That piece of luscious green land emerging from the sea, just off the shore of the sculpted city, is the island of Lokrum. Looking at it from afar, it seems like an oasis imbued by the everlasting stillness and peace, a place from ancient myths. The exuberant forest of pine trees covers the crude limestone rock, their branches leaning and almost touching the calm surface of the sea. Not until one steps onto the soft ground of Lokrum, coated with pine needles, and soaks in its mystical atmosphere, can the beauty of this place be discovered. Lokrum is a real paradise on Earth, uninhabited by people, although it wasn't always like that. Today, its residents are families of magnificent peacocks, symbols of beauty and prosperity of the old times. Some critters such as small rabbits, squirrels and other birds can be spotted in the thick vegetation, too. A salt lake, not too big, named the Dead Sea, lays in the southern part of the island, embraced by the surrounding rocks and trees. In contrast, the northern part of Lokrum is a hill crowned with the tower called Fort Royal that presents the breathtaking views of Dubrovnik.
The pathway goes from the small harbour and passes along the botanical garden, a collection of exotic plants, brought here as souvenirs from faraway lands. Further ahead, there is a monument, a witness of time – the abandoned building of the former Benedictine monastery with its empty cells, its renaissance cloister and the ruins of its old Romanic basilica. An old Latin proverbial above one of its arcs teaches us: “Concordia res parvae crescunt, discordia maximae dilabuntur” - small things flourish with concord, big things decay with discord. This message is the reminiscence of the unity and the peaceful and happy life the Benedictine monks once lived on Lokrum. The written history claims they arrived here in 1023. Earlier that year, on St Benedict’s day, the fire had started in the city at nighttime; therefore the locals pledged to the saint that they would build a church and a monastery on Lokrum in his honor if he put out the fire. And so it was, and the Black Monks moved into their new home. For centuries, they followed their guiding principle “Ora et labora” – work and pray, so they worked hard farming the land, and they prayed to God.
Caring and hardworking monks even offered hospitality to the English king Richard the Lion-heart who found salvation on the island after his ship had sunk in a storm near Lokrum in 1192 while he was returning from the crusade. To thank them and the Lord, king Richard donated money for the construction of their church of St Mary and for Dubrovnik’s cathedral.
In the past, the monks always warned the people in the city if the enemy ships were approaching, by lighting bonfires at the peak of the island. They served the Republic well, but also the poor and the old, not just the rich. Many nobles found their final resting place in the sanctuary of Lokrum.
The first time that their harmony and peace were disturbed was in the spring of 1667. The strong and deadly tremor of the ground hit Dubrovnik and its surroundings, thus destroying not only the beautiful city and its sumptuous palaces and churches, but also damaging the monastery on Lokrum and completely ruining its old church. After this great catastrophe, they never fully recovered, and in the coming years, their income decreased considerably.
The last straw was the coming of the young general Napoleon Bonaparte on the scene. He imposed high contributions to the impoverished Dubrovnik Republic. Therefore on the government meeting in August 1798 three Dubrovnik nobles suggested the sale of Lokrum. This was a worthless attempt to fill the Republic’s treasury, but it had been approved by the Council. At the same time, this meant that the small community of Benedictines had to be evicted. After pleading desperately to remain in their home, the monks were finally compelled to give up and leave their paradise.
One night, when the time came to leave Lokrum, in the middle of winter 1798-1799, sad and resentful monks decided to do one last deed. First, they served a mass in the chapel of St. Mary, after which they continued with a sinister ceremony. One by one, with ominous gazes and faces covered with their hooded black cloaks, they formed a solemn procession. Slowly walking, they carried candles turned upside down, as the sign of damnation, their flame melting the wax that was dripping on the ground. They followed the old trail around the island and instead of prayers; they chanted the harmful verses of malediction:
“Cursed be anyone who should claim Lokrum for his own pleasure!”
The mournful ritual lasted all night, as they toured the island this way three times. At dawn, they sailed away, never looking back, never to return again. A dark shadow descended on the island and nothing was ever the same again.
The curse started to work soon after, killing those three nobles from Dubrovnik that dared to take away Lokrum from the Black Monks. It turned out that one drowned in the sea, the second fell off a cliff while the third was murdered by his servant. A few years later, Napoleon himself was exiled to St Helena where, according to some theories, he had been systematically poisoned, after which he died in severe pains. After the fall of Napoleon, one wealthy captain bought Lokrum, but this bad decision led to his bankruptcy.
