The Station Master – Pula: Trains Lost In Transit (Traveling the Croatian Coast #24)

The heat and humidity that beset Pula during the hottest summer on record in Europe was draining. At times it felt like the sun was so close that you could reach out and touch it. My skin melted, my forehead emitted puddles of perspiration and the shirt I had on stuck to my skin. A article of clothing was turn into a wet blanket within a matter of minutes. Each day we stayed in Pula, my wife and I would retire to our accommodation in the mid-afternoon soaked with sweat and blissfully breathe in the air conditioning that stopped our suffering. One early evening, my wife decided the day’s activities had drained her of the will to pursue any further adventures. She would stay behind while I ventured forth once more into the malarial heat in search of Pula’s train station. This journey was undertaken not in the search for train tickets, nor to check timetables. I wanted to visit Pula’s Train Station to feed an addiction.

There was good reason for my journey on foot to the station. We would not be taking a train this entire trip which was a first for us while traveling in Europe. I must admit that this really bothered me. Night after night, I would search in vain to find whether we could take a train rather than a bus on our travel route. And without fail, the bus was cheaper, faster and in most cases the only option. This filled me with sadness. After all, what is a European trip without train travel? It is not the same. I do not know how many hours I sat in a bus seat staring out at the Adriatic Sea dreaming of how much more pleasant this would be if I was on a train. I imagined the possibilities of a railway hugging the coastline while passengers were awestruck by one spectacular seascape after another. I also knew why a coastal railway was never built in Croatia. Building roads was hard enough along rugged stretches of coastline without constructing railways hanging on a razor’s edge. I decided the only way to get a train fix on this trip would be to visit a railway station.  

Waiting on a train – Pula Railway Station

Footing The Thrill – Wrong Side Of The Tracks
Pula’s train station was a long walk from the city center. Ironically, it would have been much better and quicker to take a train to the station, if only one had been available. In those halcyon days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire a tram connected the city center to Pula’s train station. That option had vanished into history. I was left with only two alternatives, either go there on foot or by bus. The last thing I wanted to do was take a bus to the station. That would have been tantamount to heresy. Thus, I began to walk towards the waterfront and from there, made me way around the Bay of Pula. The sun was beginning to sink on the western horizon, progressively dissipating the heat and making my journey on foot much more tolerable than I had originally imagined.

The station was situated not far from a stretch of the bay that was beautiful in the setting sunlight. Unfortunately, between the two was a stretch of highway. There was also an ugly fence and multiple sets of train tracks to navigate. I would have to cross all of these to visit the station. My only other option would be to backtrack and take a side street that had the aesthetic appeal of a vacant lot. I stuck with my original route which meant I would have to disobey signage that warned pedestrians not to cross the train tracks. I wondered if this was a joke because I did not see a single train the entire time walking to or from the station. There was not even an old boxcar to be found on an anonymous siding. All was quiet on the Pula railroad front.

Setting sail – Boats on the Bay of Pula

Frontal Assault – Stepping Over The Line
Going to the station was a way of feeding my addiction to train travel. It was one of my first loves in Eastern Europe. Even if everything else fell apart on a trip, I could always count on another train coming down the line. The stations and platforms always welcomed me with open arms, that was until I tried to visit the one in Pula. The truth was that I needed to at least weigh the limited options for train travel from Pula in the desperate hope that at least one railway journey might still be possible. I made my way to the station by darting across the multiple lines of track, ignoring the posted rules. I was making a frontal assault on the bright red railway station. The closer I got, the more I expected a station master to fling the doors wide open, come onto the platform and order me to abandon my route. Nothing of the sort happened.

There was complete silence and vacancy around the station except for a lone woman who was wandering around the platform. Soon I was doing the same. I tried the station doors, but they were locked. According to the posted timetable, another train would not arrive for several hours. It was strange to see such a well kept station devoid of personnel and passengers on a Saturday evening. And yet despite its abandonment the station looked the picture of refinement. Potted plants hung above the platform. Judging by the paint job, the station looked like it had been restored just a few years before. Except for some random graffiti scarring the walls, the station was inviting. Unfortunately, It was all dressed up with nowhere to go.

Frontal Assault – Pula Railway Station

Taking Leave – The Past Reimagined
Pula’s railway station has a rather exalted history. It was the final stop to be completed on the Istrian railway in 1876. Two years later, the 1.3 kilometer stretch of track that still runs today across part of the Bay of Pula to the island of Uljanek was completed. The bustling shipyard on the island brought a rapid increase of the freight tonnage which passed through the station. That stretch of track remains the only one in Croatia where an island is connected by railway with the mainland. All the other islands are accessed by ferries or by bridge with automobiles. This lack of rolling stock to Croatia’s islands was the reason bus travel remains the predominant mode of travel all along the coastal areas.

I was delighted to find that Pula still had a working railway station even if there was no train to our next destination in Rijeka. Standing on the platform of the colorful station with a view of the slowly setting sun shining off the sea in the distance, the moment was intensely romantic. It was easy to imagine arriving here at the turn of the 20th century. The station would have bustled with traffic. Women in flowery dresses, soldiers in colorful fatigues, men in suits, railway personnel in their smartest uniforms. The station was a throwback to an earlier era in Pula, one that no longer existed except on picture postcards and in the tattered pages of history books. The only journey the station offered to me on this evening was one into the past. I didn’t need a ticket, just my imagination.


Reaching Across The Divide – Pula: Fort San Michael (Traveling Along The Croatian Coastline #23)

It is always 1914 somewhere deep in my heart. I cannot escape from the fatal attraction of Austria-Hungary on the verge of world war. It pulled me out of the city center of Pula and into a neighborhood where I found new meaning in the phrase “fortress mentality.”

When searching for which Austro-Hungarian fort in Pula to visit I was spoiled for choice. My only limitation was that I would have to go there by public transport or on foot. Several of the old fortifications were exceedingly popular. There was Fort Verdelua which had a checkered history before being adapted for modern usage. After Austria-Hungary’s collapse, the fort had fallen into the hands of Italy’s interwar fascist state. When the Italians capitulated during World War II, the Germans took over the fort. Later, the fort was given to the city by the Yugoslav military. Everything from a hair salon to a dance club was housed in the structure. Its best and most famous use is one that continues today, an aquarium.

The latter put me off making a visit because I was looking for something more rugged and less refined. In my experience, any fortress that has been given a makeover is the very opposite of the history it purports to interpret. Historically, hundreds of men would have been stationed inside the fort at any one time. It is not hard to imagine the lack of cleanliness, the boozing, the thousands of cigarettes smoked each day and the eternal fight against boredom rather than a foreign foe. I wanted to see something gritty that felt real. A fort that was closer to the lived experience of those sequestered within concrete walls waiting for an attack that would never come.

