Back when Croatia was still part of old Yugoslavia, I was inter-railing around Europe on my tod. Yugoslavia was high on my list. I took the train from France into Italy and headed to Trieste where I crossed over into Yugoslavia heading towards Ljubljana. Soldiers with guns got on the train as we crossed the border. My fellow passengers, obviously used to the commotion, started to open their suitcases and bags for inspection. The chap in the seat opposite me told me they were customs guys. I was a nervous wreck. I was young, impressionable, and completely on my own. And they had guns. Big guns. When my turn came, I was so nervous I dropped my passport. A Padre Pio relic fell out. The soldier bent to pick it up and looked at it.
Irish, he asked, with a nod to my passport.
Yes, I said.
Catholic, he asked, with a nod to the Padre.
Yes, I said, not sure whether this was good or bad as I didn’t know much about the country I’d just entered.
Good, he said. Protestants … they bring bombs.
It was the 1980s and the IRA were in the news. Something had definitely gotten lost in translation but I wasn’t about to point that out. It wouldn’t be the only time in the next few days that I’d hear similar sentiments.
I wanted to get to Pula but never made it. I was waylaid and ended up at the Yugoslav equivalent of Spring Break in a village on a lake somewhere I’ve never been able to find since. It was all a little surreal.
Last week, though, that long reckoning came at last and I got to see Pula. But I couldn’t for the life of me remember why I wanted to see it. I knew sod all about it and was really surprised to hear that it boasted a magnificent (if smaller) first-century amphitheater, a smaller version of the Colosseum in Rome . To see so much of the Roman era still intact in the midst of twenty-first century concrete was quite something. Did they know how to build stuff that lasts! Unfortunately, the day we were there, some film crew had it booked out so we didn’t get to see inside. I didn’t recognise the actors (quelle surprise!) so it may well have been a scene from Game of Thrones, as Croatia is a hub for that set, apparently.
There’s other stuff in the city, too. Cobblestone streets. Interesting shopfronts. Old churches. There’s a walking tour we could have taken, which would have guided us to Roman Pula, but I’m not that into tours. I prefer to ramble and for that I need time. I wasn’t overly pushed about seeing everything in one morning as it’s a very doable drive from the new gaff and I knew I’d be back. Next time, I want to have a coffee at Cvajner, a café in what was once a bank, furnished by Tito-era furniture and decorated with local art. And in the evening, I want to see the light show from the still-operational nineteenth-century Uljanik shipyard. Designed by lighting designer (I want that job) Dean Skira, the cranes are lit in 16 000 different colour schemes and light up four times each evening for about 15 minutes a go. I might even take a stroll through the series of pre-WWI tunnels (Zerostrasse) excavated to store guns and ammo. We passed signs to Banjole along the way and next time, I want to eat at Konoba Batelina – apparently the best seafood in the ‘hood. So much to look forward to.