The wonderful town of Pula lies near the tip of the Istria peninsula in Croatia and today is Istria’s largest port. Importantly, Pula’s Roman legacy can be seen throughout the town, with the most impressive and most obvious example being the 1st-century amphitheatre which is located just back from the waterfront on a street rather aptly called Gladijatorska.
The amphitheatre, also commonly known as the arena, is the world’s sixth largest and the best for studying Roman building techniques: some 23,000 spectators attended gladiatorial contests, naval battles and other amusements during its heyday. After wandering around the outside, be sure to delve below ground into the old holding cells where prisoners were imprisoned whilst awaiting their gruesome fate. The wild animals were caged in the subterranean cellars.
The amphitheatre was built on a slope, partly to save money by reducing the number of stones needed, and so has three floors on the side facing the sea, two on the opposite side. Originally it had about 20 entrances and it employed a highly efficient network of tunnels to ensure spectators got to and from their seats quickly.
The amphitheatre itself has survived various assaults over the past 2,000 years. Over the centuries, while limestone blocks, including much of the original seating, were removed to build local houses. In 1583, during Pula’s stint as the outpost of the Venetian Republic, plans brewed to transport the whole structure across the Adriatic to Venice. The amphitheatre even suffered the ignominy of serving as a cattle market in the 5th century.
Today, gladiators and lions may be long gone, but the amphitheatre regularly hosts plays, festivals, classical concerts and, somewhat surreally pop concerts by such artists as Elton John and Sting. The annual Pula Film Festival is also staged here. A highlight of a visit to Pula is catching any kind of performance amongst the ghosts of this mighty testament to Istria’s Roman heritage. It also houses a free exhibition of Roman Amphorae salvaged from shipwrecks, and other equipment used for making and storing wine and olive oil.
Pula is a must on your Croatian ‘bucket list’ and the amphitheatre is a must see. If you can get down to the Pula Marina of a night, the amphitheatre is a truly magnificent floodlit sight.