The Visitor Centre and Rescue Centre for Griffon Vultures is located in the picturesque village of Beli in the forested Tramuntana area in the northern part of the island of Cres.
Prehistory and antiquity
Beli is one of the oldest villages on the island of Cres. Although the first traces of inhabitation of the Tramuntana area date back to the Palaeolithic, the first settlements (gradine hillforts) were built by the Liburnians on hills during the 2nd and 1st millennia BC. On the foundations of these prehistoric hillforts, the Romans established a settlement called Caput Insulae (Latin for ‘Head of the Island’) in the 1st century BC, which had great strategic importance because of its position, which provided a good view of the waterways. Caput Insulae had the status of res publica – which means that its citizens had the same rights as citizens of Rome. The Romans built roads to connect Caput Insulae with their other settlements on the island – Cres, Osor and Lubenice, and also a bridge over the Potok canyon, which is today the only preserved Roman bridge on the eastern side of the Adriatic.
Middle Ages and Modern Era
Since the 9th century, the island of Cres has been inhabited by Croats, who adopted Christianity. They practised their religion in the Old Slavonic language using the Glagolitic script until the end of the 19th century. It is interesting that there are as many as forty churches in the Tramuntana area. During the Middle Ages, apart from the island’s villages, shepherd settlements also developed due to the specific island micro-economy in which sheep farming was combined with forestry and agriculture, and which lasted in an almost unaltered, traditional form until the 20th century. From 1409, Cres was ruled by the Venetians for more than 300 years until the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1797. The Venetians had early on recognised the economic and trade potential of the natural resources of Beli and its surroundings, especially the quality of the wood from Tramuntana, as well as grapes and olives, which is why wine and olive oil from Cres were regarded as some of the best in the Republic.
Up to the present day
Cres came under Austrian rule in 1814, which led to the introduction of many novelties including a cadastre, schools, regular censuses, and overall improvements in the quality of life. A school was opened in Beli in 1861, which was available to any child of school age. Lessons were held in Croatian. The present building of the Beli Visitor Centre was built as a school in 1929 during the fascist occupation. After World War Two, the number of pupils constantly decreased until the school was finally closed in 1980. Due to economic and political reasons, large-scale emigration and a drastic decline in the number of inhabitants of the Tramuntana area followed. People from Beli moved to Rijeka, Italy (the so-called ‘optants’), the USA (mostly to Chicago), or to Australia. In only 8 years (1945-1953), the number of inhabitants decreased by more than 70%.
Today, Beli has only 40 permanent residents, but has nevertheless all the features of a town. This small community lives in a traditional way, respecting customs and transferring them to younger generations. Today, Beli has a great importance for tourism as a preserved picturesque village that is a must-see place for visitors to the island of Cres. This is a place for those who love unspoilt nature and rich cultural heritage, people in search of a unique island experience, and those who like to observe griffon vultures and other bird species in the northern skies of the island. The traditional sheep farming and agriculture as well as the great biodiversity of Tramuntana make this area a true oasis for a holiday, but also a great spot for a peaceful and attractive life. The millennia-long coexistence of man and griffon vultures is something that the local people are proud of, and which contributes greatly to the preservation of this endangered species.