I don’t get why more Brits don’t holiday in Croatia. It’s closer than Greece, Turkey or Cyprus and easily as beautiful as Spain or Portugal. Croatia enjoys long, hot summers, has thousands of years of history in its charming coastal towns and cities and has stunning countryside which is easily accessible from the resorts. The food is excellent and the accommodation choices are varied. The Austrians and Germans know this of course, which is why they flock to Croatia; the Brits, however, have still to really catch on to this wonderful destination, perhaps still connecting the country with the events of twenty years ago.
Deciding on a change from the Dalmatian coast, we recently spent three nights in the city of Pula on the Istrian peninsula in the northern part of Croatia. We flew from Manchester with Jet2 with a flight time of around two and a half hours. We’d booked an apartment in advance but judging by the number of signs advertising ‘Sobe’ (rooms to let) around the town, we could easily have turned up without a reservation and have found somewhere. Most of the other passengers were on Jet2 holidays and staying in places like Rovinj, Porec and Rabac so they got a transfer bus from the airport. As I understood it, a shuttle bus service linked up with busy flights but there wasn’t one for over an hour so we took a taxi into town, a journey of only ten or fifteen minutes.
Although there are beaches on the eastern side of Pula, it’s really ideal for those looking for a warm destination with plenty of cultural interest. It’s a popular clubbing resort for younger visitors but the clubs tend not to be in the centre and you couldn’t liken Pula to Ayia Napa or Faliraki. Pula hosts several well known international music and arts festivals throughout the year, during which times it would be advisable to book accommodation in advance. If you want to combine sightseeing with a beach holiday I’d suggest staying at a nearby resort and taking a bus or taxi, or even cycling, into Pula for the day.
Pula is a bit like a large open air archaeological museum. The city is dominated by its impressive Roman arena and parts of the old city walls and gates remain. The signs with brown backgrounds direct you to the myriad treasures such as old churches and monasteries, and the unearthed remains of palaces and houses from antiquity. There are, in fact, so many of these sights tucked away among the narrow streets of Pula’s Old Town that you can spend at least a day of your trip just strolling and discovering these treasures without actually visiting a conventional museum or other visitor attraction.
When you do visit a museum, however, you’ll rarely pay more than 10 KN per person which is roughly (if judiciously rounding for convenience) £1.00. We took in an excellent exhibition on the food history and culture of the Istrian region housed in a former church, and ‘Zerostrasse’, a network of tunnels under the Old Town in which there’s an excellent exhibition about the development in Istria of seaplanes. Only parts of the ‘kastel’, the old fortress in the centre of Pula, remain but the views from the walls are brilliant and the museum in one of the buildings is small but fascinating with a recreated nineteenth century pharmacy and an exhibition on the Szent Istvan, a battleship that was shelled and sank in Pula Bay.
Perhaps because the Old Town is so charming, I find shopping in Pula almost a pleasure; sure there are shop owners who jump out as soon as they see you admiring something but you won’t get the kind of hard sell here that you might associate with Turkey or North Africa. There are your usual souvenirs and fakes aplenty (there are a number of perfume shops selling copies of all the popular fragrances but sold in nice bottles to avoid looking like deliberate fakes) but there are also lots of lovely little shops selling handmade decorative items such as glassware and jewellery. Food souvenirs are also popular and Istria is regarded as the culinary centre of Croatia: most of the artisan food shops offer samples to taste and you should definitely try the truffles, locally made olive oil and prsut, an air dried ham and the Istrian version of Italian prosciutto. The local wines are also very good (Malvazia is a slightly sweet straw coloured white while Teran is a rich red commonly made in the karst regions of Croatia and Slovenia) as are medica and biska, rakijas made with honey and mistletoe respectively.
Croatia is very much a café society and Pula is no exception. Those on around the old Forum are only slightly more expensive than the ones in the side streets of the Old Town and afford excellent opportunities for people watching. Everyone comes out for an evening stroll, stopping for a beer, a glass of wine or just an ice cream (Italians are, I find, highly chauvinistic about their ice cream but the Croatian stuff is more delicious). There are lots more pavement cafes in the newer part of the city around the market. Although several Croatian beers are available in Pula, Favorit is generally the cheapest because it is the most local so should be asked for by name.
There’s no shortage of restaurants and other eating places in Pula with most serving excellent seafood and Balkan meat dishes from the grill. There are numerous pizzerias which are inexpensive and many of them have a window where you can buy slices of pizza to take away. If you are staying in an apartment you are never more than a couple of minutes from a small supermarket and every block has a bakery.
Travel agencies all over town can arrange trips to other resorts on the Istrian peninsula, in particular boat trips to the Brijuni Islands, a designated national park about 8 kilometres off the coast. It's easier, though, to take a walk to the harbour and find out what trips are available that day and to compare prices. You need to check carefully which island you'll land at - if at all - as some trips just cruise among the islands without stopping, while others land at the smaller islands where there are limited facilities and attractions. The largest island has a safari park thanks to the rather exotic gifts that Marshal Tito received from other heads of state.
I found Pula to be an attractive city with plenty to see and do though I was pleased to be visiting in September when it was perhaps a little quieter than it would have been during the school holidays. I can't comment on the quality of the beaches as we stayed in the centre of Pula and I understand that from where we stayed the beaches were quite a hike or, as was suggested, a short taxi ride. Family hotels with pools are a short distance outside the city. One thing that is great about Pula is that the high number of bars and restaurants means that prices are competitive.
Pula attracts a mixed crowd of families, couples and young back-packing groups. There's plenty to do over a few days and lots of easy excursions if you want to explore further afield. If you like a holiday with great weather but aren't the sort of the person to lie by the pool all day, I'd say that Pula makes a great destination.