Pula

A history of Istria in ten buildings

Jonathan Bousfield explores the history of Istria in ten brilliant buildings

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Jonathan Bousfield
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There are far too many fine buildings in Istria for a list of ten to do the region justice. Indeed, many of the peninsula’s must-visit sights are historic hill-towns; urban ensembles rather than individual buildings, they really require a separate top-ten of their own. The list below will provide ten small insights into Istria’s rich and complex heritage.

Poreč Basilica

Poreč Basilica

With the fragmentation of the Roman Empire Istria ended up under Byzantine rule, opening up the peninsula to the architecture and culture of the Christian East. Poreč Basilica is the best example of what the Byzantines left behind, a largely sixth-century complex with a colonnaded three-aisled interior and an octagonal baptistery on the opposite side of the courtyard. Most famous feature is the dazzling mosaic-covered apse, with portraits of the Virgin and Child standing together with a row of saints and holy men. Golden mosaic tiles are placed at angles to catch sunlight at different times of day, bathing the aisle in heavenly light.

Kažun

Kažun

Not so much a single building as an Istrian trademark, examples of the Kažun can be found in fields all over Southwestern Istria. A small cylindrical structure with a conical roof, the kažun was built out of dry stone to serve as shelter for farmers and shepherds. Dating from prehistoric times, it was a form of construction that survived well into the modern era, and is now an enduring symbol of local heritage.

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Our Lady of the Rocks, Beram

Our Lady of the Rocks, Beram

The gothic graveyard chapel on the edge of Beram is pretty plain on the outside; the real surprise is what lies within. Walls and ceilings are covered in incandescent fifteenth-century frescoes, arranged in narrative panels rather like a racy comic strip. Most famous scene is the Dance of Death, in which sinners both rich and poor are invited to hit the floor by a happy band of trumpet-tootling skeletons. The scenes were painted by a team of artists led by a certain Vincent of Kastav, who signed his name above a side door of the chapel.

Pula Arena

Pula Arena

The Romans had a huge impact on Istria and it’s in Pula that their greatest heirloom is to be found. Dominating the city from its perch just above the seafront, the first-century Arena is as mesmerizing a relic as they come, its sensuous curves and arches set neatly into sloping ground. It was initially designed to hold 22,000 spectators, which gives you some idea of Roman Pula’s size and importance. Nowadays seating 7000, it still serves as the stirring venue for pop-rock concerts, opera, and the annual film festival.

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Veliki Trg (“Grand Square”), Svetvinčenat

Veliki Trg (“Grand Square”), Svetvinčenat

It might be stretching things a bit to squeeze a whole square into our list, but this is the finest example of Renaissance town planning in the whole of Istria. With the walls of the Morosini-Grimani Palace on one side, a handsome row of town houses on the other, and the trefoil façade of the parish church looking on demurely from the wings, it’s the perfect example of what a town square ought to be. Most of the ensemble is sixteenth-century; the later addition of a loggia and a town well provided the icing on the cake.

Hotel Riviera, Pula

Hotel Riviera, Pula

After 1848 Pula became the main military port of the Habsburg Empire, abuzz with the comings and goings of naval officers, shipyard engineers, Austrian civil servants and – increasingly – tourists attracted by the mild climate of the Adriatic coast. Opened in 1909, the Hotel Riviera combined a fashionable mélange of Neo-Baroque, Neo-Renaissance and Neo-Everything styles, a handsome piece of central Vienna trowelled neatly into Istrian soil. Once the haunt of international movie stars attending the Pula Film Festival, it’s currently a rather dowdy and old-fashioned affair – although its redevelopment as a 5-star lap of luxury looks very much on the cards.

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Sveti petar u šumi

Sveti petar u šumi

Definitely worth a stop-off if you are touring inland Istria, the knoll-crowning Pauline abbey of Sveti Petar u Šumi (literally “St Peter-in-the-forest”, the name itself sounds like an invitation to visit) encompasses pretty much everything that's good about monastic architecture. The main church is Baroque, cluttered with all manner of paintings and altarpieces knocked up by artists who were also members of the order. Outside is a sublime Renaissance cloister, with two tiers of colonnades and a sturdy-looking well marking the centre.

Hotel Lone, Rovinj

Hotel Lone, Rovinj

Built right next to the Eden by leading Zagreb architects 3LHD in 2012, the Hotel Lone was intended to function as a total work of art, a showcase of local talent from the light fittings right down to the staff uniforms (the latter designed by edgy Zagreb fashion label I-GLE). A dreamily organic structure with lots of smooth curves, it’s certainly the kind of iconic building that dominates its surroundings. The sheer ambition of the Lone project has inspired others in Rovinj (which is fast become a mecca for students of contemporary architecture), with the similarly organic Hotel Amarin (designed by Split-based Studio UP), and 3LHD’s Grand Hotel Park, proving that corporate leisure architecture can be both ground-breaking and beautiful at the same time.

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Hotel Eden, Rovinj

Hotel Eden, Rovinj

Tourism in Istria dates back at least to the late nineteenth century (and maybe even to Roman times), although it was in the 1960s and 1970s that it became the peninsula’s main industry. Since then it has been the hotel, not the church, the palace or the post office, that has become the dominant architectural statement of the age. Designed by Ivo Bartolić and Miroslav Begović in 1971 this is a perfect example of leisure-driven modernism, its 600 rooms neatly arranged in a series of interlocking concrete planes. Squeezed onto an awkward plot of land, and partly raised on pillars to take account of the sloping ground, it’s a zig-zagging structure with two extended wings, giving it the appearance of a slowly advancing crab. It pretty much sums up everything that Croatian architects wanted to do in the Sixties and Seventies – an identifiably Mediterranean form of modernism that would impress foreign tourists while staying true to local needs.

Pula Post Office

Pula Post Office

Arguably Istria’s one outstanding example of inter-war modernism, this subtly angular building was designed in 1933 by Angiolo Mazzoni, an architect who specialized in railway stations but was frequently on hand to design other public buildings as well. Mazzoni was careful to produce practical buildings that served their purpose but never left out the odd avant-garde detail: note the swirly spiral staircase that ascends from the building’s entrance lobby.

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