The home front – Fort San Michael

Sparing No Expense – Fortifying Pula
One of the better area fortresses was Punto Christo, a hulking ruin that helped guard the entrance to the bay in which Pula is located. It purportedly offered incredible views of the Adriatic as well as of Pula.  The only problem was that it did not open until 5:00 p.m. Buses only ran infrequently to the area. I did not fancy the idea of a long walk back to Pula as night fell. Sure, it would be beautiful, but also exhausting. Furthermore, by the later afternoon I was usually resting after a day spent traveling around the city. Thus, I searched for one of the fortresses nearer the city center. Surprisingly there were several within walking distance. Finding multiple fortresses still extant was a byproduct of the overkill mentality that informed the pre-World War One military buildup. No expense was too great for a perpetually insecure empire. For military history buffs, this offers endless opportunities, Nonetheless, the fortresses were something of a boondoggle that cost much more than they would ever be worth.

In retrospect, it is easy to see all the fortresses around Pula as a colossal waste of money and human effort. Of course, when they were constructed no one knew that the Adriatic would play a minor role in the war. Furthermore, in the late 19th and early 20th century, no one knew Austria-Hungary would end up losing a war that was fought much differently than military planners imagined. Keeping thousands of soldiers tied down in fortresses was a bad strategy. At one point the Pula fortresses were home to 51,000 soldiers and 1,400 officers during the war. In effect, the fortresses were concrete hotels with few amenities. They imprisoned their own side, keeping troops which were badly needed on the Balkan and Eastern fronts. The soldiers spent days, weeks, months, and years waiting for an enemy attack that never materialized. Their duty was to drill, drink and engage themselves in various acts of debauchery.

Besieged – Construction equipment outside the entrance to Fort San Michael

Waiting Game – The Forgotten Front
The soldiers fought a war against boredom. It is said that idle time is the devil’s best friend. If that is true, then those soldier’s stationed in Pula had a hellish time. While they never had to suffer a major attack, they also could be prone to illness or mutiny. The soldier’s presence acted as the greatest deterrent to an enemy attack. The threat of having to run a gauntlet of steel and shell was too much for most armies. Enemy forces figured out that the risk of casualties was not worth the reward of occupying Pula. The lack of attack also had an intended consequence with the fortresses suffering little wartime damage. As I saw for myself, it was time and neglect since the war ended that had done the most damage. This was certainly true at Fort San Michael

Fort San Michael was easy to find. A brisk 15 minute walk from the city center brought me to a construction site. Much of the area was cordoned off by yellow caution tape due to work being done on some sort of new facility under construction close to the ruined fort. The fort was located very close to Pula’s city hospital. Just how close became apparent when I learned that up until a few years ago, the hospital had been using it as a storage facility. The fort did not look to be in use by the hospital at the time of my visit. At first, I thought this was a stroke of luck, as I would be able to roam around the premises without worrying about being sent away for trespassing. My opinion began to change the closer I got to the concrete structure.

The circular fort looked like a strange, early 20th century adaptation of a spaceship. In a sense it was. The fort had been part of a war of the worlds. One that had taken place between aristocracy and democracy, capitalism and communism, Old and New Europe. The war was more horrific than anything H.G. Wells could ever have imagined because it was real. The carnage and calamity that took place from 1914 – 18 was beyond the imagination, it had to be experienced to be believed. Duty at the fortress was a life sentence rather than a death sentence. It saved many soldier’s lives by keeping them away from the warfront. Conversely, it resigned them to years of mind numbing duty.

A century later – Fort San Michael in Pula

The Home Front – Feeling Like Forever
Accessing the fort was out of the question due to its derelict nature and the darkness which could be seen when I looked inside through several of the openings. I found it difficult to get close to the fort without fighting through a jungle of brush. Within minutes I was pouring sweat. This felt more like an expedition into the wilds of a sub-tropical region, than it did a field trip to a fortress constructed at the behest of Austria-Hungary. The trouble I had wading through thickets of brambles, small trees and tangled vines was worth it. I got to reach out and touch history when I placed my hand against the Fort San Michael’s concrete outer wall. This wall was not unlike the one I had visited at the Austro-Hungarian fortress in Przemysl. Neither of these fortresses could protect the empire from collapse.

This was the home front in the truest sense of the word. Soldiers were housed here from 1914- 1918, but it must have felt like forever. Time had a different meaning at Fort San Michael, for those stationed here it expanded. For visitors like myself, time retracted. The divide between 1914 and 2021 no longer existed. The fortress lived on, its inhabitants had long since died. The war was a distance, fleeting memory, but one that Fort San Michael kept alive. World War I was finally within my reach, at Fort San Michael I reached out and touched it.

Click here for: The Station Master – Pula: Trains Lost In Transit (Traveling the Croatian Coast #24)

Navel Gazing – Pula: Austria-Hungary By The Sea (Traveling The Croatian Coastline #22)

The more time I spent in Pula, the more I came to understand just how much the Austro-Hungarian naval presence transformed the city and surrounding area. Pula was little more than a small, sleepy coastal town by the early 19th century. It had been reduced over the centuries to a malarial fishing village with some fascinating Roman ruins and an old Venetian fortress that had fallen into disrepair. There was not much else to recommend it. At least not to those with a civilian background. On the other hand, its natural harbor and protective landforms piqued the interests of Austro-Hungarian military planners. That interest led to its selection as the empire’s main naval base.

The military developments in Pula (known as Pola in Austria-Hungary) over a fifty year period leading right up to the First World War took place with breathtaking speed.  From 1905 -1914 the Austro-Hungarian Navy’s budget averaged 100 million crowns per year. In effect, a grand total of one billion crowns were expended to develop and maintain both the fleet and accompanying defensive capabilities to protect it. A great deal of that money flowed in and out of Pula. The empire was able to develop a modern naval force that would be a formidable foe for their greatest rivals in the Adriatic Sea, Italy. Nonetheless, spending such large sums of money did not help the empire keep pace with the military spending of the other great powers. Austria-Hungary still could not compete with the English, French or German naval forces.

The massive amount of financial resources dedicated to protecting the empire’s naval base at Pula was part of a process that began during the second half of the 19th century. At the time, it seemed worth the cost, especially when the period of perpetual threats to the international order occurred beginning around the turn of the 20th century. The threat of war seemed to be ever present. This was used to justify exorbitant budget appropriations for the military. Pula was among those towns and cities transformed by the military-industrial complex and benefitted disproportionately from defense spending.

Defensiveness – The old Venetian Fortress in Pula

Follow The Money – A Force To Be Reckoned With
It was strange to walk around present day Pula and try to imagine that not so long this was a military town. The city that I visited was a far cry from the heavily militarized community that existed here both before and during the First World War. There was a liveliness and frivolity in Pula that felt anything the opposite of militaristic. Tourism was a big draw and the local administration encouraged foreign visitors. The smallish, seaside city was open to the world. Pula’s openness would have been much more restrained when it was a vital component in the Austro-Hungarian security apparatus. Parts of the empire’s security relied heavily on the naval base. Keeping the Istrian, Croatian Littoral and Dalmatian coastal areas within the empire meant ensuring the navy was able to protect them from enemies both near and far.

