The wretched girl of Lopud
As the city of Dubrovnik is surrounded by many islands, one more beautiful than another, it's only appropriate that we travel to one of the more alluring among them. The island of Lopud was always held dear by many a distinguished nobleman of the old Republic period who rested there, in their summer mansions with exquisite gardens. It had always been a sweet home of many fishermen and some wealthy and famous captains too. Positioned in the middle of the archipelago of the Elaphits, it's located about 7 miles northwest from the port of Dubrovnik. Lopud is proud to have the most beautiful sandy beach Šunj, and that is where our story starts.
Once upon a time, there was a small, stone house, isolated from the settlement on the other side of Lopud. From there the view extended over the shallow bay of Šunj beach and further across the blue shimmering Adriatic sea.
In that humble house, a young girl was living with her three brothers. Her name was Marija, but the islanders called her the wretched girl of Lopud. Marija and her brothers lost their parents early, so they lived hard, working on land and sea. Often at night, she had to go to the elbow grease fishing with her brothers to make ends meet. She was the most beautiful girl on the entire island, but due to her low status, nobody wanted to propose to her.
One particular day, there was a storm brewing from the southeast. Dark clouds obscured the light of the sky, and the wind grew stronger, chasing the huge waves that crashed onto the rocks. It was a warning for the fishermen to not go out onto the sea. Instead, they would gather at the docks. Marija's brothers were among them, on the other side of the island, so that day she was all alone in the house.
Some time in the nightfall, she heard the calls for help that were coming through the noise of the howling wind. She hastily ran out of the protection of her home towards the distressing calls of a man. She saw a person struggling to reach the shore, holding onto some piece of wood. As the fisherman's daughter, Marija was not afraid of the sea, and she bravely swam towards the drowning man. She pulled him out of the sea and helped him reach her home. While he was sleeping restlessly, she observed his distinguished looks. She concluded that he was probably of a noble descent by his fancy clothing. His face revealed a young, healthy man. She stayed up all night in her gentle watchfulness.
When he finally woke up and saw his saviour girl, he recounted his story to her. His name was Ivan. He was travelling on a boat from Dubrovnik to Lopud, to spend time in his family summer mansion on the island, when they got caught in a storm. The rowers were fighting the wild sea for a long time, but they finally lost, and their boat sank. As far as he knew, the entire crew had vanished below the high waves, and he was the only one who survived.
While he was telling his tragic story, he couldn't but to admire the perfect lines of the girl's delicate face and her graceful appearance. In this short time that he spent with Marija, he fell in love with the girl, and he confessed his feelings to her. Marija fondly welcomed his romantic proposals, and Ivan promised her that he would take her to meet his parents as soon as he could return for her. She pledged that she would keep their love secret until he returned with permission to marry her. Then, the sweethearts bid farewell to each other with the kiss and faith to reunite again in the holy matrimony.
However, as it was stated many times before, the laws of the old Republic were clear. No marriage between noble class and lower classes was allowed. Still, Ivan believed in his parents' compassion and was sure that once they met Marija and saw her kindness and beauty, that they would allow them to marry. They loved their only son dearly, and they had never rejected his requests before.
He couldn't have been more wrong! His father refused to even hear of any mention of marriage with the daughter of a simple fisherman. All his pleadings were in vain. Heartbroken and defeated, but not without hope, Ivan only wanted to be with his loved one. And he started to brood over and think of the ways that would allow him to see Marija again.
Just west from the beach of Šunj lays the island of St Andrew. It is about 4 kilometres or 2 nautical miles away from Lopud. It has been home of the Benedictine monks since forever because it was a place of absolute peace and solitude. It was a crude little island where one could freely contemplate about God and heavenly things. The prominent sons of the Republic often sacrificed their mundane life and replaced it for isolation of St Andrew's monastery. Even Dubrovnik's famous poet and a monk Mavro Vetranović (1482–1576) wrote some of his verses there. Due to the harsh existence on St Andrew's island, oftentimes, it was also a place of imprisonment for those young noble offenders who could not behave. They knew they couldn't escape St Andrew that easily. In contrast, the fishermen from Lopud, these resilient sons of the sea, could very easily swim across the channel to reach the island of their saint protector.
