Colosseums, Wine Making, and Adandoned Military Forts: Pula, Croatia

Our Airbnb host, Sinisa, surprised us on arrival with homemade wine. His yard and carpark boasted many clusters of small green grapes hanging from rows upon rows of green foliage. He excitedly poured the yellow-ish looking wine from a recycled water bottle. Upon first sips, it seemed strong to me, slightly more alcoholic than wines I drank back home. He explained that we would likely see them making their annual batch during our stay. His family owned an old wooden cask for the fermentation process and offered their guests and visitors their homemade wine. He also said they have a few fields of olive trees where they harvest the olives for homemade olive oil. It was an intriguing first impression and we were excited to watch the process.

Pula was a hidden gem. My recommendation would be that anyone considering Croatia should put this on their list, even before Dubrovnik or Split. The deep history inside the city was teeming from every corner. Throughout its history, Pula was occupied by the Romans, Venetians, Austro-Hungarians, Germans, and was part of Yugoslavia. A fairly intact Roman Colosseum was easy to access and see the detail both inside and out. We had not known that Colosseums still existed in cities other than Rome, but this one was stood beautifully at the center of town. A late BC era Temple to Augustus stood in the middle of a trafficked square for visitors to admire. We felt like we were back in Italy.

The city had a grade so that its main fortress stood atop a hill. It contained many underground passages. Hannah and I toured one, called the Zero Strasse. It was originally built during WW1 as a bomb shelter and munitions storage. Sections had been renovated during the Cold War as fallout shelters. It now stands ready to function as a gallery and social and cultural event space. Other passages under forts nearby were purportedly even larger and used as storage, communications, and a prison. All in all, the passages had the capacity to contain approximately 50,000 people, about equal to the population of Pula during WW1.

War remnants fascinated me and were easy to find throughout the Balkans. I did not expect to find them as much in Croatia, however Pula was rife with the chance to explore. Examples of post-bellicose edifice scattered the peninsula our Airbnb resided on. One early morning, I ran a bit over 4 miles roundtrip to Fort Grosso, a fortification built by the Austrians in 1836. It was tucked away within the confines of heavy woods, but still invited explorers with a plaque and information board. Crumbling walls cascaded to the ground and archways shakily stood by the help of thick wooden planks. Shrubbery grew from cracks in the stone floor and rocky exterior. I was alone in such a remote, forgotten place but despite its wartime uses, it felt peaceful and surreal. I imagined growing up here as a young boy would have meant unlimited inspiration for adventure.

Hannah and I spent an entire day hiking over 10 miles down long windy roads and into thick, forested canopies in pursuit of 3 other forts and military installations. Visiting them was weird. On one hand, they are falling apart and looked dangerous in places. On another, there are nearby park benches and informational plaques to provide detailed history and information regarding each one. We agreed that such buildings would not be open to the public in America especially to the extent of being able to go inside dark crumbling rooms and through long narrow passages.

Each fort was quite unique. The first, Fort Punta Christo was the largest of the 3 and near the tip of the peninsula. It is still used from time to time as the site of music festivals, which was evidenced by the mountain of trash bags left behind in a back corner. The area around it was neat. At the tip lay an old lighthouse and bohemian bar retreat made from boat net, various pieces of furniture, and repurposed maritime “junk”. Beside it was an old suspension bridge made from boat hawser (thick rope). It leaned to one side and the “hand rail” rope was unattached, making a crossing difficult. After about 10 minutes of debate and working up the courage, I unsteadily crossed it to the other side and back. Hannah cheered me on and clapped when I safely got back (she just didn’t want to lug two backpacks home).

The next military fort was called Obalna Bitnica Valmaggiore. It was built directly into a hill. As we crossed beneath a stoned archway, the air immediately felt damp and cooler. The inner courtyard showed grass, shrubs and trees growing through the middle walkways of the fortress. A long row of dark, black barracks windows stood like soul-less monsters with a story to tell. And they did, all the forts were from the 1850’s or so and had endured years of war, visitors, and nature. One particularly ominous passage stretched downward at a left angle and into the depths of the walls and hill. Hannah and I were too scared to venture further into the black abyss, who knows what animals or dangers lay beneath.