The navy was also tasked with providing cover for commerce on the high seas whether in peacetime or at war. Austria-Hungary’s continued viability as a seafaring entity was predicated on their navy. Without one, it would have been at the mercy of other European states who were building both continental and worldwide networks of trade. In an era of increasing globalization, international trade on the high seas was of great importance. By extension, this meant Pula was central to the continued economic vitality of the empire. It could not have been more centrally located for that role. It stood between the empire’s two great port cities, Trieste to the north and Rijeka to the south. This trifecta of cities was a force to be reckoned with along the eastern Adriatic.

The face of naval development in Pula was marked by a steady stream of newcomers. The naval base brought hundreds of thousands of sailors, laborers, and their family members to this small stretch of the Istrian coastline. These were people who would otherwise never have made their way to the Adriatic. Military buildup and industrialization meant good jobs, stable wages and hundreds of thousands of people working in and around the base each year. Pula was the place to be prior to the war.

Getting militant – Naval yard in Pula during the early 20th century

Grandiose & Grotesque – The Militarization Of A Fading Empire
In the waters beneath Pula’s bustling port there are countless artifacts from the Austro-Hungarian Naval presence floating around or embedded in the sea floor. These are the stuff that watery graves are made of. Since I am not a diver and have an aversion to water, there was little hope that I would ever seek out the many buried treasures that are still residing around Pula’s harbor and outlying coastal areas. Though the Austro-Hungarian Navy dissolved at the end of World War I, they left behind enough physical remnants to keep military buffs and artifact hunters busy for generations to come. Anyone looking for the Austro-Hungarian naval presence in Pula would do well to look on the land rather than beneath the roiling waters of the Adriatic. While the empire’s numerous fortifications may have been abandoned, they were not lost to history.

I would have to end up satisfying my appetite for Austro-Hungarian military remnants by seeing what I could find around Pula. I could not have been more pleased when I discovered that the Empire constructed twenty-two separate fortresses to encircle their main naval base and protect it from an enemy attack. Some of these facilities have become parks, including one with a museum and another housing an aquarium. Some are used for special events such as raves, while many others have fallen into ruin. These fortresses offer a window into the grandiose military spending which was a fact of pre-World War I Europe. Visiting one of them confirmed my opinion that while Austria-Hungary may have been a fading empire, it was also a highly militarized one.

The city reimagined – Postcard of Pula in 1904

Protection Racket – Too Close For Comfort
Defending Pula meant taking advantage of its natural terrain. Most of the harbor is protected by surrounding landforms. These landforms made for excellent fortifications. And there was good reason for arming them to the hilt. Pula was too close for comfort from Italy. The two sides were staring each other down across the Adriatic. An Italian attack could occur with very short notice. Thus, military engineers set out to design a series of fortifications that would be able to repel any attack on Pula. The importance of protecting the port can be discerned by the fact that the naval authorities expended an incredible amount of money and manpower to fortify the area. This was a sort of self-sustaining protection racket to make the empire more secure in an increasingly insecure world. World War I would ultimately prove to be its undoing.

Click here for: Reaching Across The Divide – Pula: Fort San Michael (Traveling Along The Croatian Coastline #23)




Dark Destiny – Pula: The Baron Gautsch Tragedy (Traveling The Croatian Coastline #21)

I knew I would find plenty of history as well as tragedy at the Austro-Hungarian Naval Cemetery in Pula. What I did not expect to stumble upon was an historical incident that led to what some say were the first civilian casualties of World War I. Prior to visiting the cemetery I had never heard of the SS Baron Gautsch, a steamship that carried passenger traffic on the Adriatic in the years before World War I. While visiting the Naval Cemetery I learned that some of those who died in the accident were buried on the grounds. These were civilian casualties that I later discovered were due to a series of avoidable human errors. The fact that this incident occurred in the eastern Adriatic Sea is ironic. That is because during the war naval affairs on the Adriatic would be little more than a sideshow. This was not true at the beginning when the Adriatic was front and center in one of the most important events, the shipment of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s body back to Vienna after his assassination in Sarajevo. It went by ship up the Adriatic and came ashore at the port of Trieste.

The seaside, where so many Europeans were enjoying the beautiful weather during what would long be remembered as a last glorious summer, took on a more ominous quality as the prospect of peace dimmed. The gathering storm clouds of war moved from Vienna and Belgrade, Berlin and St. Petersburg, London and Istanbul to the Adriatic, where they cast a shadow over the seaside. It was not long before civilians were trying to return home as fast as possible before war broke out. During this period, when diplomacy was failing in one European capital after another, the Baron Gautsch made a final, fateful journey towards its own dark destiny.

Lost at Sea – The Baron Gautsch on the bottom of the Adriatic

Making Waves – A Controversial Start
There are some ships that seem destined for disaster from the very beginning. The Titanic always comes to mind in this regard. It has become a byword for hubris. The gigantic ship was supposedly unsinkable, but it ended up being unable to complete a single journey. The steamship Baron Gautsch falls into this category. Like the Titanic it was flawed from the outset. The ship was ordered by the Austrian Lloyd company along with two other sister ships. They were to would be used for the Dalmatian Express Line which shuttled passenger traffic from the port of Trieste, up and down the Istrian and Dalmatian coasts. The shipyard in Trieste would normally have built the Baron Gautsch, but it could not fill the order due to other ongoing work.

Instead, the Austrian Lloyd contracted the construction out to Gourlay Brothers Company in Dundee, Scotland. This was where problems with the ship first began. When the Baron Gautsch was delivered to Austrian Lloyd it failed to meet the original specifications of three steam engines. Only one had been installed. The upshot was that the ship could not perform at the level that Austrian Lloyd needed. Modifications to the ship were charged to the Gourlay Brothers causing the firm to go bankrupt. This would not be the last time that the Baron Gautsch was involved in controversy.

Sailing the Adriatic . Austrian Lloyd advertisement promoting the Dalmatian Express Line

Dangerous Waters – Anatomy of a Disaster
In mid-June 1908, the Baron Gautsch made its first journey with passengers. The steamship was able to transport up to 300 passengers at a time, plus accommodate another 64 crewmembers. For the next six years it diligently plied the Adriatic, transporting passengers along the Trieste-Dubrovnik-Kotor route to their preferred destinations. In late July 1914, the Baron Gautsch was pressed into service for the Austro-Hungarian Navy. Steamships were commandeered by the Empire for humanitarian purposes. These included helping ferry passengers who were desperate to get back home with the war breaking out. The steamship made several successful runs over a two week period, it was the final run which proved to be calamitous. On August 12th the Baron Gautsch left Kotor for Trieste. The journey would take place over two days. The ship carried a motley crew of passengers that included vacationers trying to make their way home, refugees from Bosnia and soldiers who were being called back into service. In total, there were 264 passengers and 66 crew members onboard, but there were many more since small children and enlisted soldiers were not counted in the passenger manifest.

