It’s only three hours from Trieste to Pola, or Pula as it has been called since it became part of Croatia, but very exciting as you have to pass several borders to get there. The journey promptly takes you to the border of Slovenia, which you have to spend some 20 minutes traversing, before you emerge into Croatia. All in the space of a few hours, I personally think that’s fun! As we passed through the Slovenian countryside it looked both peaceful and beautiful. It is yet another country which I wish to explore, but it will not be on this trip.
Now let me tell you a little about Pula. It is a town on the Istrian coastline that has changed its “identity” many times. When my grandfather was born in 1889 it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, when my father was born in 1936 it was Italy, after the Second World War it became Yugoslavia and it is now part of Croatia. The language and the people who live there now are as varied as its past. It is a place where Italian and English are also spoken and understood. It is a place where Istrian as a dialect is also spoken. Amongst the older peoples the dialect is a mixture of Croatian and Italian, with the greater component being Italian. The younger generation also speak a form of the Istrian dialect, but as they were brought up with Croatian and not Italian, they have a larger component of Croatian, and less Italian.
Pula is a fascinating place and a little hard to describe, yet the people are helpful, friendly and always willing to lend a hand. I spent a few days more than I planned here, partly because I had a quest to fulfill and partly because I fell in love with it!
We were learning quickly that Europe really was considerably more expensive than anywhere we had been thus far. We thought that Pula, being in Croatia, would be a little less so, but we found this not to be the case. Croatia is becoming the place to be amongst the European glitterati, and thus hordes of Europeans as well as others are following suit. Thus…..prices rocket starwards! We managed to find a room in the house of a helpful and friendly lady who literally lives in the heart of the city, and we were only half a block away from Pula’s star attractian, its remarkably well preserved Roman amphitheatre.
The search for Dad’s childhood home began as soon as we arrived. I mentally reviewed the little information that I had: When Dad lived there the street he had lived and been brought up in was called Michelangelo Buonarotti, but this would have changed, as it was now Croatia. Dad had also mentioned many times that he could see both the amphitheatre and “a church” from where he lived. I did not have a lot to go with, but my resolve was steadfast, as was my determination! I asked Alex if he was prepared to take this quest on, as I felt, in my heart, that finding Dad’s place was as important for me as it was for him. Needless to say, as my rock and my faith, Alex was behind me all the way! Dad has recalled the horrors of the war many a time, but how could someone such as myself , raised, fed and educated in Australia, ever really understand. I was about to get a sliver of an insight!
I started by asking Aida, whose home we were staying in, if she had ever heard of Michelangelo Buonarotti Street. I explained why I wanted to know, as well as imparting the little information that I had. The only information that she could give me was that the names had changed several times. Not a lot to go with really. Alex has an outstanding sixth sense (definitely my Ecuadorian shaman!) and so he made us take a road that went somewhere behind the amphithetre, up on the hill. He deduced that if Dad could see the amphitheatre , the house had to have been somewhere up on a slope. We knew it was in the centre, and the centre was not that big…..but big enough! I then decided that we needed to ask an older person, someone who perhaps looked and spoke Italian, in hope that they may remember. So, we wandered the local vicinity and I asked a few people, some spoke Italian and some did not! It was those who spoke Italian, that were the most helpful. Over the course of an hour, we had three people (amongst many others who had no idea) who had given us the same or similar information, that the street which was once Michelangelo Buonarotti, was now called Stancoviceva Ulica, and that we were only streets away from it.
I cannot tell you how I felt. A combination of anxious and excited. Fifty five years down the track, and several country changes later, I was looking for a street and a house on the other side of my own birthplace, yet I did not even know if it still existed! The thought that I may find it left me with a lump in my throat and a flutter in my heart! In a matter of minutes we had found the street. To make things even more difficult, underneath the street name, was another street name, Via Pietro Stancovich, which was the name it had been called even before it was supposedly, Michelangelo Buonarotti! We figured that the house numbers must have also changed since 1936, but we made our way to number 33. We were surprisingly close!
Upon arrival, we realised that if this is the place where Dad had lived that it had been knocked down, as a new and modern house now stood in its place. What was I supposed to do, look at it and walk away? I decided to ring the doorbell, and see if I could extract more information from the owners. No one home. There was a cafe bar across the road, our next port of call. I chatted to a sailor there, some of the bar staff, as well as some locals. Although helpful and wanting to be of assistance, they seemed to think that I was off track. Had I hit a dead end? Did I walk away wondering, ” Was that enough¨?
