The Curse of Lokrum Island
In the shadows of Lokrum Island’s trees at nightfall, a monk stood waiting. In his ears rang the last mass he would ever attend on his beloved home, just off the coast of Ragusan, or Dubrovnik as it is known today.
Filled with anger and sorrow, he pulled his hood over his head and stepped onto the path that wound around the island. Behind and before him appeared his brothers, identically cloaked and each holding a white candle.
Every monk lit the wick and tipped their candles so wax dripped onto the path. Moving in a snaking line, the solemn brotherhood conducted three turns of the island, dripping wax all the way.
Together, they had resolved to utter a curse borne from the betrayal and frustration of Pope Pius VI and Ragusan seizing their property. In addition, they had received an order to abandon Lokrum Island, which they and their predecessors had called home for 800 years. As they moved, they uttered…..
“A curse on anyone who should take Lokrum for his own pleasure!”
The year was 1798 and the monks deserted the island shortly after, never to return.
According to legend, the curse will only be lifted when the last drop of wax is gone.
Superstition is for Suckers – Right?
What a load of superstitious rubbish. Or is it?
Fast-forward to 2017. Dubrovnik has become one of the most up-and-coming tourism locations in Europe and was Croatia’s most-visited destination in 2015. It also attracts ‘Game of Thrones’ lovers in their droves, as a prime filming location for the crazy-popular HBO series.
Just a twenty-minute sail away across the azure Adriatic is Lokrum Island. It boasts warm temperatures, stunning lawns and botanics, rocky outcrops, historical structures and even a nudist beach.
In short, it’s a tourist boards’ dream come true and would logically be advertised to the max. When I visited Dubrovnik in May 2016, Lokrum Island was positioned as a perfect day trip. However, I felt a noticeable but hushed resistance to allow people to stay for longer.
Surely the superstitions of the past don’t hold water in today’s uber-sophisticated, technologically developed world? Yet, the fact remains that since the monks abandoned the island 219 years ago, anyone who has attempted to own, live on or have any lengthy dealings there have met with tragic fates or suffered unexplained mishaps and hardships.
Lokrum’s Ill-Fated Victims
Captain Tomasević. After the fall of the Dubrovnik Republic, he became the owner of Lokrum. Despite being incredibly rich, he hit bad fortune immediately after purchasing the island and found himself bankrupt.
Maximilian von Habsburg, Archduke of Austria. Something of a romantic, he fell in love with the island and bought it as a home for he and his wife in 1859. He turned what had been the Benedictine monastery into a summer palace and drew up plans for extensive re-landscaping. He was later executed by firing squad in Mexico.
Archduchess Charlotte of Austria (princess of Belgium), von Habsburg’s wife. She resided on the island with her husband, but was struck down by insanity.
Maximilian’s nephew inherited the island from his uncle. Shortly after arriving in Dubrovnik, he set sail for Lokrum but his boat overturned on the way and he was drowned.
Rudolf, Prince of Austria. Heir to the throne of Austria and the only son of emperor Francis Joseph I and empress Elisabeth. He too fell for the charms of Lokrum and moved there for some time. However, after his father ordered him to end his affair with a 17-year old baroness, the lovers made a suicide pact and ended their lives at his hunting lodge in the woods outside of Vienna. After what is now referred to as ‘The Meyerling Incident‘, his mother was profoundly affected by grief and was herself assassinated in 1898 by an Italian anarchist.
There are lots of sources listing tragic events since 1798 (for example, here), but you get the point – its easy to see how these incidents could have the power to unsettle even the most cynical of minds.
In an effort to find out whether a 219-year-old curse could still have an impact on tourism in the current day, I headed to Lokrum to investigate.
Leave by Nightfall – Or Else…
During my four days in Dubrovnik, the sun was shining and the temperature comfortably warm. It couldn’t have been a better time to sail to Lokrum.
I equipped myself with the travellers’ holy trinity of cheese, ham and bread at a local grocery store (roughly £7) and went to find the boat.
Looking at the island from a distance with its lush green shrug and vertiginous cliff faces, I was tempted to ditch my less-than-inspiring Dubrovnik hostel.
I asked a harbourman if I could stay overnight. He shook his head vigorously and insisted “no, this is not possible. You cannot stay on Lokrum Island – it is cursed.”
This statement was the equivalent of a large, red DO NOT PRESS button. I was determined to discover a way of staying over, even for one night.
In the age of cheap travel, increasing consumer power and Air B n B, surely one company or private resident would be offering accommodation? In a bid to investigate, I boarded the near-empty sideless passenger boat in the sun and enjoyed the leisurely sail to Lokrum.
Once the boat anchored at the tranquil jetty, sensory overload began.
The crystal waves tapped gently against the boat’s hull, the seabed visible through the glistening water.
