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’s known today.
Filled with a deep sorrow and anger, he pulled his hood over his head.
He joined a long line of his brothers, all cloaked and holding lit candles.
Together they moved in a snaking line and circled the island three times. All the way, they let drops of wax silently fall to the ground.
As they moved, they uttered “a curse on anyone who should take Lokrum for his own pleasure!”
It was 1798. Pope Pius VI and Ragusan had collaborated to take ownership of the island from the monks, forcing them to leave the place they’d called home for 800 years.
Under orders, they 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 2021. Dubrovnik has become one of the most-visited spots in Europe and is routinely advertised as Croatia’s top destination. As the prime filming location for Game of Thrones, it attracts fans of the crazy-popular HBO series in their droves.
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. 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 unexplained mishaps, hardships and strangely tragic fates.
Lokrum Island’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 and Emperor of Mexico. 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 Carlota of Austria (princess of Belgium), von Habsburg’s wife. She resided on the island with her husband. In her late 20s, following his murder, she began displaying signs of mental illness. Her condition worsened and led to her living the rest of her life in seclusion.
Maximilian’s nephew inherited the island from his uncle. Shortly after arriving in Dubrovnik, he set sail for Lokrum. 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 Island 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. They took their own 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, some of which could unsettle even the most hardened of cynics.
But surely a 219-year-old curse can’t affect tourism in the 21st century. Right? 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 Island.
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 hostel for something a little closer to nature.
I asked a harbourman if there were any hotels on Lokrum Island. He shook his head vigorously. “No, this is not possible. You cannot stay on Lokrum Island, even for one night.” I asked him why.
“Because of the curse.”
This statement felt like a large, red button stating DO NOT PRESS. It only made me more determined. In this age of independent travel and private room rentals, surely one company or resident would be offering accommodation? I packed a toothbrush, bought a ticket and boarded the near-empty sideless passenger boat in the sun.
The 20-minute sail from Dubrovnik to Lokrum was unforgettable. Crystal waves tapped gently against the hull. The seabed remained visible through the glistening water.
Once the boat anchored at Lokrum’s tranquil jetty, sensory overload continued.
Shaded paths wound around the island. Patterned by the shadows of exotic leaves, they converged, parted and skirted cliff faces that plunged into the Adriatic.
Everywhere there were acheingly romantic corners, benches and rocks under canopies and grounds speckled with lacy shadows. The breeze carried the intoxicating scent of pine.
The dead sea – Lokrum Island’s hidden gem
After a week of surfing gritty intercity trains across Eastern Europe, Lokrum Island felt every bit the oasis it is. I followed a map to a quiet inland salt lake, invitingly named 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.
One hour became four and then five. In the heat of the sun, watching peacocks wander under the trees, I learned how easy it is to give in to Lokrum Island. I started to see Maximilian von Habsburg’s point.
Seclusion and nature do strange things to people. 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.
Curious to explore in the two hours before the last boat, I wandered to the island’s south-west edge.
I stopped sharply as I stumbled on an abrupt cliff edge. A breathtaking drop opened up at my feet. A devil on my shoulder uttered “jump…jump…”. Maybe it was the voice of the curse.
Behind me I heard some bushes rustle. 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 are a botanists’ dream come true. The Benedictines planted its first gardens in the 11th century and cultivated decorative species.
Hundreds of years later, Maximilian von Habsburg introduced further plants, a network of paths and infrastructure.
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 introduced from the Canary Islands by the lavish von Habsburg and seem to fit well in this tranquil corner of the world. It reminded me of the peacocks travellers can see wandering freely around the grounds of Lisbon’s São Jorge 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. With 45 minutes left until the last boat back to Dubrovnik, I stopped for an ice-cold glass of Croatian wine.
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 intense and a rare treat on a budget backpack around the Balkans.
Did we break the curse of Lokrum Island?
Seeing me engrossed in a 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 must leave before night. Nobody stays on the island. It’s forbidden.”
“But really…?” I needled him gently. “Isn’t that just a story for tourists…?” I expected a laugh. Instead I 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.
So far on my travels of 20 plus years, this is the only curse I’ve come met with that impacts tourism hundreds of years later.
As the boat departed from Lokrum Island and the glittering Adriatic spread out under it, I wondered about the peacocks and rabbits. Maybe they followed us later on a private yacht.