In a change to our normal schedule, today’s excursion took place in the morning with our lessons following in the afternoon and early evening. The reason for this was to give us a chance to drop in on the daily food and produce market during our visit to Pula. This was to form a minor part of a fascinating morning in this the largest town in, although strangely not the administrative capital of, Istria.
We were all assembled and ready for the off at 08.30 and a short journey brought us to the waterside in Pula. Our first stop was the amphitheatre, for which the town is famed. It is the sixth most important amphitheatre in the world after Arlès in France, judged by size and condition, and was built to accommodate 23,000 people at a time when the total population of Pula was a mere 5,000 inhabitants. It was clearly the Wembley Stadium of its day, attracting visitors from far and wide, who made the arduous journey by whatever means at their disposal – most likely donkey – to attend the gladiatorial combats taking place within.
Our guide Ljerka brought the whole gladiatorial business vividly to life for us, with the able assistance of two of our fellow students. Mike posed as a rich business man, to whom John had been forced to go cap in hand for a loan due to his fictitious wife’s overspending. Needless to say, this only exacerbated John’s woes and he eventually ended up hopelessly in debt. Mike subsequently sold on this indebtedness to the fictitious Mr Big character of the time, who promptly virtually imprisoned John in his gladiatorial school and trained him up to perform for the baying public in order to work off his debt. As long as he kept performing successfully all was fine but, if misfortune and injury were to befall him, he would be facing a big thumbs down with all its implications. As Ljerka pointedly commented, nothing much has really changed over the years, although at least today’s top sportsmen don’t face a wild boar or bear when they step out into the arena to entertain today’s baying public!
After all the excitements of our own little re-enactment, we descended into the basement of the amphitheatre, where we learned a little about the olive oil production and distribution that used to take place in the area. Once the oil had been produced it was packed into amphorae and was ready to be sent out to its markets far and wide across what was then called Isteria and beyond. What was particularly interesting was to learn about the sophisticated mapping system that existed even then, which depicted not only the towns and roads of the day but also gave a representation of the average daily travel distance likely to be achievable adjusted for the terrain. It did involve carrying a seven metre long scrolled up map about and it may not have had quite the simplicity and user friendliness of the GPS systems we are used to today but it was nevertheless highly sophisticated and impressive for its time.
After all this excitement in the arena, a gentle stroll across town took us through the market overflowing with fresh fish, fruit and vegetables and brought us to an olive oil shop, where we sampled a gold star award winning locally produced oil. A light lunch in the town square brought a fascinating morning to a close and gave us the opportunity to refuel in readiness for our afternoon studies.