The mountain region that shelters Istria from the north and the northeast, filled with flower decorated grasslands Ćićarija, is an oasis of untouched nature and beautiful landscapes, abandoned and half-abandoned villages, white macadam roads on which, even today, it is not difficult to picture carts overfilled with charcoal, hay, wood... The world of the past that has remained here in its original form. Only the large sheep herds are gone, because there are no more shepherds who would keep watch...
Chiri biri (Ćiri biri)? This is what the question “How are you?” would sound like in Istro-Romanian. And who are Istro-Romanians? “Nu se stie cat al'e, betar sapte stotine de an, a zdrajite limba pira astez. Jel'es istrorumuni”. Or in English: “Their number is not known, they are seven centuries old and they only have their language. They are the Istro-Romanians”. And, although they most frequently call themselves Istro-Romanians or Vlasi, their neighbours most often call them the “Chiribiris” or even simpler Chichis. Chiribiri, because they begin a conversation with the question “Chiri biri" (how are you) and Chichi because they mostly live on Ćićarija or below the western slopes of Ucka.
The forgotten migration
And so we have come to Ćićarija (the accent is on the second "i"). Now, whether Ćićarija got its name after the Chichis or the Chichis were named after Ćićarija, will remain unclear. Tradition says that seven hundred years ago seven caravans of Vlachs came to the region of Istria that had been devastated by the plague. They took off in Transylvania or eastern Serbia, stayed in Dalmatia for a while, and finally arrived to Istria. Five caravans remained in the region of Boljun, Čepić Polje and the slopes of Učka, and two caravans set out towards the mountains surrounding Istria, towards today’s Ćićarija.
We have followed the paths through which they were travelling, the old macadam roads towards Ćićarija. We stop at a place and ascend the mountain Orljak. It is 1016 metres high and from the top there is a beautiful view over the entire Ćićarija and further on towards Istria. To our right there is Žbevnica, the most westward, thousand-metre mountain of Croatia, further on there is the Slovenian Slavnik, and behind us the settlements of Vela and Mala Muna, to our left the lovely Učka and somewhat nearer Planik, the highest peak of Ćićarija. Below us a steep slope, then a white macadam road and beneath it, deep down Lanišće, the municipal centre of Ćićarija with the fertile and wide field in front of the village ... Far down there is Gologorica, Vrh, and Pazinština... Istria, covered with its haze, communities at hill tops, burdened by the history and absorbed with the present.
We are in the middle of the mountain area, once very known for the production of charcoal. Charcoal-kilns were present in every of the ten settlements of Ćićarija, but today charcoal is manufactured in the traditional way only in Brest, to the east of Ćićarija and in Jelovica, at the far west of the Croatian part of Ćićarija. Along with charcoal and the felling of trees, cattle breeding was the main occupation. Today there are no more sheep or shepherds to look after them. In the village Dane there are only seven permanent residents and in Vodice the only permanent residents are the landlord of the local inn, two old men and Croatian policemen and custom officers who “guard” the border with Slovenia.
Linden as a monument
Some will also call Ćićarija the proud widow, just as is the name of the latest photo monograph dedicated to this region. It is proud because it has so much to show and widow because it is desolate, abandoned, moping alone, forgotten by the world that runs around it, in Istria, the Kvarner sides... The real monument of that Ćićarija can be found in the place Slum above Buzet (Buzet in Istro-Romanian means – mouth). It was created by nature in the shape of an ancient-old linden. A note states that a church was built next to the old linden in Slum at the beginning of the 16th century. And here they are even today, standing next to each other, the church and that same tree, already in the 16th referred to as “old linden”. Only the outer core is left, the greater part of the tree was worm-eaten, but it is still holding on. One can even dance in it.
And Ćićarija is holding on in that same manner, with its grasslands covered with flowers and billions of butterflies that wake up in May and June in order to treat Ćićarija and the passengers that visit it with their beauty.
The beauty of wilderness
Ćićarija is best seen and experienced in freedom, on the mountain plateaus dappled with the ancient Vlach, shepherds’ dry-stone walls and karst valleys. In the settlements it tells us the sad story of forgotten history. The abandoned houses, forgotten in a moment in time, somewhere still with pots and rakes left in front of the door as if the host will return any moment. The history that stopped somewhere in the beginning or the middle of the previous century and cannot go further, because there is no-one to start the wheel of time. In these Ćićarija places, time has stopped... it is a bit sad, wistful, but again magnificent in its silence and steadiness, despite and regardless of everything.
Outside on the glades, on the peaks from which one has a lovely view, kite fliers and paragliders take off from the hill Raspadalica above Buzet, not far from that historical Slum, there reigns joy of some weird wild beauty. The wild roses in bloom that grow like a line of trees along the white roads, the white daffodils that bloom on the mountain slopes in June, as if it was snowing... and the gurgle of the stream that springs under the live rock at Kotli, not far from the climbers’ chalet above Brgudac, the easiest way to which is from Lupoglav, one of the usual «entries» into Ćićarija on the east side...
They say that Ćićarija is the ideal place to heal stress. The tame wilderness of its landscape, time that has stopped and that does not feel like going anywhere, silence cut off by the singing of a bird, or the barking of a dog, the most reliable sign that there is somebody living in the village before us... Ćićarija is waiting for someone to wake it up, but, let it be gently, without construction machinery and the horror of the newly built village villas. By coincidence the entire Ćićarija became a kind of a national park and it would be good if its present state were legalised, for which there are some indications. The mountain tops, a park of nature for healing stress...