And that is why Ivan retreated to the crude island of St Andrew and joined the monastery. From there, he gazed towards Šunj beach and longed for his beloved Marija. His days passed in prayer with his brothers and at night he dreamed about their reunion. Not that far away from him, Marija was also waiting in anticipation for his return.
One late evening, Ivan decided to execute his cunning plan. When he was sure that his brothers were all in their cells, tightly sleeping, he snuck out from the monastery. First, he stealthily descended to the dock and untied the rope that was holding the little wooden boat to the shore, and then set off towards Lopud.
After what seemed like an hour of rowing, Ivan finally reached Šunj. He saw the same house, where he was cared for months ago by the woman of his dreams. Right next to the house, there was Marija standing, embraced by the silver moonlight. Not to miss his chance, he quickly ran up towards her and started to call her name as silently as he could. He feared that her brothers were near and that they might hear his calls.
Up there, Marija heard the whispers in the breeze. It sounded like the voice of her Ivan. During all this time, from the moment she saved the handsome stranger from the raging sea, until the present time, her thoughts were often directed to him. Suddenly, the sounds were more real. Was it really him? The movement of the dark silhouette of a man from where the calls were coming from seemed to confirm his return. She knew it was her Ivan and she quickly ran down to meet him.
They reunited in a joyful and loving embrace. Not to lose that much of the precious time they had together, Ivan told her everything about what had happened since the moment they last saw each other.
From that night, the two lovers often met, hidden by the veil of the darkness that followed the twilight. As it wasn't always possible for them to get to a boat, and they feared that they would be noticed, they came up to an unusual arrangement. Marija would swim to St Andrew whenever she could. On the other side of the sea that separated them, Ivan would come down to the shore, after he would be sure that the lights in the cells of his brothers would all be extinguished. Then he would start the fire in his lantern that he covered with his back and it shone towards Šunj to guide Marija in the right direction. Thus, every night Marija swam towards the light, and she came to him like the mermaid from the sea, washed by the salty Adriatic water. And then he kissed her and loved her till hours later when she would swim back home.
One night, an unfortunate thing happened. When Marija was swimming back to Lopud, she saw a fishing boat nearby and she dived to avoid them. But yet, unwittingly, she entangled herself in the net and trying to get loose, attracted the attention of the fishermen. Thinking that they got big prey in their nets, they pulled, but instead of a huge fish, they dragged a woman from the sea. They instantly recognize the wretched girl from Lopud and they took her back home to her brothers.
Ever since that night, the ill-fated girl was guarded by her brothers or neighbours, she was never left alone. Every night she could see a small light in the distance, but she was confined to her side of the sea channel that separated her from her lover.
The people on the Lopud soon heard about Marija’s "pilgrimage" to St Andrew. The rumours rapidly spread around the island. Now, everybody was weaving stories of how the wretched girl, supposedly a chaste maiden, was, as a matter of fact, meeting in secrecy with the priests, no other place, but at the doorstep of the house of God. The girl had no shame. Wherever Marija or her brothers went, people were heckling and teasing them. It was too much for her family, the brothers were outraged and resentful, and, instead of fading, the anger was boiling up in them over time.
However, one night she was left in the house all alone. The brothers went fishing and this was the first time they left her without supervision, so Marija took it as a good sign. Still, she wanted to meet her Ivan one last time, she needed to say goodbye. She went out to see if she could see the light in the distance. And there it was: her dearest was calling her again to come to him. Thinking it could be the last chance, Marija decided to use this opportunity and to swim once more the same distance that separated her from her beloved man.
The night was dark without any moonlight to brighten the way. The sky was coated with clouds. The brisk wind was blowing and the sea was somewhat uneasy. The salty water was cold, but before long, she warmed up, trying to reach the guiding light as soon as possible. The glow seemed closer at times, at other moments, it looked as if it was more distant, and thinking the waves brought her back, she swam more and more vigorously.