In the late morning of August 13th the Baron Gautsch departed from the island of Losinj and began traveling northward on its seven hour journey to Trieste. The ship would soon be entering dangerous waters. Prior to the journey, captains of ships plying the Adriatic had been warned at a conference that the waters around Austria-Hungary’s main naval base at Pula were being mined. The Baron Gautsch’s Captain, Paul Winter was not at the meeting, but a subordinate did attend. The information given at the briefing informed the course that would be taken by the ship. In the light of later events, it would become obvious that the officers commanding the ship failed to heed warnings they had been given. While the ship made its way north, the captain handed over control to his First Officer Josef Luppis. While Captain Winter went back to one of the ship’s cabins and enjoyed the moment with a female friend, First Officer Luppis took it upon himself to hand over control of the steamship over to Second Officer Giuseppe Tenze.

End of the Line – The Baron Gautsch on the Adriatic

Hidden Truths – Casualties of War
Those who did not disappear into the sea were brought for burial at the Naval Cemetery in Pula. The graves can be seen there today. The more I learned about the Baron Gautsch, the more I was reminded of how human folly can lead to unnecessary catastrophes. Indifference, neglect, and dereliction of duty were all ingredients that added up to a recipe for disaster. Those responsible for the death of innocents were never fully punished. Captain Winter and First Officer Luppis were convicted in court, but both would go on to helm other ships for the Austrian Lloyd line after the war. In the culprit’s case, justice was not done. Today, the Baron Gautsch is all but forgotten. The only memory markers are the ship itself, which divers still explore along the sea floor, and the numerous graves in the Naval Cemetery. The latter are a sad reminder of the collateral damage caused by war.

Click here for: Navel Gazing – Pula: Austria-Hungary By The Sea (Traveling The Croatian Coastline #22)




Grave Possibilities – Pula: The Austro-Hungarian Naval Cemetery (Traveling The Croatian Coastline #20b)

To those who assume that visiting a cemetery is a morbid experience, I can only say that I beg to differ. For anyone who loves history, a cemetery can become the ultimate portal to the past, allowing access to people we would have otherwise never known. Headstones contain facts, the basic building blocks of history. They contain names and dates, but also much more than that. The age at which someone died can easily be discerned, causing us to ponder the lives of those who outlived the odds in earlier times or others who were lost before they could experience youth. From names we can tell family histories, ethnicities and sometimes nationalities, from the monuments that have been carefully sculpted and placed in memory we can tell how loved ones wanted their dearly departed to be remembered. And these are just the superficial facts, the aesthetic façade so to speak. Much more intriguing and mysterious are the stories behind each person no matter how important or obscure.

Cemeteries are not the end, instead they are the starting points for future histories. This was my experience in the Austro-Hungarian Naval Cemetery in Pula. The old empire had collapsed a century earlier, the feats of those buried among the cypresses and oaks did not lead to victory, they led to the empire vanishing. A cemetery is very good at conveying loss, the Naval Cemetery in Pula was not just conveying lives that had been lost to history, but also an empire gone forever. At the same time, the cemetery offered innumerable opportunities for discovery. As I walked along the pebble covered pathways. I knew that beneath each headstone was a past I could hardly imagine, a personal history worthy of discovery. Perhaps a tale or tidbit of history could be discerned from all these graves, an inkling about the empire that brought all these men, women, and children together under one standard torn and tattered by a sea breeze. They were tossed and turned on the mighty Adriatic, then washing up on the shores of Pula and staying forever.

Resurfacing – The peeks through at the Austro-Hungarian Naval Cemetery in Pula

Angels & Crosses – Bent, But Not Broken
The most popular graves in the cemetery were relatively easy to find. It did not take me long to locate the one Turkish Admiral buried here. He was one of 12 admirals whose lasting resting place was within the cemetery. That was as it should be since many spent much of their careers serving in the port city, mapping out naval strategy and leading maneuvers. The lucky ones only played at war, those who came later died at it. The multi-national flavor of the naval forces was also visible. One small monument with a glossy, black plaque affixed to a slab of rock was festooned with ribbons of the Hungarian tricolor. The large inscription of the dates 1914 – 1918 on the monument said it all. Hungarians had not forgotten their sons who served on the seas. This act of commemoration was telling as it came from a landlocked country whose naval days were well beyond living memory.

There was the headless statue atop the heartbreaking grave of Cornelie Marie Antoine Ilueber who lived for less than eight months. There were kneeling angels, an angel holding a cross to her breast, standing angels with their hands held out in front of them looking skyward. Irma Roubicek’s grave was harder to overlook than most since it was against one of the cemetery’s boundary walls. The cross atop was bent, but not broken. The ground around her grave was half overgrown. While facing the grave it was impossible not to notice the apartment building looming over and above the cemetery’s boundary wall where the wash on several balconies was hung out to dry. The ground in front of Johann Samanic’s grave was particularly fertile. A half shrub, some lime green weeds and individual sprigs of grass covered most of the plot. I wondered who Samanic was or if there was any way of finding out about his life? The same question arose every time I noticed the name on another headstone.

A singular tragedy – The headstone of Cornelie Marie Antoine Ilueber at the Austro-Hungarian Naval Cemetery in Pula

Natural Metaphors – Shrouded In Ivy
Grey headstones were offset by the greenery of ground cover and trees. A small church stood close to the entrance, an old focal point for services that had long since ceased except perhaps in the case of commemorations.  The chapel had stood up rather well to the elements, the same could not be said for many of the graves which had not. Few were completely derelict, but signs of wear were noticeable on almost every headstone. Those that had been refurbished looked out of place. The cemetery was an outdoor museum, the thousands of headstones acting as artifacts. All were on display except for a few ones shrouded in ivy and particularly haunting. Ivy had engulfed a series of cross shaped headstones. It was impossible to see the lower reaches of these markers, but the upper third managed rose above the foliage. Cloaked and choked by ivy these headstones were almost hidden, but enough of them remained for me to make out what they were. This was a sort of natural metaphor for the afterlife of Austria-Hungary.

Across the old imperial lands, fragments that identified with the empire could still be found. Sometimes these reminders were captivating, at other times enervating, but they left little doubt from where they sprang.  Even with a deep cleaning of the cemetery which had taken place beginning in 1989, the cemetery still looked as though it were on the edge of oblivion. Looking at the graves, it was hard not to wonder what all these people had died for or of? Each of them in some form or fashion had given their lives for something that did not last. Then again, don’t we all give our lives for things that do not last. They had been brought together in life as well as death, united by an empire that had been relegated to the dustbin of history. And now they were the ones left behind as representatives of that empire. This remarkable cemetery was part of the imperial legacy. Unfortunately, when a cemetery becomes part of a legacy, the end is nigh.  

Bent but not broken – Grave of Irma Roubicek

Hearing Voices – Speaking Loudly In Silence
The monuments in the cemetery were weathered and worn down. None of them were on the usual larger than life, imperial scale one might find at famous cemeteries in Budapest or Vienna. If anything, these monuments were understated. On some of them it was hard to make out names or the message meant to be conveyed. Judging by the disparate languages used, multiple ethnic groups seemed to have staked claim to this hallowed ground. The same was true when the empire still existed. The more I thought about it, the more I came to a stunning conclusion. This cemetery was the empire. In all its various guises, in its life and its death, in its decayed grandeur, its tenuous multi-culturalism and quarreling nationalism, its conflicts and contradictions, its sense of duty and its dereliction before, during and after duty was done. The Austro-Hungarian Cemetery in Pula spoke loudly to me without saying a single word. I have a feeling it was the same for those who gave their life for the empire.

