Pula is on the peninsula of Istria, where the regional languages are Croatian and, surprisingly, Italian.
During our first week in Bologna, my friend and I discussed the places we wanted to visit and she mentioned Croatia as one of her top five must-sees. I was confused by this choice until she showed me photos of the Dalmatian coast, the crystal-blue water that surrounds Dubrovnik and the white-sand beaches of Pula.
We settled on Pula, booked a bus and found a highly recommended hostel called, simply, Most Hostel. Ambling off the bus, tired, dazed and lugging our suitcases, we were greeted by Skender, the son of our proprietor, Gordana. We spoke with Skender the day before, telling him we would be getting in later in the evening the next day. He insisted on meeting us at the bus station and driving us to our hostel. We crammed in the back of his red, two-door Toyota and, five minutes later, got to Most Hostel.
The hostel is a remodeled apartment filled with bunk beds and matching sheets. There is a living room for guests to sit in and swap stories with one another while lounging on squishy purple armchairs and red couches. Travelers can also pick something off the bookshelf for their upcoming travels, as long as they also leave something behind for future visitors.
When we walked into the kitchen, Gordana had just finished making homemade soup for her newest group of travelers. Picture the quintessential aunt, who, when she knows you’re coming to visit, makes your favorite dish and, in return, asks only for pleasant conversation, peppered with jokes and a bit of fun gossip. Now, think of a typical grandmother, always greeting her children and grandchildren with smiles and chocolate chip cookies, and sits with cup of coffee in hand. She tells them all about her life and the rest of the family while they gobble down cookies and she smiles contently.Mix the two together and you have Gordana.
As I inhaled my soup, Gordana said she would be by the next morning at 10 AM with banana bread and Turkish coffee and was looking forward to a light morning chat with the girls. Our eyes lit up. The reviews about Most Hostel raved about Gordana’s banana bread and it had been a major conversation piece during our bus ride from Italy.
The next morning, true to her word, Gordana brought banana bread and made us Turkish coffee. I’ll just say this: the reviews were dead-on about the banana bread. We sat and chatted about her life, how she had lived in Chicago for fifteen years with Skender and her daughter. Skender had attended Berklee School of Music, and now lives in Pula and works at the hostel and at a local music shop.
When we told Gordana that we were thinking about heading to the market and then the beach, she pulled out a map and went about circling several beaches as well as making a big X over the hostel location. She went on to make even more suggestions about what to do the next day, where and what to eat. She even offered to call the bus station and make us ticket reservations for our return to Italy.
The ravings about Most Hostel and its proprietor were right, and I am still blown away by Gordana’s and Skender’s hospitality. Their kindness was reflected throughout the entire city, epecially when vendors found out we spoke Italian.
Another Croatian surprise: we found out quickly that Italian is much more popular in Pula than English.
Pula is on the peninsula of Istria, where the regional languages are Croatian and, surprisingly, Italian. But I guess it made sense. The city is blanketed in Roman ruins that pinpoint the historic influence of the Roman Empire. Italian became an official language of Istria in 1919 after World War I and the dissolving of the Austria-Hungary Empire. Under the reign of Benito Mussolini, Istria suffered forced Italianization and cultural suppression until 1947, when it was taken under the wing of Yugoslavia. It became an official part of Croatia after the break-up of Yugoslavia in 1991.
When it was finally time to leave, I found myself reluctant. I had grown fond of Istria. Its people, its food and its history made it a truly unique and wonderful region that I was unsure I would ever get to see again.
I still sometimes think about Skender, Gordana and the fruit vendor who, every time we passed, would yell out, “Ciao Bologna!!” and offer us a sample of plump cherries, dried figs and strawberries the size of tiny melons. I think about their kindness, their cheerful dispositions and their lives under the sunshine and on the white sand beaches of Pula. I think about how they smile and realize that while they are not the richest country, they are certainly one of the happiest. I think about the fact that when someone offers to take you on their boat for the day, it’s not a scam; you don’t need to worry about being taken advantage of, especially after you see the proprietor’s son come up and give that same guy a hug and pat on the back.
Pula turned out to be a pleasant and unexpected surprise. If you ever get the chance to travel to Croatia I definitely recommend Pula, if not for the beaches and scenery, then definitely for Gordana’s hospitality and banana bread.