She started to feel pain in her muscles, all the while, the sea became more restless. She suddenly felt a sense of foreboding, something was not right. Surrounded by blackness, she stopped to gain a moment of rest. The dark skies gathered heavily above her space, and so below, the black sea hid many secrets that lived in the deep. She looked around, but she couldn't find the light anymore. The sheer panic caught hold of her senses. Her heart was beating wildly, while the waves carried and thrashed around her tired body.
Suddenly, a lightning bolt struck and ripped the sky apart. The flash illuminated a silhouette visible for a second up ahead of her. She clearly saw a boat carrying three men. She knew instantly that these were her brothers that cruelly deceived her! The entire time that she was trying to make it to St Andrew, Marija was following the light of the lantern that her brothers were luring her with. She turned around, wanting to swim back to safety, trying to save herself, but the waves were rising higher and higher, as she grew more fatigued fighting the enraged sea.
Sometime later, Marija lost all her strength. Exhausted, she let go and sank into the depths. The thundering interrupted the noise of the waves crashing onto the rocks of St Andrew that was near. The heavy black sky opened up, and the teardrops of rain hitting the sea surface whispered about the tragic end of the wretched girl.
Days later, her body was washed ashore below the cliffs of St Andrew. Ivan was the one that found her. The branches of red coral entangled in her hair were like a crown of a sea maiden. All this time he was saving the brilliant ring for his bride to be. Therefore he married her dead, then and there. He put the ring on her finger and kissed her cold lips one last time. Then, he dug out a hole on the tiny piece of land by the monastery garden and buried his beautiful bride.
Marija’s brothers barely made it alive that wicked night. The islanders and neighbours never teased them again. Furthermore, people started to avoid them entirely, never asking about what had happened to their sister. Their menacing looks revealed their cold hearts, but their mouths were closed shut.
However, people talked, especially women. Oftentimes, the stories mentioned the white, hazy figure of a woman who threaded softly over the sandy carpet of Šunj beach, but never leaving any tangible imprints, and then she would dive into the emerald sea towards the light that glowed timidly from the shore of St Andrew.
Now many centuries have passed. The monastery closed its doors a long time ago, while the sea still crashes its waves on the rocks of St Andrew. Today, the modern lighthouse shows the way in the dark for the ships that sail by. The little stone house fell in disrepair, ruined by the passage of time. Not too long ago, some people from Lopud were digging the foundations to build a berth for boats on the island of St Andrew. On that occasion, they discovered the bones and the beautiful diamond ring decorated the skeletal hand, just like the one that the noblemen often gifted their noble brides to be. Whether the remains were, in fact, those of the drowned bride of the young monk, it will never be revealed. Only the dark blue Adriatic Sea will know and carry on its waves this story of tragic love, far away into the distant oceans of eternity.
Derivative from Italian „il biscione“, meaning a big snake or a viper. In local dialect it's bišunj, shortened to šunj. When the biscione is shown as the snake devouring a naked human, often a child, it is a heraldic emblem representing the Visconti family line from Milan. According to another legend, in the times of the Crusades, certain Otto Visconti was coming back home when the storm shipwrecked his vessel. Otto vowed that if he survived that he would build a church at the spot where he would find his salvation. His lifeboat stranded in a shallow beach on Lopud and he knew that he needed to erect a chapel on the hill overlooking the beach. Supposedly it was in 1098 when the church of Our Lady of Šunj was established. Visconti's coat of arms, a crowned serpent devouring a naked child on the shield, is still in the church today.
Source and inspiration for the text:
Adamović, Lujo: Marija s Lopuda, dubrovačka pripovijest, knjižara J. Tošovića, Dubrovnik, 1930.
Buconić Gović, Tereza: Dubrovačke povijesne minijature II: Lopudska sirotica, pp. 162-171, Dubrovnik, 2007.
Lucki, Pierre: Lopudska sirotica, povjestnička pripoviest iz dubrovačke okolice, knjižara L. Hartmana (St. Kugli), Zagreb, 1903.
Margaritoni, Marko: Dubrovnik između povijesti i legende, pp. 213-218. DAD, Dubrovnik, 2001.