Pula: Croatia’s sunshine city has a new must-see attraction
The renovation of one of Pula’s grandest hotels means now’s the time to visit, says Karen Harvey
Croatia is a relatively new country still finding its feet, but let me tell you, it has more to offer than just the sunshine we all expect. Having broken away from the former Yugoslavia and its communist rule in the nineties, the nation is thirty years into independence and as you’ve probably heard, is developing its own identity as an exciting, burgeoning holiday hotspot. Previously a centre for fishing and shipbuilding, the city of Pula is more than just a gateway to the Croatian coastline – it has grown into a city with a sense of freedom.
The old cranes on the docks no longer lug steel about like they used to. Instead they come to life at night with bright neon lights, a sign of how the city is transforming its industrial history and turning it to modern use. Near the cranes, the bars are bustling. I visited the city recently to take in the classic Austrian and Italian architecture but was really here to see why the city is so buzzy in 2023. I was headed to Wine City, a fortnight-long celebration of the best of Croatian wines. It was all fairy lights and great wine in incredibly plush glasses. A Croatia I can get on board with. But you needn’t visit for the event to find brilliant wine bars, which are dotted throughout the city, lending an atmosphere of somewhere like Barcelona (but without the pick-pockets!). The friendly locals stay out way into the night, topping off the evening with a shot or two of Grappa, a brandy-like drink often flavoured with local honey.
We must soak in the history too. Pula’s famous Roman Amphitheatre, a great bowl of a thing that hosts cultural events all year round from the annual Film Festival to the opening nights of music festivals. It’s well worth the visit whether there’s an event on or not; I’d thoroughly recommend leaving a good couple of hours to laze around on the grass and stare up at the majesty of the building, perhaps with a little drink in hand. It’s the sixth largest amphitheatre in the world and back in the gladiator days it held 23,000 people (and a bunch of lions and panthers and when I closed my eyes, I could imagine the carnage that it must have been). Pula was always a Yugoslavian hot spot for the rich and famous, and particularly popped off in the 1970s, due to the popularity of the communist President Tito whose dictatorship allowed him an excessively luxurious lifestyle, and attracted guests from Hollywood’s silver screen.
The recent £2 million refurbishment of the Grand Hotel Brioni has returned one of the city’s historical hotspots to its former glory. Jutting out from the rocks above the Adriatic Sea, the hotel is still a destination for A-list guests, although the hotel has a ‘no tell’ policy when I ask who’s been in lately. While we were staying, so too was the current President of Croatia (not a dictator!), who must, I assume, prefer this hotel to his own home. Hotels often purport to be ‘homely,’ but the president choosing it over his own place is pretty great validation for the team, I’d imagine. The hotel is every bit as pretty and ornate as you’d imagine. You can recognise the building’s modernist past in its bold and angular structure, but the kitsch and communist interiors of the old era are long gone, replaced by tranquil and open spaces, furnished in marble and velvet, with paintings and sculptures specially commissioned from Croatian artists.
The hotel has a sizeable wellness centre, with an indoor pool and jacuzzi, saunas, a steam room, and something called a ‘Water Paradise’ shower which was so decadent I felt like I had progressed through the five stages of evolution in twenty minutes. If you want to swim in the sea or lie by the pool with a cocktail, that’s thoroughly recommended, as the beach is stunning, but leave time to enjoy an evening on the terrace, watching the dolphins play as the hot sun sets over the sea. I sipped a Zacapa Mojito, which is a twist on the classic, but did I mention the food? Croatia has wonderful local ingredients: truffles, olive oil, wine, and honey, along with the fresh seafood, naturally. The extra virgin olive oil is like nothing I’ve ever tasted – a peppery hit in the back of the throat, strong and rich, and apparently suggested (for the health benefits) as the first thing you consume in the day.
I headed to Chiavalon Farm to get the inside intel on Istrian olive oil. We sat by the mill, amongst the groves, pushing and pulling the olive oil through our teeth in the most attractive manner (I lie, it was ugly, but it was a necessary motion). We learnt how to spot the true extra virgin oil from its lesser counterparts (for a start, there isn’t a cheap plastic bottle in sight.) Another exemplary Istrian producer to visit is Medea Winery in the town of Vodnjan near Pula, where the enthusiastic team make some of the best wines in Croatia. The grapes for their Montiron wine are picked and processed by hand, then the wine is aged in oak. For those who favour a red wine, the exceptional and award winning Punta Greca is produced in limited quantities from Istria’s southernmost vineyard on the Cape Punta Grkova.
Dinner in one of the hotel’s restaurants is a great opportunity to try the best of local produce. In Sophia Restaurant, (named after Sophia Loren, a previous guest from the 1970s heydays) smoke filled glass cloches revealed beef tartare enriched with foie gras, truffle and caviar. Plates are presented piled with tomahawk steak and Kobe beef from the Josper grill, fermented honey shallots and a delicious Red Beer sauce. If you’re more into seafood and pasta, head to Brioni Lungo Mare, one of the best spots, but make sure to leave room for the hotel’s extensive breakfast buffet in the morning. There’s much else to see near the city centre: the old fishing village of Fazana has boats headed for Brijuni Island.
Cloaked in huge dark evergreen Holme Oak trees, the island was former President Tito’s summer residence. A communist leader for 30 years from the end of the second world war until his death in 1980, Tito used to drive around the island in his Cadillac Eldorado from his grand house to his zoo, past his Shetland Ponies (a gift from Queen Elizabeth II) as he smoked cigars in his smart suits and entertained government leaders and film stars.
Back into the 21st century at the Grand Hotel’s pool, I’d done quite enough learning. I wanted to sink into the clichéd Croatian thing of utter, total relaxation. Why not, I’d earned it.
Photos also by Karen Harvey
Visit Pula in Croatia yourself
Experience the newly opened Grand Hotel Brioni Pula, Croatia, a Radisson Collection Hotel, from £340 per night for a Premium Garden View Room, or £375 for a Premium Sea View Room. For business workers the hotel has a significant business wing, with bookable meeting rooms for teams sized between 10-16 people. Larger spaces are available for up to 50 people. For more information and to book visit grandhotelbrioni.com
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