13 July 2011

Hiking on Cres Island

The ferry to Losinj Island was a means to our end destination, Cres Island. Attached to Losinj by a short bridge, it is the largest island in the Adriatic and mostly uninhabited and wild. We saw this as a perfect opportunity to try out our "Walking in Croatia' Cicerone Guide. Don't let the name fool you, "walking" implies fairly level ground and the ability to wear sneakers or other "walking" shoes. This is just the first of many of Cicerone's little jokes. We completed two of the hikes in the guide and found other humorous word choices, like "stroll" and "rating: very easy." Luckily, we were outfitted in hiking shoes and a secret desire for something tougher than 'very easy,' so it didn't put us out too much.
The first hike took us from Cres Town up to the little chapel of Sveti Salvadur, then down to a cove in Sveti Blaž. Once up above the town, we found ourselves surrounded by piles of stone on three sides and a hot sun above. Our feet walked over rocks and pebbles loudly, as if surveying the site of an ancient avalanche or collapse. Stone walls made a sort of maze made navigable by trail markings. Thankfully, Cicerone had hit that nail on the head. Olive trees and Christian altars were the only thing breaking up the ocean of rock around us. It all felt very biblical, like the sun had, in time, stripped everything down to the pallor of purity. Even the wooden crosses nailed here and there were bleached colorless, as were the triangular stone rosaries draped around them. This altar had a battery operated light, which blinked one little red flame every other second. We imagined the pilgrimage someone must take to change the battery. Cicadas chattered loudly and we counted at least five different types of butterflies.
This was all very level and, without the precarious surface underfoot, would most definitely have been a very easy stroll. We soon emerged to more forested terrain and spotted the water below for the first time. This put an extra spring in our step, because we knew that eventually, that's where the trail would lead. An incline began, coupled with shade and we stopped for a moment at the church, where a group of brits were taking pictures and laughing, sweatless and in flip flops. We acknowledged it more as a benchmark than a destination and continued right along, under a cooling ceiling of pine.
Finally, it was time to descend the ridge we'd traversed and approach the cove that had been taunting us from below. Just above it, the trail widened and life abounded, present and past. Distracted by the blue to our left we were startled by a sheep standing right in our path, staring as if waiting for our eyes to meet. It's wool was mangy and long, but had the dyed red streak of ownership. Terracotta tiles were piled high in a mound here and the rest of the ruined stone house stood in its own pile there. An outline of a chapel marked the center of the disappeared little hamlet. Of course, it was simple a ruined wall resembling lego structure just begun. This is when we realized that we'd forgotten a bathing suit. There were a handful of people on our lusted after beach below and we prayed that their bodies wore a "suits optional" sign. As we found them clothed, we moved around to see if the other side was more secluded, desperate for a swim. Nope, a boat was docked with four people- middle-aged Italians - lounging aboard. But then.... they were naked! That evening, we toasted Europe and Croatia, specifically, for being a place where forgetting your bathing suit isn't the end of the world.
The next day, we tried out another trail, our second hike. This one was not as well marked, from the dramatic cliff top hamlet of Lubenice to the peak of Helm, and was tinged with a slight sense of foreboding throughout. Probably because the start was marked by a gravestone. My feet were slightly blistered from the rockwalk the day before and the soft bedding of dried orange pine needles cushioned the first part of the path. Intense plant weaponry lined the perimeter of our trail, thorns like you wouldn't believe. Burrs stuck to my hiking socks, justifying their (very cool) calf-high length. All of a sudden, I started to get nervous about snakes. It's amazing how an emotional mood can be set way faster than it can be shook away.
Soon, it was a rock floor, which made my blisters groan but silenced my newfound fear of snakes. The guide book said we'd go through two gates, but at least ten more seem to have been erected since they last "strolled" through. Each one was fashioned out of twigs and sticks and needed to be lifted and moved out and back again gingerly. Just as often, we had to swat away placemat sized webs with some of the largest spiders we'd ever seen ornamenting the centers. Prey dangled in the middle, mummified into a tiny gauzy teardrop.
The Cicerone guide also said that the views from the top were all blocked by trees, but that seems to have been rectified, as we found a ladder and view platform at Helm's peak. Once again, we looked down at our watery salvation and pushed along back to meet it.
Back we went to Lubenice, where more tourists had arrived and where one of the seventeen permanent residents offered to sell us homemade olive oil with a shout of "Olivo!" out her front door. A gorgeous cove sat at the cliff's bottom and we hoped that the "45 minute hike" would zig and zag us down the steepness. It did, but it also had the thickest coating of stones we've encountered so far. If the route to Sveti Salvadur was a rock sand box, this was quicksand. We heard loud whimpering from the couple below us and were just happy that the path was wide enough to keep us far away from a drop. Each step pushed a wave of scree ahead of us, making for a posture conundrum. Leaning forward while navigating a steep descent seems illogical, but leaning back makes you feel like you'll slide. A swim. A swim. A swim, the though pushed us through. It took much longer than the 45 minutes Lonely Planet said it would.
At the end of the journey was the prettiest beach I think I have ever been on. Impossibly, the water was bluer and clearer. Schools of fish rushed around our ankles, all in plain site through the water. Only ten or so people were there when we arrived, almost all carried to the coast by their boats. But we had really earned it. What looked like white sand from above was actually smooth stone, which massaged the soles of our feet. We lay, our bodies half on the hot stone and half in the lapping water, not needing to worry about the messiness of sand. It was hard to tear ourselves away and we did so only after collecting a few stones as smooth as marbles, one red, one yellow, one black and one white.

P.S. Neither of the two Cicerone walks nor the third hike down to the cove below Lubenice were dangerous if proper shoes are worn. So, please, no flip flops. And wear sun block. And bring lots of water. And you should probably not do the third if you're even moderately afraid of heights. Otherwise, enjoy!

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