can be very deceiving in that distances and elevation can be warped by our poor perception and missed understanding of the intricacies of geographic traits, and such was the case for our trip around Istria. Siu On and I had already explored Rovinj and its surrounds, and also managed to cram in the green hill top towns of Motovun and Grosnjan; now we had the dilemma of a rare unplanned day to visit either Pula or Porec. Fortunately for us, the realisation that distances are not as far as they seem here in Istria, we decided to do them both and spend half day in Pula, and a half day in Porec, to see which of the two stole our hearts.
Getting there and away
Pula and Porec are roughly an equal distance away from each other if you base yourself in Rovinj and hire a car (45 minutes one way to both towns); otherwise it’s extremely easy to get there by bus or you can fly directly into Pula from mainland Europe. One bit of advice if you drive yourself there is to park outside of the main city areas to save on paying for parking; in Pula, Siu On and I managed to find some free street parking near a school, and in Porec we paid 10 kuna for half a day at a nearby public car park. However, if you have a boat you can also sail there, and if you do then I’m ridiculously jealous of you right now.
What’s there to do in Pula?
For most visitors to Istria, Pula fights for the number one spot with Rovinj as the regions top destination. And to its credit there is a lot going for it; Pula is budget and backpacker friendly with many hostel options, excellent bus and ferry connections to other destinations in Croatia (and abroad), with a good balance of historical sights and a lively bar and club scene. The latter of which Siu On and I were happy to pass up, though we did hear all about whilst sitting in a cafe within painful earshot of a large group of hungover English backpackers. However, Pula is very much a working port city which you’ll notice from the very large ship building yard out front and centre, and so doesn’t operate in the same way that a holiday town would; never the less the main sights are situated not too far from each other and are worth a visit.
The Arena of Pula
Reputably the best preserved Roman amphitheatre in the world and one of only six still surviving in the world, the Arena of Pula is the main draw card for visitors to Pula. It’s impressive to say the least, and a wander around the circumference of the area will take you between 30 and 45 minutes at most. Although many people scoffed at paying the entrance fee (50 Kuna) especially when you could peer in from the outside for free, personally, I felt it was worth paying the entrance fee to get a chance to sit in one of the ancient stone bleachers, and to visit the museum underneath the arena floor. Siu On and I were even treated to a live pianist in the underground museum as we learned more about the many uses of the arena over the centuries (spoiler alert: one of the uses was to make olive oil down there!).
Temple of Augustus and the Forum
The main square in Pula serves the same purpose it once did many, many years ago as the meeting place for locals and visitors alike to wander, eat, drink and converse with one another. It hosts a number of events during the summer time and is flanked on most sides by cafes and restaurants. It’s really the place the see and be seen in Pula. Also located in the Forum is also the Temple of Augustus (10 Kuna entrance fee) which was was rebuilt after being hit by an air bomb in World War II, and now houses a number of restored stone and bronze sculptures.
Pula Castle (also known as Pula Fortress)
Siu On and I accidentally stumbled onto the Castle (50 Kuna entrance fee) as we wandered away from the main shopping area around the Forum. It’s not a far walk and you can either take stairs up or walk along the road to the top. Inside the walls are three gallery spaces, which at the time of our visit in August had an exhibition on the Istria during the Homeland War and the Castle’s previous life as a treatment centre for sick children. The walls and tower give the best views of Pula and you can walk the outskirts of the walls if you don’t want to pay to go inside. I’d recommend going inside for the added exhibitions and the best views from the top of the tower.
Additionally, the official Pula website is a great planning tool to use and you can access an interactive map on their site to help you plot out your visit.
So why should you visit Porec instead?
Porec has the charm and authenticity that larger and industrial Pula lacks. Pula really is a working city that happens to have a few historical sights in it, and yet Porec has just as many (if not more) important historical and cultural icons that don’t garner anywhere near as much interest, which is all the more reason as to why you should visit it!
Episcopal Complex of the Euphrasian Basilica
Siu On and I were wandering the around the incredible white cobblestone streets and alleyways of Porec when we came across a small entry with a sign above it saying ‘Basilica 50 Kuna’; intrigued we opted to go inside and see what this Basilica was about. Three hours later with our minds blown we decided that Porec won hands down over Pula. Firstly, the complex is made up of a series of historical buildings that include basilica itself, a church and memorial chapel, a baptistery and the bell tower of the nearby archbishop’s palace; all of which you have entry to on the single ticket. There are so many Byzantine mosaics, art and architecture on display as well as beautiful surrounding courtyard and views out to the ocean. I cannot even begin to tell you how blown away we were by this place and our favourite part was definitely the 360 degree views from the bell tower. I could have stayed there all day wandering about and staring at the glistening mosaics. Did I mention that this is also a UNESCO World Heritage sight? Take that Pula.
Porec Old Town
Okay so every town and city in Croatia has ian Old Town, and yes they are all pretty much white cobbled stone streets and old Venetian facades, but what makes Porec’s so special is how much is crammed into a tiny space, and how well preserved it is. Within the span of 30 minutes Siu On and I had spotted the strange looking Romanesque House and Pentagonal Tower which marks the entrance to the heart of the old city, as well as many beautiful gothic and venetian style facades. Porec’s Old Town felt more true to its past as opposed to a mishmash of old and new that we found in Pula’s Old Town. Plus, after spending three hours exploring the Euphrasian Basilica complex, half an hour spend wandering the Old Town and stopping for food was half a day well spent.
If Siu On and I had more time in Porec we would have definitely hit up the Baredine Cave to visit the underground lake and ancient stalactites, and relaxed along one of the city’s stunning beaches. As for Pula, if we were there longer we probably would have taken a day trip out to one of the islands and spent the evening looking at the sights.
Judging from our experience it’s pretty safe to say that you can tell who won the battle for our hearts in this instance; it was easily Porec, but Pula did put up a fight and if you have the time to visit both then definitely include them in your itinerary.
As always we’d love to hear your experiences in Pula or Porec, and you can leave us comments on our Facebook page. If you’d like more information on traveling though Istria, you can read our write ups on Rovinj and the Istrian Hill Towns.
Happy travels from Jelena and Siu On!
Third last photograph by Auyeung Photography, all others by Jelena Stipanicev.