Travel Destinations

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Other Colosseum – Croatia’s Pula Arena, Roman Ruins and the Saints of Vodnjan

Pula Arena Croatia
Pula's Roman ruins include the magnificent Pula arena.
Did you know the Colosseum in Rome is not the only colosseum?  There are actually dozens of Roman amphitheaters in the world, one of which is the Pula arena in Croatia. Pula is situated on the southern tip of Croatia’s Istrian peninsula, only a 45-minute drive from Rovinj.  If spending any time in Istria, I recommend including a day trip to Pula’s Roman ruins in your Croatia travel plans with a side trip to nearby Vodnjan where a number of famous saints are interred.

Pula is Istria’s largest city and a working port.  But Pula is also home to a number of Roman ruins, some of the best in Europe, including the Pula arena, the Temple of Augustus in the Forum, the Arch of Sergius, and a preserved Roman floor mosaic.  While Pula is large, its old town and tourist sites are easy to navigate on foot, with all being located along a loop that starts and ends at the Pula arena.

Pula Arena

The Pula arena is the sixth-largest Roman amphitheater and one of the best preserved.  A visit to the Pula arena not only includes the ability to walk around the interior, but also tour the museum in the subterranean hall below where the gladiators and animals were held.  The Pula arena’s outer walls are almost completely intact, and when inside it is easy to imagine how the amphitheater looked in Roman times.  It is now still used for filming, stage productions, and concerts, though louder concerts are no longer held within the arena as the vibrations can be destructive.  The museum below is actually an exhibition of Istrian olive oil and wine production in ancient times.

Interior of the Pula Arena Croatia
Interior of the Pula arena.

Cathedral of the Assumption

The loop through Pula’s old city starts with the cathedral which originated as a Roman temple.  The cathedral is open to the public, but is oftentimes closed.  The separate bell tower was built using stones from the Pula arena.

Cathedral of the Assumption Pula Croatia
Pula's Cathedral of the Assumption and its bell tower.

The Forum

Every Roman town had a forum and Pula was no different.  The Pula forum contains two buildings, the town hall and the Temple of Augustus.  The Temple of Augustus is a tall but tiny temple which was dedicated to the first emperor of Rome.  The temple was hit in World War II and was later rebuilt by the Allies.  The small room now contains fragments of sculptures and small artifacts.

Temple of Augustus Roman Forum Pula Croatia
Temple of Augustus in Pula's forum.

Roman Floor Mosaic

Located off the main street next to a building and through a parking lot is an incredibly well preserved Roman mosaic floor.  The mosaic dates from the third century and was discovered by locals during the cleanup process after World War II. 

Roman Floor Mosaic Pula Croatia
Pula's well preserved Roman mosaic.

Arch of Sergius

The final Roman ruin on the loop through Pula is the Arch of Sergius which marks the edge of the original Roman town.  The large carved arch is framed by the bright more modern buildings of Pula.

Arch of Sergius Pula Croatia
Pula's Arch of Sergius.

Market Hall

Before completing the loop through Pula back to the Pula arena, make a short detour to the National Square and Market Hall.  Pula’s modern glass and iron market hall has two levels.  The ground level contains the market selling fresh fish, butchered meat, and other fresh products for Pula’s residents.  The upper level is where you will find small kiosks selling meals made from the fresh products on offer downstairs.  We had a fabulous and inexpensive lunch of perfectly cooked squid and fried sardines.

Market Hall Pula Croatia
Lunch at Pula's Market Hall.

Vodnjan’s Church of St. Blaise

Church of St. Blaise Vodnjan CroatiaOnly 15 minutes north of Pula, on the way back to Rovinj, is the tiny town of Vodnjan.  Vodnjan is known for the Vodnjan mummies which are preserved within the Church of St. Blaise.  The Church of St. Blaise is the largest in Istria and is also said to have the tallest bell tower.  The real draw of the church is behind the alter where you can tour the treasury and view the Vodnjan mummies.  St. Blaise’s treasury includes 370 relics from 250 saints as well as church objects and art.  The Vodnjan mummies are in a dark gated sanctuary where the mummified bodies are displayed in stacked glass cases against one wall.  The Vodnjan mummies include three saints, Saint Leone Bembo, Saint Giovanni Olini, and Saint Nicolosa Bursa, as well as parts of the bodies of Saint Sebastian and Saint Barbara.  The saint most recognizable by travelers is probably Saint Sebastian, who is memorialized in almost every museum and cathedral around the world in paintings and statues where he is depicted in his martyrdom shot with arrows. 

Istria is a beautiful area of Croatia and well deserves a few days in your Croatia travel plan. There are many cities and towns of Istria which can fill some fun and varied day trips.  A visit to Pula’s Roman ruins, especially the Pula arena, is sure to be a highlight of your travels through Istria.

I planned our Croatia travels, including our time in the Istrian peninsula, using Rick Steves' Croatia & Slovenia and Frommer's Croatia.  This post contains affiliate links.  If you purchase or book through them you pay nothing extra and they help fund our travels so we can bring you more travel stories.

Travel the World: Visit Pula in Croatia for a colosseum and other Roman ruins.

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Katherine Belarmino and Romeo Belarmino are the authors of Travel the World, a travel blog for the everyday working stiff. They work full-time in non-travel related jobs, but take every opportunity they can to travel the world during their limited vacation time.