Not sure quite what to do, we decided to do a bit of sightseeing – see the marvellous colosseum, walk the city centre, have some (great!!) coffee and ice cream. As destiny would have it, we would later walk past the “Communita Degli Italiani in Pola” (The Community of Italians in Pola), also in the city centre, and it was Alex that suggested that I go in and ask them a few questions! After all they were Italians, and surely they could impart some information!
As we walked up the stairs, I was confronted with a group of 60 and 70 something year old men drinking beer and coffee. My heart skipped a beat! I felt that this was the place I would get the much needed information I was looking for! Well, at least some of it! Before I knew it I was surrounded by a group of Italian men, telling my story. Within seconds a murmur erupted which crescendoed into a fully fledged discussion about where Michelangelo Buonarotti Street could and could not have been and been! It was the typical Italian scenario! Animated voices, hand gestures and the calling of names, “ Ma non sei stupido (but don’t be stupid) it’s not there……all in light –hearted jest, of course. Alex was quite amused! Out of the corner of my eye, I could see another man on a mobile, who kept waving at me and saying, “Aspetta, aspetta!” (wait, wait). He came over and told me that he had confirmed that Michelangelo Buonarotti was indeed Stankoviceva Ulica, but agreed that finding number 33 would be like locating the Holy Grail. We took some pictures together, and I thanked them immensely! This appeared as close as I was going to get! I had the street, but how could I possibly ever know if the number was correct. I still planned on visiting the current owners of the house later that night!
Again, call it destiny, coincidence or whatever you will, but before we knew it we had been given another huge helping hand. Whilst we visited the ancient Roman temple of Augustus, I rattled my story off to the woman who worked there. Within minutes, she told me that her husband, who happened to be an archaelogist, happened to be outside, and that he may have some information. I chatted to Darko, and he insisted that I go to the Town Hall, across the road tomorrow, on opening, and see if I was able to get some old street maps. He could promise nothing but said that I had nothing to lose! He was right!
We had found a coffee, ice-cream and breakfast pit stop just near the place we were staying called Fortuna. Besides the wonderful things that mum Jilla made, the whole family proved to be warm and inviting, from Lirim (the Dad) and their two sons, Gazmend and Arton. We especially spent a lot of time chatting with Lirim and Arton. Needless to stay, we visited frequently whilst we were in Pula. One morning I had been talking to Alex and crying over part of an e-mail Dad had recently sent me. When Arton came to place my coffee on the table, he asked me if I was OK. I assured him that all was well, and that I was a little emotional rather than angry or upset. I told him about the e-mail that my Dad had just sent. I would like to share some of this with you:
¨How did your trip to Pola go ? Did you find the house that I was born in 71 years ago ? Had I been there I would have freaked out big time , I still think of the old place where I spent a lot of happy times….but let’s blame the war , that took everything away….but on the other hand I would have never met mum and most important I would have not had you or your brother….and that is the most important thing in my life ….nothing else matters.¨
I explained that the whole idea of war simply broke and tore my heart ! It tears so many families apart, and kills and maims so many others. Yet, Dad’s e-mail shows that there are many uncanny and inexplicable twists of fate, in what is the game of roulette that we call life!
We did go back and see the folk at “no 33 Michelangelo Buonarotti”. As we approached the house, we saw a couple of men in the back yard. We soon introduced ourselves, and told our story yet another time, and they introduced themselves as Iviza, and his father-in-law, Vito. We chatted for a while, and again, they were such lovely people. They could not, however, give us an indication as to whether we had our finger on the pulse, or if we were right off target! Were we going in square circles?
We finally made it to the Town Hall, and went to the appropriate department. Again (thank you destiny!!!) we had a fantastic lady help us called Milka. I gave her all the information that I had, and she told me that she would do all that she could to help me. She asked us to come back in half an hour, which we did. She told us that…….Stankoviceva Ulica was NOT the street that had been Michelangelo Buonarotti. What a let down! The street we needed was actually very close by, however, and was called Varazdinska Ulica. She told me that finding the exact number would be more difficult, as I would have to go through a court or tribunal to get the information, and that it would take considerably more time. Milka gave me her details, however, and told me that if she could be of more assistance, that she would love to help. I felt a little bit disillusioned, as I really felt that we had been on the right track. So, we made our way toward Varazdinska Ulica, and looked for number 33……….and as destiny would have it, yet again, we found ourselves at EXACTLY the same point as number 33 Stankoviceva Ulica! Two different streets, one running perpendicular to the other, same point! I sighed a deep, but happy sigh, a sigh of achievement. I felt that this was going to be as close as I was going to get.
