Vrbnik's Legends and Curiosities

In the ancient times there was a mystical world which one could only know through the whispered stories told under the gentle candle light. There was no electricity, no media, the days were short, and the nights were long, but people's imagination was alive and playful, so people loved to invent and recount stories by a warm fire while the gusts of thebura twirled between the roofs or during the summer’s sweltering heat in the narrow alleys and squares. Our ancestors revived a whole parallel world of vrbenske štroligi (legends of Vrbnik), in which the main roles were played out by vili (fairy-like beauties) and maličići (tiny creatures).

The vili were beautiful girls in long white dresses, with long hair and hooves for feet. The shepherds claimed to have seen them dance under the moonlight in open pastures and around the ponds at Misučajnica, Meklenčica and Tohorajčica. Were they just a part of the dreams of exhausted shepherds or real, who can tell?! The maličići were little men and provocateurs who loved to nag humans. Some were benign, some mischievous, some humorous, and some freakish and malevolent. There are a lot of stories about them, such as that of one mischievous maličić who sneaked his way into one of the oldest houses in Vrbnik on Roč Street and demanded from its tenants to cook him makaruni, a pasta that was only eaten by the people of Vrbnik on church holidays, every day for lunch. Vrbnik’s legends were made popular by one of the greatest Croatian writers August Šenoa in the 19th century. During his studies he became friends with one of Vrbnik’s sons, Mate Gršković, from whom he learned many interesting stories that would become an inspiration for his works. This is how one of the most famous short stories based on historic facts (povjestica) Kugina kuća (the house of the plague) was born, and the action of the novel Čuvaj se senjske ruke (Beware of the men from Senj) begins in Vrbnik so do not be surprised if you find your way to a street called Šenoin put (Šenoa’s passage) above the ash-grey cliffs where the girl Duma looking out to the sea waiting for her beloved to come and rescue her from the hands of an aggressive Venetian suitor in a Uskok boat...

Traditions from the past

The inhabitants of Vrbnik keep their ancient customs in high regard and revive and relieve them depending on the time of the year. Young (and old) men from Vrbnik form groups called kumpanije and socialise occasionally at gatherings called manjaže, and they preserve the carnival customs for Mesopust and old shepherds’ customs for Razgon. It is especially ceremonial for the feast of Ivanja on June 24th on the feast day of the town’s patron saint, Saint John. Christmas, Lent and Easter are also associated with many customs, ancient religious songs, as well as traditional gastronomy. It is common knowledge when to make friti and when presnec, when bakalaj (codfish) is eaten, and when it is time to prepare jančevina (lamb).

In the Holy Week, the oldest humanitarian brotherhood in Croatia kapari play a significant role by singing the archaic mediaeval tune of Božnji plač mourning the death of Jesus in the procession of Good Friday. The traditions related to weddings are also still very much alive. If you find yourself in Vrbnik when a real traditional Vrbnik wedding (pir) takes place, you will hear the sounds of sopeli and traditional songs, and at the Placa Vrbničkog statuta square you will see pirovjane in their native costumes performing Vrbnik dances called tanec consisting of kolo, žensko kolo, vele ruki, male ruki and potancu. The women of Vrbnik’s costume is rich and dignified, made with exquisite craftsmanship and decorated by hand, and is handed down from generation to generation as a great treasure. It appears in various designs, and the most famous is tesnek which resembles an open umbrella in the contrast of a black heavy skirt and vivacious threaded ornaments varoti in various colours. There is also a winter version of the costume which is made of lambskin and rabbit fur. The men's costume is very simple. Black is the dominant colour and according to the legends it was chosen by the commoners to mourn the Frankopans after they lost the island of Krk to the Venetians. The costume is full of symbolism and reveals a lot about the former social conditions and relationships.

Vrbnik’s Name

The first written mention of Vrbnik from 1100 says the path ki gre v Verbnik (leading to Verbnik), in the Latin writings it is referred to as oppidum Verbenicum, while the Venetians called it Verbenico. In the 20th century, the name Vrbnik had been widely established. There are several interpretations of the origin of the name itself. Some draw the connection with the Croatian name for willows (vrba) which are abundant on Vrbnik Field, others claim the name was derived from the Latin word Verbena, there are then those who think the name of Vrbnik was derived from the word vrh brda, meaning the peak of a hill, and finally some draw the connection with the nickname of the Grban family, who were once known as Vrban. The inhabitants of Vrbnik are Vrbenčani (men) and Vrbenke (women), and the adjective of the name is vrbenski or vrbnički. The Chakavian dialect spoken in Vrbnik is referred to as po vrbenski or šćeto po domaću.

Poprivić or koprivić (Mediterranean hackberry) at Misučajnica (Celtis australis)

The branchy and green welcome to all visitors arriving from Krk to Vrbnik is given by one of the oldest and largest trees on the island of Krk, which locals call poprivić. The Croatian name is koprivić due to the similarities of its leaves with nettle leaves (kopriva in Croatian), while biologists from Rijeka have called it “Krk's baobab" because of its smooth bark, ornate shapes and the considerable dimensions of its trunk and branches.

The fruit, foliage and bark of the Mediterranean hackberry have long been considered to have healing properties and a positive effect on reducing pain and inflammation. The fruit of the Mediterranean hackberry is a small, dark-purple berry-like drupe, which was once a favourite treat for children, but today is only food for birds. The Mediterranean hackberry is a tree we can find in some locations along the Adriatic coast, but there are not many autochthonous specimens because they were mostly planted by people in town squares due to its large canopy that provides excellent shade. This is why in Istria they called it ladonja (the shade provider). This legendary Vrbnik poprivić is located near the Misučajnica waterhole. One larger specimen of this tree was once on the main road in Vrbnik Field, but it was struck by thunder. Mediterranean hackberries can be found in the very centre of Vrbnik, so feel free to have a rest in the shade of their branches...

Istrian bellflower (Campanula fenestrellata subsp. Istriaca)

The arrival of spring in Vrbnik is heralded by the tiny bluish flowers that adorn the cliffs high above the sea, the cracks of old house walls, and the proud centennial belfry in clusters. These are the flowers of the Istrian bellflower, an endemic plant, rare and protected, which can only be found on the Kvarner islands, the slopes of Učka and in some small Istrian towns. The vibrant blossoms of blue and hairy leaves proudly withstand the strong gusts of the bura, the salt sediment and drought. It is a natural metaphor of the beauty that arises despite the scarcity of natural conditions.

Griffon vulture (Gyps fulvus)

The griffon vulture is a large bird of prey from the family of hawks (Accipitridae). This scavenger with a very white head and an unusual collar has impressive wings which can span up to 2.80 m. It can live up to 40 years and only feeds on the carcasses of larger mammals, never attacking live prey. It used to inhabit the whole Adriatic coast, but today it nests only on Cres, Krk, Plavnik and Prvić. The Krk colony of the griffon vulture lives on the south-eastern side of the island in the Glavine Special Reserve - a small harbour between Vrbnik and Baška from the seaside.

It was the first ornithological reserve for the protection of griffon vultures in Europe, proclaimed in 1969, and it stretches along the steep picturesque cliffs of Butinj and Kuntrep, the canyon of Jasenovo and the peak of Diviška. In addition to the strictly protected griffon vulture, there are also many other endemic species of flora and fauna. These supreme rulers of the skies and the steep karstic terrain once played a very important role in the disposal of dead carcasses, while the sheep were intensively bred here, they were present in the culture and traditions of the people with whom they shared the living space. Today, they are an ecologically protected species of rare birds that can be observed in the Vrbnik-Baška Reserve in their natural habitat.