The westernmost of the Kvarner islands, CRES and LOŠINJ (really a single island divided by an artificial channel), together make up a narrow sliver of land which begins just south of the Istrian coast and extends most of the way across the Kvarner Gulf. Allegedly the place where Jason and the Argonauts fled with the Golden Fleece, the islands were originally known as the Absyrtides; according to legend, Medea killed her brother Absyrtus here and threw his remains into the sea, where two of his limbs became Cres and Lošinj.
Despite its proximity to the mainland, Cres (pronounced “tsress”) is by far the wilder and more unspoiled of the two islands, boasting a couple of attractively weatherbeaten old settlements in Osor and Cres Town, as well as numerous villages and coves in which modern-day mass tourism has yet to make an impact. The island marks the transition between the lush green vegetation of northern Croatia and the bare karst of the Adriatic, with the deciduous forest and overgrown hedgerows of northern Cres – the so-called Tramuntana – giving way to the increasingly barren sheep-pastures of the south.
Lošinj (pronounced “losheen”) is smaller and more touristed than Cres, with a thick, woolly tree cover that comes as a relief after the obdurate grey-greenness of southern Cres. The island’s main town, Mali Lošinj, is a magnet for holiday-makers from Central Europe, though even here you’ll find a charming old town and port relatively unsullied by concrete mega-developments. Its near-neighbour Veli Lošinj, which lies within walking distance, is smaller and offers more in terms of fishing-village charm – although it too can get crowded in August.Read More
Despite the name (veli means “big”, mali “little”), VELI LOŠINJ is actually a smaller, quieter version of Mali Lošinj, the island’s charming capital and port, a forty-minute walk along a scenic shoreline path via Valeškura Bay. Its warren of pastel-coloured houses is strung tightly around a tiny natural harbour.
You can’t miss the hangar-like Baroque St Anthony’s Church (Crkva svetog Antuna), which contains a fine tempera-on-wood Madonna with Saints (above a side door on the left as you enter) painted by Bartolomeo Vivarini in 1475. Originally commissioned by the Venetian senate, the painting was paraded around Venice every year on the anniversary of the Battle of Lepanto to celebrate the famous naval victory over the Ottomans, until being bought by a Lošinj family shortly after the fall of the Venetian Republic.
The griffon vultures of Cres
The griffon vultures of Cres
The white-headed griffon vulture (bijeloglavi sup) formerly lived all over the Kvarner region, coexisting with a local sheep-farming economy that guaranteed the carrion-eating birds a constant supply of food. With the decline of sheep-rearing in the twentieth century, vulture numbers fell dramatically and communities of the birds are nowadays only found on the northeast coast of Cres and in a few isolated spots on Krk and the mainland. When conservationists first came to the area in the mid-1980s there were 24 pairs of vultures on the island; that number has now risen to about seventy.
Fully grown griffon vultures have a wingspan of 2.5m, live for up to sixty years and can spot a sheep carcass from a distance of 6km. Their nesting area in the cliffs south of Beli is protected by law: it’s forbidden to sail within 50m of the cliffs, as young birds may fall out of their nests if startled. The vultures nest in December and produce one egg per pair, the young bird staying with its parents until August, when it begins a five-year roving period – which could take it to other vulture colonies in the Balkans or Near East – before returning to the island to breed. The main threats to the vultures are telephone wires, electricity power lines and contact with man-made poisons, such as the bait left out for vermin; the vulture population of Plavnik, an uninhabited island off the east coast of Cres, disappeared completely after the food chain had become contaminated in this way.