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.
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.
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.
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.