Friday, 16 December 2011

Istria 2011, The Roman Amphitheatre at Pula

The airport is only about eight kilometres outside of the city so once we had completed the hire car formalities and had squeezed ourselves and our luggage into the silver Hyundai Getz (not the Skoda Fabia that we had ordered) we set off towards Pula where we arrived just a few minutes later and found a convenient car park directly below the Roman amphitheatre and close to the busy docks.

The first century amphitheatre is the most important and most impressive building in Pula because it is the sixth largest in the world and one of the best preserved examples of its kind. The Coliseum in Rome was the biggest Roman amphitheatre and could seat a massive fifty-thousand spectators (Some estimates suggest eighty thousand but generally about fifty thousand is the agreed capacity of the stadium), the second largest was Capua, also in Italy but now sadly in ruin, which had only a slightly smaller capacity, and the third was in El Djem in Tunisia with a capacity of thirty-five thousand. The amphitheatre in Pula was designed for about twenty-five thousand and there were similar sized stadiums in Verona in Italy and at Nimes and Arles in Southern France so this was more of a Championship rather than a Premiership Ground.

We walked around the external walls and I was immediately struck by the grandeur and magnificence of the building. I have been to Rome and seen the Coliseum and in my opinion nothing can compare with that but this building made that assessment a close run thing. It towered mightily above us, the white stone walls reaching up into the clear blue sky and looking proud and strong.

As it was about lunchtime we decided to postpone the visit to the inside until the afternoon and we walked towards the city centre to look for somewhere to eat. We had stayed in Pula before so we knew where we were going, or at least we thought we did but confused by the busy streets we took a few wrong turns looking for a bar that we had enjoyed before. Down at the waterside the city isn’t particularly interesting or picturesque and we walked along a harbour that was fronted with bleak marine associated offices and was sadly without bars and cafés, but things improved as we walked back from the dockside and into main town street behind and eventually came to the main square with plenty of bars to choose from so we sat on the sunny side of the square and ordered drinks.

This has been Pula’s main square for a long time because in one corner, close to where we were sitting was the two thousand year old Roman Temple of Augustus which was in surprisingly good shape for all its years. It was hot now and the sun was trapped in the square and the heat intesified as it bounced off the white walls and pavements made of dazzling Istrian stone.

Istrian stone was quarried in the hills behind the coast and was much valued by the Romans and later the Venetians who, in the middle ages, controlled the quarries and transported thousands of tonnes to Venice to build the state buildings there. It is a limestone that is so dense that it resembles the finest marble and it was perfect for building columns and monuments because it could be quarried in exceptionally thick strata.

After the short break we left the square and quickly found the Café Orfej still advertising very reasonably priced meals. That appealed to us all so we went inside and made an attempt at translating the menu and finding that we didn’t have much trouble with pizzas we had a fine lunch and a couple of beers.

After lunch we walked back through the sunshine to the amphitheatre, this time to pay our entrance fee of forty Kuna and to go inside the impressive structure. There are over two hundred surviving Roman amphitheatres across what was the Roman Empire and this is one of the best to see because this is the only one that has its entire external structure rising to three levels still intact. There is still a lot missing however as parts of it had been dismantled over the years to provide ready prepared paving for roads and a convenient supply of building materials for later construction projects such as the town’s Venetian fortress built nearby. Thankfully most of the vandalism was restricted to the internal seating and terracing and the external walls with their towering arches are still left in place to see today.

The amphitheatre was built on sloping ground so that the part facing the sea has three levels and the other side facing the land has two. The great plinths which form the base are visible, along with two orders of arches divided by pilasters and an attic of rectangular windows. When it was in use large beams supported awnings which protected the spectators from the sun or the rain. Four towers around the perimeter had cisterns containing perfumed water that could be sprinkled on the crowd because the smell of animals, blood and fear must have been rather distressing even for a blood-thirsty mob. Under the fifteen entrances was a ditch served by elevators for beasts, people and stage sets to be moved easily about.

The amphitheatre was part of the primary gladiator circuit and remained in use until the fifth century and in that time it is impossible to imagine how many men and animals died in this place. Underneath the arena there is a small museum housed in the underground corridors where exotic animals and gladiators waited their turn to be raised to the stadium for their part in the bloody show and one can only try to imagine what a brutal and thoroughly unpleasant place this might once have been.

It was late afternoon now so having completed our tour of the amphitheatre and the underground museum we agreed that it was time to leave and drive to our hotel which was in the nearby fishing village of Fažana.

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