Click here for: Dark Destiny – Pula: The Baron Gautsch Tragedy (Traveling The Croatian Coastline #21)


Ascension In The Ranks – Pula: The Austro-Hungarian Naval Cemetery (Traveling The Croatian Coastline #20a)

In 1918, a day before citizens of the collapsing Austro-Hungarian Empire would celebrate the Day of the Dead, one of the empire’s most important military forces died a quick and merciful death in Pula (known as Pola at the time). On October 31st, the empire was in its final death throes. There were no more battles to fight. The only honorable option left for those who commanded the Austro-Hungarian naval forces was surrender to the increasingly untenable situation. The war was lost, and along with it the navy. Thus, Commander in Chief Miklos Horthy had the ensign of the fleet’s flagship lowered for the final time. He placed the folded standard beneath his arm. This act symbolized the final moments of the Imperial Navy. It would now only be found in the pages of history books. The fleet, along with all the empire’s shoreline defenses, arsenals and other naval property was turned over to the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. And just that like an entire navy vanished. For those aboard the old empire’s ships, the war ended or so they thought.

Ascension in the ranks – Graves in the Austro-Hungarian Naval Cemetery in Pula

Bottoming Out –  Sinking Of The SMS Viribus Unitis
Unknown to those who had taken control of the ships in Pula’s harbor, some enemies of the Austro-Hungarian navy were not through fighting the war. On November 1st, two Italian seaman, one of whom was the engineer and naval officer Raeffele Rosetti, sailed into the harbor with a unique weapon. Rosetti along with his compatriot manned one of his inventions, the mignatta. They used this submersible watercraft to place mines on the hull of the SMS Viribus Unitis (means with United Forces). Though the Italians were captured, their mines would successfully detonate a couple of days later, sinking what had been the Austro-Hungarian navy’s first dreadnought (the largest ships used in the war). Estimates state that between 300 to 400 crewmembers died either in the explosion or due to drowning. Another one of the mines would also detonate and sink a nearby Austrian freighter, the Wien. This murderous coda to the naval war in Adriatic caused needless deaths and destruction.

The Italians who had committed the sabotage had no idea that the Austro-Hungarian fleet had surrendered the day before. Their action was an unnecessary and violent spasm in a war filled with them. By successfully carrying out their mission, the Italian duo ensured that the pride of the Austro-Hungarian navy went to the bottom of the Adriatic, along with it went hundreds of the men who had once sailed beneath the ensign of an empire that no longer existed. While the Viribis Unitis was no more, other remnants of the Austro-Hungarian naval forces in Pula would have a much longer legacy. This is the Austro-Hungarian Naval Cemetery which I was able to visit in Pula. It is where those who lost their lives in the attack on the Viribis Unitis were buried with honor along with many others who served in the imperial navy.

Looking back into the past – Austro-Hungarian Naval Cemetery in Pula

A Funereal Finish – Searching Beneath The Surface
The men who gave their lives for Austria-Hungary’s navy came from a wide cross section of the sprawling empire. The multi-cultural nature of the imperial navy was somewhat reflective of the empire’s ethnic diversity, but with a twist. Those ethnic groups who had the most stake in naval affairs dominated the naval ranks. One-third of naval personnel was Croatian, 20% were Hungarian and 16% Austrian. The area inhabited by Croatians had the majority of the empire’s coastline along the Eastern Adriatic Sea. As such, they dominated the lower ranks. Hungary had the port of Fiume (present day Rijeka) under its control and produced many seamen who saw stationed in the city. As for the Austrians, they ran the empire’s largest port facilities at Pula and Trieste. They also made excellent engineers and had a large presence in other mechanically skilled positions. The language of command was German, but every officer was required to be conversant in four languages.

In 1859, Pula was selected as the main naval base of the Empire. Its natural harbor and surrounding landforms provided a highly defensible location which would be relatively easy to fortify. Following its selection as the Imperial Navy’s hub, the growth from town to city proceeded at lightning pace. In the fifty year period from 1860 – 1910 Pula’s population grew from 3,500 to 59,500 people. Because of this growth associated with the navy, it would also need an imperial cemetery where both enlisted men and veterans of the growing force would be buried. In 1862 a sizable parcel of land measuring 4,400 square meters was set aside in what would become the district of Stoja. By the early part of the 20th century, the cemetery had expanded fivefold in size.

An estimated 150,000 people would end up buried within the cemetery’s confines. These included sailors who served in the interwar Italian Navy and Yugoslavs who controlled Pula after World War II. Women and children, whether the family members of enlisted personnel or those involved in naval related fatalities, also were buried in the cemetery. Burials continued long after the empire’s collapse, finally ending in 1960. The cemetery then languished in obscurity. It was neglected for decades as weeds overtook the grounds and many of the graves fell into disrepair. Then in 1990 the Austrian Black Cross and German People’s Association for War Graves thoroughly cleaned it up. Today it is a listed historical site that garners a fair amount of attention from ancestors and curious visitors such as me. I took the time to visit it on an intensely humid Saturday afternoon.

Memento mori – Grave at the Austro-Hungarian Naval Cemtery in Pula

Tragic Circumstances – An Eerie Quiet
Getting to the cemetery was easy. A less than ten minute bus ride from the city center soon had me standing in front of a wrought iron entrance gate at the Kaiserlich und Königlich Marinefriedhof (Imperial and Royal Cemetery of the Navy). Opening the gate and stepping inside, I saw only one other group of visitors, a family of three who I surmised by their conversation in German were visiting the grave of an ancestor. The cemetery did not look as big as I first imagined, considering the size of the grounds. I would learn otherwise as I began strolling around the quiet pathways. The cemetery seemed to expand the further I walked down the paths. There was an eerie quiet about the place. It was just the way one would imagine a military cemetery should be. Reverential and peaceful were the first thoughts that came to my mind. A striking contrast to the tragic circumstances of many of those who were buried here.  

Click here for: Grave Possibilities – Pula: The Austro-Hungarian Naval Cemetery (Traveling The Croatian Coastline #20b)


Residual Riches – Pula: Monumental Roman Discoveries (Traveling the Croatian Coastline #19)

The lasting impression of Pula for an overwhelming majority of visitors is that of the Roman Arena. It is a symbol of imperial might and ancient architecture on a massive scale. Every other historic site in Pula lives within the giant shadow cast by the Arena’s triple tiered, arcaded columns. And that is something of a shame because there are several other Roman architectural antiquities in the city which are well worth seeing. Anyone who decides to take a stroll around the city center will soon discover other ancient architectural works that have managed to survive into the present. These include a Roman temple and several arches. Their survival was no easy feat. To illustrate just how tenuous survival of ancient ruins could be in Pula let us return to the Arena as I did multiple times in my visit. Imagining Pula stripped of its most famous monument takes a leap of the imagination, one that was not beyond the Venetians. The Arena may well have ended up in Venice if not for the objections of a single Venetian senator.

