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The Croatian island of Cres: a short hike in a small paradise

(This article was published in London Times on January 26, 2013)
http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/travel/holidays/beach/article3667051.ece

Nicholas Roe
Last updated at 12:01AM, January 26 2013

cres_harborIt took about 50 seconds to fall in love with the Croatian island of Cres. We left our tiny hotel on the first morning in the remote mountain village of Beli after a sunny patio breakfast, turned left and walked a few steps until we spotted a green trail sign daubed on a low limestone wall at the lane’s edge. We followed the arrow…

Behind and far below us, sea views drifted into dark blue Adriatic distance sliced by mainland mountains and the white furrows of isolated sailing boats. In front, rising cobbles and fallen walls led through spacious forests filled with oak and hornbeam and the remains of decayed villages and lichen-covered rock in an end-of-world silence disturbed by bee-song. Herbs scented the air. It was warm. The path was clear. Patches of sunlight cut dashes in the trees. After the fuss of getting here — the flight, drive, ferry and the “where are we?” questions — this was as near perfect as it was possible to imagine. And so we embraced an island that is, or should be, a small but significant footnote in the unwritten book on the planet’s finest walking areas.

Cres is not the Grand Canyon, the Alps or even a noted heritage site. It’s just a bony little agricultural island stuck 20 minutes offshore in the middle of Croatian nowhere. Yet the combination of its easy charms made an impact on us that was both instant and enduring: a mixture of moderately challenging and varied trails; small, uncrowded swimming coves; reserved but friendly people; and a backdrop of sea panoramas that caused us to stop and just stand and gape, time after time. It was September, so the main island rush of Italians and Germans had drifted off with the death of August, as had the fiercer heat. We flew to little Pula Airport, an hour away on the mainland, drove to the tiny ferry port of Brestova and 20 minutes later began a week devoted to walking and swimming. A simple plan: work up a sweat in the morning, wash it off on quiet beaches every afternoon. Just flop.

cres_city_viewBeli lies at the very end of a twisty, one-track mountain lane in the island’s far north, and our hotel, Pansion Tramontana, lay just outside the village itself, right next to a griffon vulture sanctuary, so our morning view was of blue sea, tiny stone houses clustered on top of the next hill… and vultures. The silence was complete, the hotel friendly and well-run. It was also at the centre of seven well-marked forest walks, all starting within 50 metres of the front door. These we plundered day after day.

It was almost dreamlike. These two-to-four hour trails were once used to access small farming villages amid the trees where shepherds tended valuable Cres sheep. But the introduction of wild boar for hunting helped destroy the flocks. The villages emptied and the stone walls crumbled, so when you walk the woods nowadays you encounter ghostly ruins and marks of old lives. It was atmospheric and intriguing, and when we emerged back out of the tree line after each hike to rediscover the vast Adriatic, we were stunned by the light and colour waiting to pounce.

This is a rugged island, its 3,500 people living mostly in small villages. Its one main town, also called Cres, just 30 minutes from our hotel, proved exquisitely beautiful, a lovely place to swim and buy food. We took sheep’s cheese and tomato picnics on our walks and each afternoon slumped on stony beaches, sometimes ours alone, where we swam and read and dozed. Evenings found us back on the hotel patio where the waiter would say, “The wine jug spills … pour quick.” Which we did.

cres__beachSometimes we explored walks elsewhere on the island, including coastal paths north of Cres town and further south by the sweetly simple village of Valun, where the two beaches are perhaps the best of all. These walks were all way marked, and we found them by using Cres Adventure Map (about £3 from tourist offices in Cres) written by a local fireman, Marin Ruspic, whom we met. He told us with some pride, “We have so much nature here. The island is good for walking and cycling and much more.” Almost everyone we met spoke some English.

Once, we lunched off sardines cooked harbourside in Cres town — £3 a portion, a smile from the woman in the booth. Once we got lost in the woods; it didn’t matter. Often we were entranced by vultures soaring on high winds.

There was one bad bit. The wind got up at dawn on the last day and they cancelled our ferry so we missed our flight and had to drive to a new airport. It was all fixed by mobile as we drove, though, and the joy of the week held up against the worry of what to do about the hire car and so on. We talked about walks and beaches and friendly people; and soaring birds and forest views. It was fine, flying back. We were happy.

Need to know
For more information on the Kvarner County Tourist Board, visit their website