“Do not photograph the lions,” snaps my guide, the 50-something Vesna, “They are not original. They were brought in by the Venetians later.” She looks momentarily angry until I shift my focus away from the sculptures of lions and gaze in awe at the 2000-year-old amphitheatre in front of me. I am in Pula, the Croatian port city — and the largest town — in Istria county, which borders Italy. And the amphitheatre is the cynosure of all eyes.
Believed to be one of the six large Roman amphitheatres in the world, Pula Arena is the only one remaining with four side towers and all three Roman Architectural Orders being preserved. Built in the 1st century as a small arena made of timber, it was later developed into this massive venue for the locals. It is said that over 20,000 spectators would, at one time, watch gladiators fight until death here while convicts were thrown to the mercy of wild animals, another spectacle for public viewing. “Tournaments” were conducted in this arena until the 5th century.
For a moment I believe in the Istrian legend that it was built by fairies, who dragged the stone from faraway mountains, chipped at it and created the wonder overnight. Another story goes that it was built by one of the Roman emperors as a gift to his mistress. Whatever the case, the Croatians are so proud of their ancient relic that they fought tooth and nail when the Venetians were apparently planning to relocate the limestone arena to their town.
Walking into the basement of the Arena, through an underground passage, I get a glimpse of the erstwhile space where the gladiators awaited their turn to enter the stadium. There is a small museum here, portraying, among other things, the olive oil industry and a flashback of the Roman era.
Pottering around the Old Town of Pula, I see many monuments from the Roman era. The Arch of the Sergii, a triumphal arch built in the 1st century to commemorate the Sergii Family, was an inspiration to none other than Michelangelo. The ancient Augustan forum stands, still, and I walk to the old temples of Augustus. At one time there were temples dedicated to Juno, Minerva and Jupiter, but today only the temples of Rome and Augustus stand. The Twin Gates stand alongside remains of the Old City walls while Vesna points to the Gate of Hercules, which has survived from the 1st century.
The charming cobbled streets of the Old Town — where James Joyce is said to have once stayed and worked — are also dotted with colourful cafes and quaint boutiques, and, churches and basilicas too. There are old Roman theatres as well. I trudge up a small lane that takes me up a little hillock from where I can see the entire town of Pula surrounded by the azure waters.
The following day we drive down to another pretty coastal town, Rovinj. Dazzling in shades of pink, the pretty buildings of Rovinj make the entire town look like a jewel, set amidst the turquoise waters of the Adriatic sea. Webbed with narrow lanes and steep cobbled streets, the town is known for St Euphemia’s Basilica that stands atop a small hillock.
Finally, we head to the world’s smallest city — a plaque in the town mentions the declaration by the Guiness Book of World Records. It is Hum, with just 28 people living in its tiny streets now, say the locals. We drive to this picturesque town, surrounded by lush greens and rolling hills, and I realise that there are more tourists than residents here. As I watch the youngest member of Hum, a five-month-old baby playing in the town, I chat with young Doris who says that the 29th member is on the way — her sister is pregnant. I ask her if she misses the world beyond Hum. She just laughs and says, “No, because the world comes to us.”