A triumphal entry – Arch of the Sergii in Pula

Coveted For Glory – The Republic of Rapaciousness
The more I learn about the Venetians, the more my rose tinted view of the Most Serene Republic (Serenissima Respublica) gets a reality check. The Venetians were brilliantly opportunistic and incessantly rapacious. That should come as no surprise to anyone who has ever studied empires. While Venice was a republic, they applied the principle of that political appendage only to themselves. Any other kingdom, republic, empire or city-state that got in their way was fair game. The Venetians were cunning and ruthless. They cast their covetous eyes all along the eastern Adriatic coastline looking to serve themselves at the expense of others. This meant practicing realpolitik to suit their self-interest. The Venetians would willingly jump from one side to another if it served their commercial interests. An excellent example of this was their opposition to the Ottoman Turks, only to then begin carrying their cargo for a cut of the proceeds when circumstances changed.

Commercialism was more important than Christianity when it came to Venice’s economic imperatives. The Venetians were masters of playing a wait and see. They waited for their opposition to be weakened by another foe, only for the Venetians to pounce at just the right moment. This was how they dealt with the city of Zadar, to name but one of many examples. Once Pula fell under the sway of Venice the residual riches left behind by the Romans were within the Venetian Republic’s rapacious grasp. This manifested itself in a proposal by the Senate in 1583 for the Arena to be dismantled stone by stone, shipped to Venice and reassembled. The Venetians could then bask in its glory.

As farfetched as this tale seems, one should look no further than St. Mark’s Square to see far flung treasures (Horses of Saint Mark, Portrait of the Four Tetrachs) the Venetians carried back home to enjoy among themselves such as the. Fortunately, a Venetian Senator by the name of Gabrielle Emo opposed the idea of dismantling Pula’s prized possession. The plan was nixed. For his trouble, Emo is remembered in a commemorative plaque at the Arena. Emo’s principled stand did more for modern tourism in Pula than he could ever have imagined. The Arena’s continued residence in Pula has meant that hundred of thousands have come here to see it. Along the way, they might also partake of several other Roman antiquities to be found in the city.

Doubling up – Twin Gates in Pula

Self-Glorification – The Gateway to Greatness
While the Arena gets all the publicity and glamour shots, I had my own personal favorite of Pula’s Roman remnants at the beginning of Serijevaca ulica, the downtown’s main pedestrian street. This was where the Arch of the Sergii can be found. The arch makes quite a statement, especially since it predates all the structures surrounding it by at least 1,800 years. The arch was constructed between 29 – 27 BC in honor of three powerful members of Sergii family. Generations of the Sergiis held some of the highest offices in the Empire through the centuries. They were particularly powerful in Colonia Pietas Iula Pola (the Roman name for Pula).

The arch was an act of self-glorification placed in an extremely prominent position. Its eastern side abutted the city’s Golden Gate, while the arch’s western side is still richly decorated with reliefs. One of the more unique aspects of the gate concerns its commission. It was paid for by Salvia Postuma Sergia whose husband Lucius commanded a Roman legion at the famous Battle of Actium where Emperor Augustus defeated the forces of Marc Antony and Cleopatra. Women’s history in ancient Rome may be an overlooked area of scholarship, but females were making history in those times, just as they have throughout civilization.

A Proper Forum – The Temple of Augustus
The Arch of the Sergii is not the only monument which managed to stand up for ancient history in Pula. The Twin Gates are another Roman work that lead, quite appropriately, to the Archaeological Museum. The gates are two similar arches constructed sometime between the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. They were once a main entry point into the city. Pula’s pulsating heart has moved far beyond these gates, but not beyond the reach of Roman relics. One of modern Pula’s most important public spaces, and where the city’s administration is still carried out today, is the same area where the Roman Forum was located. Not far from the seafront, the Forum was expanded in Roman times by filling in part of this area, reclaiming it for use as part of the ancient city center.

It was in the Forum where several Roman temples once stood. Fortunately, one of these has survived. The Temple of Augustus hovers over the Forum, adding an element of antiquity to one of the most magnetic areas in Pula. The Temple’s resurrection, reconstruction and preservation were not without complications. During World War II, it was struck by a bomb and almost completely obliterated. It took several years to rebuild. The finished product came off splendidly. It is rare to find an intact Roman temple outside of Italy, the Temple of Augustus is one of the few. Its facade of towering Corinthian columns is the very essence of classical design. The Temple and Forum act as a fitting end point for those like me who begin their journey into the heart of Pula’s ancient past from beneath the Arch of the Sergii. 

Building on the past – The Forum in Pula with the Temple of Augustus

Life In The City – Ancient & Justified
The arches and monumental works I have mentioned are not an exhaustive list of the city’s Roman heritage. Instead, these act as a starting point for those looking to familiarize themselves with one of the most exalted periods in the city’s history. Ancient Rome may have vanished from the earth, but fragments of its physical history can still be found around Pula today. On the Friday night when I visited, there was a lively, youthful vibe in the air. Whether those strolling and socializing around the Forum realized it or not, they were standing in the footsteps of ancient Roman ancestors. The past is alive in Pula. It has become an integral part of the city’s life and livelihood.

Click here for: Ascension In The Ranks – Pula: The Austro-Hungarian Naval Cemetery (Traveling The Croatian Coastline #20a)

An Architectural Affirmation – Pula: The Arena (Traveling The Croatian Coastline #18)

Every city needs a symbolic centerpiece. A memorable monument that can be held up as an icon. One of those must-sees that becomes synonymous with the city. In Zadar it is the Sea Organ, in Dubrovnik the City Walls, in Rijeka the Corso and in Spilt Diocletian’s Palace. All these architectural wonders and atmospheric places are well worth taking a trip to visit, but Pula has an attraction that comes first in class, and pardon the poetry, first in past. No one who has ever spent more than a few minutes in Pula can avoid viewing its Roman amphitheater (also known as the Arena).

The Arena commands Pula’s city center. It dwarfs every other attraction in a city full of them. Upon arrival in the city my senses were attuned to a first sighting of this magnificent monstrosity that had come to us from ancient Rome. I did not have to wait long since the Arena was at the midpoint of our journey between the bus station and guest house. The Arena was impossible to miss. It had a magnetic attraction, an overpowering presence that speaks across the ages. I knew that on the other side of the Arena’s arcaded masses of stone, great and terrible events took place. I also knew that only a world historical empire had the manpower and money to build such an architectural affirmation of in a provincial outpost. The power and pride of Pula resided within the Arena.

Luminous Time – The sun rising over the Roman Arena in Pula

Inside The Arena – A Haven Of Hostility
By the early evening on that first day in Pula I was again standing outside the Arena, studying it for a second time. Just looking at the towering edifice, energized by the thought of a visit to it the next morning was enough to keep me enthralled. When that visit became a reality, I found the amphitheater just as impressive from the inside as it was from the outside. The scale of the place was beyond anything I had seen in ancient Roman structures save the Pont Du Gard in southern France. It seemed fitting that the Arena took 95 years before to complete. When the work finished in 68 AD it could seat up to 22,000 people when at capacity. All those Romans would have been baying for blood. The blood of Christians, of prisoners, of gladiators, of wild beasts. It must have been a terrifyingly awesome experience.