Fort Munida was the final stop of the day. Through the wooded clearing, an enormous short, concrete cylinder emerged into view. It was half surrounded by tall fencing. Vines grew out of windows for a peek of the sun. It is worth mentioning that as we hiked from fort to fort, we also passed various other buildings that lay abandoned in various states of disrepair.  Some looked somewhat new. A bit of rehabilitation might have even made a few habitable.

A large cluster of these buildings stood merely 500 meters from our Airbnb. Our host explained they were part of the old Naval installment. The base stood with razorwire lining its exterior walls. The watchtower and inner buildings were colorfully decorated with graffiti and most of the glass had been knocked out. Rusted red railway tracks led from the water’s edge across walkways and disappeared into deep underbrush of forest from time to time. Staircases jutted off into nowhere. Trees grew through the concrete floors of various buildings and vines reclaimed walls and pillars. The gates to the compound were closed with large boulders in front to deter vehicles from entering; however, a pedestrian gate stood wide open, inviting us to explore. It turns out that this ex-military base is now considered a walking park by locals who walk their dogs and cut through on their was to town.

The several times we walked these paths, I imagined life on the base as it might have been. Navymen unloading supplies from the sea onto railcars to be moved further inland. Soldiers swimming in the harbor and marked swimming instruction area. Meanwhile, today presented adventure and danger. Near our Airbnb, plastered across one of the gates was a bright red sign with accompanying skull and cross bones exhibiting the word “MINE!” in all capital letters with a message in Croatian beneath. I roughly translated a few words through Google Translate to mean “beware, unsafe passage”. It was the second time of the trip that I was reminded firsthand that the war-torn strife of the region was not ancient history, but ever present in small reminders that the region’s population endure daily.

The locals did not seem to brood over that wretched past. Our Airbnb host, Sinisa, was a great example. The day had finally come to watch the grape harvest. A team of older men comprised of friends and relatives gathered at the property and each took large buckets. They began snipping and cutting away the hanging grape clusters from all around the backyard, pool area, and car port. Buckets were carried into a small side room built into the hill where we occasionally heard grinding. Sinisa noticed us watching intently and brought us some wine to enjoy. We meekly asked if we could follow him into the grinding room to watch the process. He graciously said, “of course!”, as he beckoned us in to show their work. Two enormous plastic containers held mashed grapes and grape juice. Atop them, a large grinder was used to push the grapes through. Sinisa grabbed a small glass and scooped juice out from the barrel saying “try, try!”. We hesitantly took it, only to find that it was very fresh, sweet grape juice. He then showed us video on his phone of the de-gassing process and explained the need to transfer the fermenting grape juice out of the barrel for cleaning every few months. I asked how long they had been doing this and he alluded to it being forever.

I told Sinisa that we were impressed by the wine and operation and asked a bit about the olive oil, too. Without further ado, our host ran inside to fill a plate with homemade olive oil and bread and brought it to us. Hannah immediately smiled giddily as she bit into the first bite. It required no flavor enhancement from herbs or cheese. The olive oil was the perfect color, flavor, and thickness. We told him it was very good as he left us to continue his next task.

One morning, Sinisa, plucked a bunch of the sweet grapes and handed them to me as I was walking around the patio. It was not the first nor last time he had done so. I said, “No, no, I am not hungry, I had eggs for breakfast.” He replied, “You had eggs? Did you buy eggs from market? We have eggs!” He quickly ran inside the house. The language barrier confused me a bit, and, meanwhile, I hoped he was not trying to be overly hospitable and give up their own eggs from the market. But, moments later he reemerged with a dozen eggs saying, “We have chickens, eat these, non-GMO.” His family did far more than provide us a place to stay. They included generosity and a true glimpse of local life. Near the end of our stay, we received a buzz at our Bnb doorbell and a quick knock. It was Sinisa. He brought us a slice of cake, they had just celebrated his father’s birthday upstairs and he wanted to include us. It was delicious, but so was everything else he had handed us throughout the stay. Pula likely will not show up as the top destination for most travelers researching Croatia for a trip, but it was #1 for me.


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