So Dad, if this was not the place where your house had once stood, both Alex and I felt in our hearts that we had walked past it, or at least been very, very close! The only and final piece of the jigsaw missing may require you to be here! Never say never! We saw with our own eyes and felt with our own hearts that here in Pola, destiny was not taking no for an answer!
We visited many other places in Pola, including the impressive Archaelogical Museum and the 17th Century Venetian Citadel. This is perched up high on a hill in the centre of town, and the views are outstanding. I have truly run out of synonyms for impressive views, as we have been so fortunate to see so many of them in the last 10 months! There was a tiny museum at the citadel that included an exhibition on the men who worked in the arsenal around about the time of the Second World War, which would have included my grandfather, Domenico Zanetti. I scanned the photos for a recogniseable face……..history is impressive, but also sad! As I looked at those photos, I wondered about all the things I did not know about my family and ancestors.
Our last day in Pola was spent walking along its spectacular coastline, and taking in the spectacular Adriatic coastline. The rocky, wooded peninsulas drop in to water so clear that you can make out the different multi-colored hues of the sand that lies beneath. We bathed and sunbaked in the waters of Stoja, and felt like we had found yet another paradise! Did you swim here Dad? We had heard how touristy and resort-like Verudela, 3 kilometres up the road had become, but felt like we still needed to see it. Not because it’s where the glitterati come, but because Nadia had told me that Dad used to swim here. Did you Dad? Because if you did, boy has it changed! The views are still striking, but it is full of resorts and summer accomodation. As Alex would have once said, It’s just not my cup of coffee!”. Spot on! Too touristy! And my guess is that in the throes of summer the throngs must be akin to those at a rock concert! Next!
We felt that we had done everything that we needed and wanted to do in Pola. Next would be visiting Venice on our way to visiting my great friend Irma, and her family, in Florence. We knew that it would be horrendously expensive (it is the most expensive city in Italy), and despite the fact that only two nights prior we had spent four hours on the internet looking for accomodation to no avail…….we decided to go! I mean, how can you come to Italy and NOT see Venice ? You can’t! We were up against taking a 5.00am bus, which from Pola was the only one which would take us directly to Venice, without having to stop, and transfer in Trieste.
Venice, here we come! With or without accomodation!
Dedication: I dedicate this blog to my father and friend, Dino Zanetti, who dedicated his life to my late mother Adiga, and who continues to unselfishly dedicate himself to my brother, myself , Karen, Alex and James. To an amazing human being who does not give himself nearly enough credit. If I could only give 10% as unselfishly as he has! Your family is “small” Dad, but the love we all have for you is enormous! It is about quality, not quantity! I love you very much!
“In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” – Desiderius Erasmus
(Photos: 1.- Ombi infront of the colosseum, her first encounter with her Istrian past.
2.- Beautiful Pula, as seen from the top of the ancient Venetian Citadel; the lightning makes the city look all the more majestic. 3.- The 1st century Roman Colesseum, with the church, St Anthony of Padua in the background. 4.- Sherlock Ombi; one of the first people I spoke to in my bid to extract some information. 5.- Is this the house? The pink one is currently number 33, in the street that was possibly once Michelangelo Buonarotti. 6.- Ombi looking for the street, the house and trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together. 7.- Ombi with “the boys” from the Community of Italians in Pola. 8.- Roman Temple of Augustus, Pula city center. Chatting with Darko and extracting some more information 9.- In Cafe Fortuna with (L to R):Lirim, Jilla, Alex and Arton. 10.- Ombi & the guys at the current number 33, on the once Michelangelo Buonarotti Street. 11.- Milka & Ombi in the offices of the Municipal Town Hall, holding a photocopy of an old map. 12.- Did we find the house? Ombi looking forward to finding the very last piece of the puzzle… next time with Dad of course! 13.- Ombi on the beach at Stoja, Adriatic Coast, Pula. 14. “Thinking”, Stoja Beach. 15.- Another view of the sea taken from near Stoja.)