The Arena still gets plenty of use and not just as an historic site. The city of Pula manages it to maximum effect. On the day I visited the amphitheater, a huge movie screen was still standing from the night before. The Pula Film Festival had just wrapped up with its final showings. The Arena dwarfed the screen. It was built to hold much bigger spectacles. During Croatia’s historic run in the 2018 World Cup, the final match was shown on a big screen in the Arena. These events add life, a component more museums and historic sites could utilize to greater effect. So much of history is done in silence and confined to sterility. It is the exact opposite of what made these places historic. Most historic places I have visited were lacking in life. Parts of the Arena still suffer from this problem as I learned when I stepped inside.

Cinematic moment – An inside view of the Arena

Staying Alive – The Pursuit of Glory
Visitors are invited to enter the Arena’s bowels to view professionally produced, mildly engaging exhibits. The problem is that these exhibits are static. The Amphitheater’s lowest level is cold, quiet, and reverential. Two thousand years ago it would have been the opposite. Imagine the fear, the pursuit of glory, the saying of final prayers before combat began. Or the trepidation with which a gladiator or Christian approached their entry into the Arena. There would have been countless dreadful moments. Unfortunately, the essential element of human emotion was now missing from the Arena. In a place that was built to intensify drama, there was very little of it to be found inside.

I was surprised to discover that the site had never been given UNESCO/World Heritage Site status. There was good reason for that. The city was unwilling to curb the amphitheater’s modern functions. Tourism is big business in Croatia. Pula’s city authorities know that the Arena is their city’s biggest draw. People will pay for the experience of standing inside and watching a spectacle. The ability to stand shoulder to shoulder with others in a large crowd approximates the amphitheater’s ancient past. This is as close to the Roman world as a modern spectator can ever hope to get. I tried to imagine what the Romans might have thought of staging modern events in one of their greatest works. I suspect they would be proud of how Pula has transformed the space. It is being used with little damage to the existing structure or historical integrity. Today’s dramatic acts no longer include the bloodlust that marked Roman endeavors, but people will still pay to see a peaceful program. This has led to contemporary efforts that have kept the Arena alive.

Still standing – Triple tiered arcades at the Arena in Pula

An Illuminating Moment – At The Gates of Dawn
On my last day in the city, I went out for an early morning walk. As I made my way towards the Arena, a woman suddenly appeared from a side street. She looked to be in her twenties. Her eyes had a weary look in them, her hair was disheveled nor was she wearing any makeup. It was obvious that she had given little thought to her appearance before stepping outside on this warm, summer morning. Either she was returning from a late night of partying or had just rolled straight out of bed? I figured it was the latter. Despite her sleepy eyed appearance, she walked quickly and with purpose. Once in front of the Arena, she stopped and began snapping photos of the Arena. Its stone arcades were beginning to glow as light from the rising sun illuminated them. This was a spectacular sight, one that has been occurring for thousands of years in Pula. It was also a humbling sight, one that I hope keeps repeating itself for many more millenniums to come.

Click here for: Residual Riches – Pula: Monumental Roman Discoveries (Traveling the Croatian Coastline #19)

Window Shopping With Old Money– Opatija (Traveling The Croatian Coastline #17)

Rijeka was supposed to be a teeming, uber industrialized port city. It was all those things, but also much more. My first sight of Rijeka came several kilometers south of the city looking across the Kvarner Gulf. It was a toy town to the naked eye, a sort of urban mirage that mimicked a miniature model. it was as though someone had stacked Legos on a stretch of land fronted by the sea. Rijeka’s towering concrete apartment blocks, the skyscrapers of Titoism, looked like they were part of an overgrown Potemkin village when seen from a distance. A spectacular seascape sidled up to the city, while the Ucka Massif rose in the background. The bus journey down into Rijeka was more akin to a rollercoaster ride than a motorway. The highway looped back on itself at times as the bus attempted to navigate the rugged terrain. Nature’s bounty made me long for an outdoor excursion rather than an urban one.

The beauty of it all – 15 minutes from Rijeka

Rough & Real – Reconsidering Rijeka
I immediately began to wonder why no one ever mentioned the landscape surrounding Rijeka. It was quite an introduction to what was supposedly one of the more industrial cities in Croatia. My perspective changed once our bus arrived in the city, it was as though we had fallen from heaven back into reality. Rijeka was a brash, loud, noisy place. There was none of the languid pace to be found among the masses of rubbernecking tourists in Dubrovnik or Zadar. The idea of strolling was anathema on Rijeka’s sidewalks, everyone was walking with a purpose. Rijekans looked like they were hurrying to an appointment. In other words, this was a working city. I was elated that we would be returning to Rijeka for several days after our visit to Pula. From what little I saw of Rijeka, it was going to make for a fascinating contrast with all the other places we were visiting. Rijeka was not on the tourist circuit, which from the looks of it was quite a shame. The city looked rough, gritty, blue collar and quasi-socialist, the kind of place that did not care what other people thought of it. Indifferent to outsiders’ thoughts, Rijeka was a love or leave it proposition, on this day we were trying to do both.

Rijeka’s bus station left a lot to be desired. It was difficult to even figure out where the station was located. Our bus pulled in to drop off and pick up passengers. The station, if it could be called that, looked like a large parking lot surrounded by congestion. Despite this, I found the bus stop at the station satisfactory. There was a free toilet within a short walking distance of where our bus was parked. Oddly, this toilet was not part of the station. Getting to it required crossing one of the city’s busiest streets. On the way back to the bus, there was a Mlnar, a chain of bakeries that was quickly becoming my favorite for breakfast and lunch on this trip. The stop in Rijeka only lasted 15 minutes, but it was enough to satisfy everyone’s needs. Now the final stretch of our journey to Pula started. We soon left the bustling city behind and were back in the world of Croatian coastal tourism. As a matter of fact, we were about to travel through where it all began.

The Ideal Spot – Villa Amalia in Opatija (Credit: Henry Kellner)

Blinded By The Past – An Opatija State of Mind
Until the mid-19th century, Opatija (Abbazia in Italian) was just another fishing village along the Kvarner Gulf. Little did its inhabitants know that it was on the cusp of a major transformation when Rijeka businessman, Iginio Scarpa constructed the Villa Angiolina as a palatial holiday home for his family. The Villa was also open for use by the many aristocratic acquaintances of Scarpa. In 1882, the villa was purchased by Friedrich Schiller, head of the Southern Railways for Austria. Schiller decided that Opatija would be the perfect place for the upper and middle classes to spend holidays by the seaside. This was at a time when modern tourism was beginning to take hold in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Soon lavish hotels began popping up all over Opatija, many of these still exist today.