The years went by. In the spring of 1859, the Austrian warship Triton anchored near Lokrum. One evening in May, a terrifying explosion struck the ship and put to death 86 marines. As Triton was filled with gunpowder, this explosion resounded through the area as if a sea monster came out and cried its most terrible roar. This was the reason why the commander in chief of the Austrian navy himself was called urgently – the Archduke Maximilian von Habsburg, the brother of the Austrian emperor Franz Josef I. He honoured the dead by raising a monument on Lokrum, a cross made out of stone with engraved names of the fallen. However, when Maximilian set foot on the island, he fell in love with it instantly, and he wished it for himself. After purchasing Lokrum, Maximilian arranged a love nest for him and his beautiful wife, Charlotte of Belgium. He embellished the island with pathways and gardens, he brought exotic plants and birds, and they took one monastery wing as their summer home. The two of them visited their own personal paradise whenever they could, to enjoy the peace and quiet that Lokrum offered, away from the problems and intrigues of the court in Vienna. One time, the story says, Maximilian, who was deeply in love with his wife, engraved their initials and a heart into a crust of an ancient oak tree. Yet, there was a storm, and lightning struck the old oak, as an ill omen of the misfortune that was about to come.
Sometime later, Maximilian was proclaimed the emperor of Mexico, and the new royal couple moved there in 1864. After only three years, Maximilian was captured and executed by the rebel’s army of Benito Juarez. Poor empress Charlotte suffered a deep emotional breakdown. She did return to Lokrum once more, but barely surviving the shipwreck on the way to the island. The legend says that she was damned as she wore the necklace made out of red corals taken from the sea bottom near Lokrum. Charlotte spent the rest of her life in solitude, completely insane and in denial of her husband's death.
In the following years, Lokrum changed several owners and each and every one of them met their unfortunate fates in one way or another. Some suffered financial disasters or were morally ashamed while others died in tragic circumstances.
Lokrum became the property of the Habsburg family once again, and they often used it for their time off. Even the empress herself, the beautiful Elisabeth of Bavaria, nicknamed Sissi, visited it many times. On one occasion she left her pearls at the shore of the Dead Sea so that she could return there again.
It was the crown prince Rudolf, the only son of Franz Josef I and Sissi, that took his wife, Princess Stephanie to Lokrum for their honeymoon. According to the story, the earth shook and the sea unsettled when they stepped on the Lokrum ground, as the bad omen. The curse caught up with him later, when he fell in love with the 17-year-old Baroness Maria Vetsera. Their ice-cold bodies were found in the castle of Mayerling in 1889 when Rudolf passionately ended their young lives. First, he shot his beautiful mistress in the head, then he shot himself. This murder-suicide became known as the Mayerling Incident.
That wasn’t the end of the misery of the Habsburgs. The grieving mother of the deceased prince, the empress Sissi, wanting to get rid of Lokrum and its fatal curse, ordered that Lokrum had to be sold. Still, in a twist of fate, her own granddaughter, the archduchess Elisabeth Windisch-Gratz bought it, bringing back the dark fate. Her grandmother, the empress Sissi was killed brutally in Geneva in 1898 when she was stabbed in the heart by one Italian anarchist. Afterwards, the archduchess Windisch-Gratz was disinherited as she had been involved in a scandal in Prague. She fired shots at a singer in a nightclub, an alleged mistress of her husband. The woman died of a wound, and this event was hushed up.
The 20th century didn’t bring relief to the royal family. In June 1914, the crown prince Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie intended to spend their summer on the island. On their way, they stopped by the city of Sarajevo where they were assassinated. This tragedy sparked World War I in which the centuries-old Austro-Hungarian Empire ceased to exist.
In the aftermath of the World War II and the fall of the Habsburgs who lost their crown after more than six centuries of ruling the big part of Europe, the ex Yugoslavia claimed the island and a children’s rehabilitation centre was opened on it. Today the island of Lokrum is protected as a special forest vegetation reserve. It seems that the dark magic that overwhelmed Lokrum has calmed down… or maybe not? In 2007, there was a ghost sighting in the monastery. Could it be that a lost soul of an old monk refused to leave its heaven on Earth? Perhaps it was just an echo from the past.
Margaritoni, Marko "Dubrovnik između povijesti i legende"
Buconić Gović, Tereza "Dubrovačke povijesne minijature II"
Wikipedia, different articles about the individual members of the house of Habsburg
Photos taken from Wikipedia