Shaded paths wound around the island, converging, parting and skirting the vertical cliff faces that plunged into the Adriatic.
Everywhere there were acheingly romantic corners, benches and rocks under canopies, grounds speckled with lacy shadows and the intoxicating scent of pine on the breeze.
Lokrum’s Secret Weapon – The Dead Sea
After a week of surfing gritty intercity trains across Eastern Europe, Lokrum Island felt every bit the oasis it is. Consulting a map, I spotted a quiet inland salt lake, invitingly dubbed ‘The Dead Sea’.
Finding just one or two other people perched on the rocks around it, I thanked myself for travelling off-peak, found a pebble beach and set myself up there for an hour.
This actually turned into four hours, which was when I learned how easy it is to fall in love with the island. I started to see where Maximilian von Habsburg’s romanticism came from.
Seclusion and nature do strange things to people and Lokrum Island inspires a liberal vibe to undress in the open. There is even a nudist beach where tan lines can be erased without consequence.
When in Rome….I waded in and braved the shock of the cold pool. The rocks are slippery and difficult to navigate underwater, so reef shoes are a must. Or in my case, improvised ballerina flats. The whole experience was heavenly and Lokrum was a firm highlight of my two-week trip across Eastern Europe.
Being a Northern English redhead, I felt my sun and fun quota reach capacity. Curious to explore in the two hours before the last boat, I wandered to the island’s south-west edge.
I stopped sharply as a breathtaking drop opened up at my feet. Never in a million years would I be brave enough, but the devil on my shoulder uttered “jump…jump…”. Maybe in another lifetime when I’m reborn with guts.
Behind me I heard a rustle in some bushes. As if I hadn’t already reached fairytale zenith, a group of four or five shy peacocks peered out at me from under the greenery.
Lokrum’s Botanics – The Legacy of Maximilian von Habsburg
The landscaping, greenery and plant life on Lokrum is a botanists’ dream come true and feels particularly well-selected to match the island’s environs.
According to the University of Dubrovnik’s Institute for Marine and Coastal Research, the Benedictines planted its first gardens in the 11th century, introducing decorative species, while von Habsburg constructed the paths and introduced further species hundreds of years later.
The island boasts over 500 species of trees and shrubs, a greenhouse containing over 200 succulents and a garden established by Dr. Sc. Lav Rajevski, former senior scientist of the Biological Institute in Dubrovnik. The island is also under the care of a botanist and a part-time gardener.
Lokrum’s peacocks were apparently introduced from the Canary Islands by the lavish von Habsburg and seemed to fit in particularly well in this tranquil corner of the world. The only other time I’ve come across peacocks wandering freely in a fairytale setting was at the beautiful but much busier Lisbon Castle.
Game of What?
The visitor’s information centre on Lokrum explains a lot of the island’s history and is a must-visit. It includes the stories of various inhabitants, maritime tales of the past, the monks’ curse and of course, Game of Thrones. Ok ok, I’ve never seen it. But as it’s one of the show’s filming locations, I’ve left some pictures below.
The Benedictine Monastery Complex and Botanical Gardens
Close to the visitors’ centre is Lokrum Island’s stunning monastery complex.
The first mention of the complex in official records was in 1023. The ruins today include parts of a Gothic basilica from the 12th or 13th century and a 15th-century Gothic renaissance monastery.
In the present day, the peaceful courtyard is home to some weird and wonderful cacti . I even spotted a hungry rabbit nibbling at the lawn.
As the sun poured in through the deadly quiet courtyard, I noticed an idyllic, empty outdoor cafe. I stopped for an ice-cold glass of Croatian wine, of course.
Sitting in the sun, I was struck by the patters of a bush overhead, so I sketched them while overlooking the botanical garden with its pristine hedges and Victorian landscaping. The peacefulness was a rare treat. That quiet hour in the sun is one of my fondest memories of my entire trip.
Did we break the curse of Lokrum Island?
Seeing me engrossed in my blissful state, a waiter pointed out the final boat would leave in fifteen minutes. Remembering my mission to beat the curse, I asked if there was anywhere under the radar to stay overnight. His smile faded.
“Everyone leaves by the end of the day. Nobody stays on the Island; it’s forbidden.”
“But rally…?” I needled him gently. “Isn’t that just a story for tourists…?” I expected a laugh, but instead received the same expression I saw on the harbourman’s face that morning.
Admitting defeat, I set sail on the last boat and sure enough, my shipmates were largely the last of the restaurant and bar workers.
The aggrieved monks of Lokrum Island and their steadfast drops of wax seem to have left their mark. This is the only curse I’ve come across as a traveller (so far) that impacts tourism hundreds of years later.
As the boat departed from the jetty and the glittering Adriatic spread in front of us, I asked myself – what about the peacocks and rabbits? Maybe they followed us later in a private yacht.