I saw several hotels and a plethora of turn of the 20th century villas as the bus slowly made its way through the town. There was a paradisiacal feel to Opatija with its villas, hotels and palm trees closing in on the waterfront. Anyone looking for the glories of Austria-Hungary would do well to start here. Aristocrats and the moneyed class spent their holidays at Opatija. Rubbing shoulders with the famous and frivolous who descended on the town throughout the year. Due to the excellent climate, Opatija was promoted as an escape from the harsh winters that beset Austro-Hungarian lands in Central and Eastern Europe. Unlike so many other fin de siècle places in former imperial lands that I have visited, Opatija still looked to be doing a fine trade. Its many mansions were splashed out in an eye popping array of pastel colors. Sure, there were some of the usual concrete communist constructions blighting the town, but the vibrancy of Opatija was so illuminating that it blinded me to any of the later excesses.

The place to be – Early 20th century advertisement for Abbazia (Opatija)

Finding Love – Romance In The Air
Viewing Opatija from the bus made me feel like I was window shopping with old money. It would not have surprised me to see an archduke or archduchess throw back the shutters from one of the multi storied villas and exhale the history each of those aristocratic inspired confections held within their walls. Emperor Franz Josef and Empress Elisabeth wintered here. So did Crown Prince Rudolph and his wife Stephanie before death pounded the final nail to the ill fated coffin that was their marriage. Long before Archduke Maximillian was shot in Mexico or his wife Carlotta went mad, they were hanging out with the smart aristocratic set in Opatija.

Anton Chekov, a man who knew a great deal about tragedy, also spent time in Opatija. And why not? The weather was good, the women were sophisticated and beautiful, the men well educated and smartly attired. There are very few places from pre-World War One Europe that still give the feel and flavor of the fin de siècle, Optija is one of them. I imagined getting off here and never leaving. Holing up in some grand hotel and writing novels of lost love affairs of those who have come and gone in Opatija. I knew by my love at first sight that romance was still in the air at Opatija.

Click here for: An Architectural Affirmation – Pula: The Arena (Traveling The Croatian Coastline #18)

The Ride Of My Life – Crash Course: Zadar To Pula By Bus (Traveling The Croatian Coastline #16)

A trip along the Croatian Coastline can turn into a test of willpower and endurance. I discovered this the hard way during three long bus journeys that covered almost all the Croatian coastline. It was a sort of road test that took a great deal of mental fitness to endure. I had already suffered the journey from Dubrovnik to Zadar, a nine hour time trial that would have tested the patience of Job. Stoicism was constantly called for to avoid a self-induced version of Balkan road rage.

The next journey proved to be even more taxing, another nine hour stint in an uncomfortable seat that called for a massive summoning of stamina. The Beatles’ song, “The Long and Winding Road” could have been the official anthem of the D8, a stretch of serpentine pavement that snaked its way along spectacular precipices above the eastern Adriatic Sea. This was a no man’s land of jagged rock, scrub vegetation and dramatic seascapes. A journey of terrifying beauty that also induced sickness or sleepiness depending upon one’s disposition. Narrow defiles and one astonishing abyss after another were the norm. The sunlight caused a contrast between the ruinously rocky terrain and the mesmerizing sheen of silver that occurred as sunlight reflected off the sea.

Holding on for dear life – Passenger on the bus from Zadar to Pula

Defying Death – A Willful Suspension of Disbelief
Midway through the journey, I snapped a photo of a gentleman gripping the seat in front of him. His fear was warranted. He must have seen what I was trying to ignore, the driver of our bus had decided to risk everyone’s life by passing another vehicle on a 400 meter section of straight away just before another curve. There is nothing so thrilling and frightening as making a hairpin pass in a death defying manner. Doing it in a bus over which you have no control requires a willful suspension of disbelief. It has the same thrill that I would imagine comes from being shot at without effect. Fortunately, we survived to live through another turn. Helpful does of Dramamine kept motion sickness at bay. Dealing with the danger of the journey was more difficult. I made the mistake of trying to divide my attention between a guidebook and glimpses of the road ahead. I found myself constantly distracted by the rollercoaster ride that threatened at any moment to plunge everyone’s lives into a rocky abyss.

Passenger’s lives were in the hands of a driver who knew none of us. I assumed that self-preservation and a salary would force him to err on the side of caution. He was being paid to shepherd us to safety. Public transport while traveling causes one to put their lives in a stranger’s hand. The only way to keep the faith while keeping fate at a distance is to suspend disbelief and ignore the fact that at any moment one’s life could end through no fault of their own. Danger is an essential element of travel that heightens the experience. Unfortunately, passengers had good reason to be worried. Bus travel in Croatia, for both citizens and tourists can be extremely hazardous to one’s health. In many cases, the bus drivers are not the lone causes of calamity. Hazards of the highway in Croatia are a constant, as they are throughout much of Eastern Europe because drivers insist on taking their own as well as other’s lives into their own hands.

Living on the edge – D8 highway between Zadar and Senj

Fatal Fatigue – Driven To The Edge
A winding road in the Balkans is always cause for concern. The chances of a vehicle crash are much greater than in other parts of Europe. While Croatia has some of the best roads in the region, statistics show that it is one of the most dangerous places for drivers of any European Union country. This was not lost on me as we wove our way along seemingly a series of seemingly unending precipices. Below us the Adriatic crashed into the cliff faces. On several occasions, I imagined our bus crashing down one of these cliff faces after the driver lost concentration for a few seconds. Burying my head in a guidebook, chewing several packs of gum, and distracting myself from the road ahead were ways to handle the stress. Of course, there was the usual rationalization that the number of highway accidents compared to the kilometers covered by Croatian buses made the possibility of an accident quite small. Nonetheless, there was always the chance.

It did not help my mental health during these journeys after I learned about an accident that occurred on a Croatian highway midway through this trip. Well before dawn on Sunday, July 25th a bus traveling through Croatia on a journey from Frankfurt, Germany to Prishtina, Kosovo careened out of control, rolled over, leading to the deaths of ten passengers. Another 44 passengers sustained injuries. The cause of this accident was still undetermined. Driver fatigue was almost certainly a factor, something that has become more likely since the pandemic began. Drivers in Balkan nations have been allowed to circumvent rules that limit the hours they spend on the road and enforcing adequate periods of rest. This was done so essential goods could continue to be transported throughout the region. This only exacerbated an existing problem of roadway accidents across Croatia and the Balkans.

Taking the chance of life – Zadar to Pula Bus

Safety Hazards – Roads To Ruin
On every bus I took in Croatia, two drivers were present for most of the journey. This is a needed safeguard, but not a foolproof one for avoiding deadly accidents. And it is not just bus travelers who need to worry. Anyone on the road in Croatia is at risk. The country ranked fourth highest in the European Union with 63 deaths per million people in the latest statistical analysis of traffic accidents. This was much higher than the European Union average of 42 deaths per million people. While the number of road deaths in Croatia has fallen considerably over the past ten years, there is still a long way to go for Croatia to match the EU average. Fortunately, our journey from Zadar to Pula went safely despite the usual hair raising moments. Copious breaks helped make the journey tolerable. One of which brought us to the town of Senj, a good place to stretch the legs and contemplate a place that historically been more dangerous than any Croatian highway.

Click here for: Window Shopping With Old Money– Opatija (Traveling The Croatian Coastline #17)