The Rise, Fall, and Rise of Buildings in Pula, Croatia

by Thom Brown

Our ‘On the Edges of Europe‘ columnist ventures outside the city limits of Pula, Croatia, and discovers a derelict village, a machine gun-wielding soldier, and a sign of hope among the ruins of an old fort.

The arena stood proud, its dusty stones shining like a beacon among the drab modern city that had built up around it. Cars whizzed down the busy street that encircled the perfectly circular structure, seemingly unaware of its significance. This was Croatia’s best-preserved Roman monument, among the six largest of the remaining Roman amphitheaters, and the only one to have four entirely preserved towers. To my eye, this was as good as the Colosseum in Rome. It was hard to believe that something built well over 2000 years ago was not only still functional but grand and beautiful, as well.

Yet, hardly any passers-by batted an eyelid. They were mostly local people who had grown used to the way the arches climbed out of the ground with a delicate strength. They didn’t notice how the clear blue sky burst through the windows, contrasting with the yellowish hue of the stone. As for the tourists, well, they were few and far between. Like birds in the winter, they’d headed south, to Split and Dubrovnik. And so the Pula Arena stood alone, the last bastion of history in an anonymous, dwindling city.

Beyond the city limits was a stretch of nature, untamed and neglected. Countless peninsulas protruded in each direction, taking wanderers on a journey from the industrial shipping center to a dead-end blocked by the sea. I headed westward to Stoja, where a large shopping mall marked the entrance to a scattered array of campsites and rocky beaches.

At the edge of the land, the rocks were smooth and flat, stretching for miles and radiating the heat from the morning sun. Crowds began to amass there, sunbathing and swimming as if it were a soft, sandy beach. I skipped across the gray surface, watching as it sparkled in the light from above. Never one to lounge around when excitement could be just around the corner, I left the crowds behind as the terrain became markedly more rugged, the bushes increasingly overgrown and, thankfully enough, devoid of stray dogs.

The peninsula in question wasn’t well-maintained, meaning footpaths would occasionally cease to be, leaving me fumbling through the foliage. Clawing my way through, my stomach sank as my prescription Ray-Bans gathered scratches. However, onward was the only direction in question; it would surely lead me back to a proper path. After all, this was a jut of land three-quarters surrounded by water, so there were few opportunities to get properly lost. Scrambling on, I eventually emerged into a whole new world.

There was a sudden and surrounding silence. The clearing was vast and comprised of a mixture of loose gravel and overgrown weeds. Having made it to higher ground, it was also possible to see into the distance, and what lay ahead was an unending jumble of buildings in various stages of decay. There were houses, office spaces, ceremonial halls, and 19th-century fortifications.

As I explored an entire village worth of abandoned buildings, stories began to emerge. From the crumbling books on military tactics to army registration pages, it became clear what kind of a place this was. The deeper I ventured into the ghost village, the more eerie – yet somehow alluring – it became. In the several hours spent exploring, I didn’t spot a single other soul. Cautiously creeping onto a precariously balanced balcony, a sweeping panorama came into view. Surrounded on three sides by the Adriatic Sea and the fourth side by the dense forest through which I’d emerged, the strategic location of this military complex was evident. So was its vast and desolate nature; a whole generation of buildings left to rot.

Save for a few sweeps of graffiti, this place felt largely unvisited for a long time. Some might have felt joy at the thought of Mother Nature reclaiming what was rightfully hers, but for me it represented the sad decline of manmade architecture. The Romans built arenas designed to last millennia, while 200-year-old structures were already in a state of decay.

I mused on this for a few minutes before a dramatic and noisy flapping disturbed the peace. A flock of pigeons emerged from the balcony roof and disappeared into the distance. My heart leapt into my throat, so I turned and bolted toward the exit. These scenarios already put you on edge, and any sudden movement can send your fight or flight response into overdrive.

Exploring every abandoned building on the peninsula would take about as long as it took to build Rome (in other words, more than a day), so I cut my losses and headed back toward civilization. This time, I followed the path that conveniently went around the forest rather than through it. Lined by bushes on each side, with a view of the mountains ahead, it was a quiet and uneventful walk. That was, at least, until a large brown snake slid perilously close to my ankles, causing another mini heart attack. By now, I’d identified the main dangers as dogs, pigeons, and snakes. I didn’t know which was worst.

This was speaking too soon, however, as another obstacle emerged: a small plastic cabin next to a metal barrier, guarded by a soldier with a dread-inducingly large machine gun. There was no path around, and he’d already spotted me, so, again, the only way was onward. Contrary to every instinct in my body, I walked with my head up, shoulders back, and a smile on my face, ready to blag my way out if necessary. It started to dawn on me that I may have spent the last few hours wandering around a highly restricted area.

The soldier looked confused, but fortunately not angry.

“Hi, how are you?” I said with as much confidence as I could conceivably muster. “Is it possible to come through here?”

After a short pause, the soldier smiled and replied, “Yes, yes, of course. Come on.”

He opened a gate at the side of the barrier, and I passed through, audibly exhaling hard with relief. I’d heard there was another fort – Punta Christo – within the area, and I wanted to find it before sundown. This was just across the sea, but without a boat to hand, it meant walking back down the peninsula to the city center, then up another one to the fort.

Arriving at the parking lot, the immense scale of this fort struck with force. It was almost comparable to the Roman arena but more closed off, without any holes for the sky to bleed through. There were other people around, providing comfort that exploring this historic structure was both allowed and welcomed. I headed for the deepest, darkest corridors, where stone steps descended into a black void, at the bottom of which were underground, windowless caves. While it was creepy, it also felt safe and well-maintained. This wasn’t like the abandoned military buildings.

The next adventure was to find the roof. As I climbed the stairs, yet another creature emerged. This was a slower-moving, friendlier animal: the humble tortoise. I gave its shell a few strokes and continued upward, gradually becoming aware of noise, chatter, and – dare I say it – music?! At the very top of the fort, the full size of the structure was revealed. The stone roof was covered in grass with several different sections like rooms in a nightclub. Then, on what looked like a podium made of rock, I spotted the DJ.

The thumping bass grew louder as I edged closer and saw increasing numbers of people dancing and mingling on this fortification built by the Austro-Hungarian empire. Many had drink glasses, confirming that a bar with beer taps was nearby, hiding in one of the dark rooms. Behind the DJ, the full expanse of the Croatian countryside appeared, with tree-covered mountains stretching toward the horizon, above which the sun was slowly setting.

A soft orange glow spread across the fort’s rooftop and, with dozens of strangers, I let the atmosphere of this unique fortress-turned-bar wash over me. This was the glimmer of hope I’d be seeking: an abandoned building given new life, fit for the modern world, perhaps to be preserved as a place of cultural significance for the next two thousand years.

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