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Approaching Cavtat


In the 11th century an abbey and monastery was founded on Lokrum Island. It was run by a powerful Catholic order of Benedictines.

By the 1800’s Dubrovnik was in financial trouble so it was decided to sell the island, and the Benedictines had to leave. It had been their home for hundreds of years. They were pissed!

After their last Mass, pulling their hoods over their heads they circled the island, dripping a trail of candle wax as they went and chanting “Whosoever claims Lokrum for his own personal pleasure shall be damned”.

Okay then.

Fifty years later Lokrum is sold to private contractors. Two members of the aristocracy were responsible for the sale.

One jumped (or fell or was pushed?) out a window. Dead
The other hanged himself. Or was killed by a servant. Dead.
A third involved drowned near Lokrum. Dead.

The next owner of the island suddenly lost his fortune soon after purchasing the island. Not dead but had to sell the island.

The next owner, a lawyer to the Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was suddenly discovered to be a fraud.

The next, his nephew, hit bad weather on the way to the island and drowned. Dead.

Archduke Maximillian came next, building a retreat on the island for himself and his wife Charlotte. He became emperor of Mexico, but was executed by insurgents. Dead.

Charlotte was devastated and killed herself. Or perhaps she was murdered. Dead.

Their son committed suicide. Dead.

The next victim of the curse was Otto Friedrich Wilhelm, King of Prussia. After spending a summer on Lokrum, he was declared a lunatic by the Bavarian Council and lost his reign. Later, he was found in a nearby lake. Dead.

His son Rudolf inherited Lokrum. He had periods of insanity and murdered his mistress, then committed suicide. Both dead.

Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand planned to visit Lokrum, but was assassinated before he got there. Dead.

His assassination prompted the First World War. Many many dead.

Stories continue to circulate – about fishermen who have disappeared with their boats, and people who’ve visited at night and never returned.

No one lives on Lokrum today. And no one is allowed to stay overnight. Who would want to? Apparently those Benedictine monks knew a thing or two about casting spells.

But happily we don’t know any of this so off we go to Lokrum.

These days the tiny island, less than one square kilometre in size, and only fifteen minutes by ferry from Dubrovnik, is a Nature Reserve. No cars are allowed, and the island is thickly covered with laurel, oak, pine, and cypress forests criss-crossed by many walking trails.

There are several rocky beaches, the Gothic-Renaissance Benedictine Monastery, which (mostly) still stands, there are ruins from the buildings that were destroyed in the 1667 earthquake,

and, thanks to Archduke Maximilian, there’s a botanical garden, with several hundred different kinds of trees and plants.

But for me the stars of Lokrum are: the Dead Sea. The hike to the highest point. The peacocks! Another gift from old Max. They are such extraordinary creatures,

showing us what it really means to shake a tail feather. Come on let me see you shake a tail feather.

We eat. After lunch, which I only remember because of the photo,

we begin the long march to the top, to the highest point of the island where stands Fort Royal Castle, a grand lookout tower built by the French when Napoleon was boss. Lokrum Island, just 600 metres from the mainland, provided, back when it mattered, additional protection for Dubrovnik, a sentinel that sees all that approaches by sea; especially if you build a big round stone tower at the highest point.

Our journey to the top begins as a stroll along well-maintained paved, then dirt paths, climbing up a few stairs now and then, reading signs and hoping we’ve got the direction right.

It’s spring. There are wildflowers everywhere, along the verge,

and bursting resolutely from between the rocks that line the path.

As we go higher the path becomes narrower, the forest closes in.

And then higher still it becomes a mad grubby scramble over rocks, and there are several choices of barely discernible trail for the final ascent. We just keep climbing, following the voices of those above us who’ve already made it.

At the top I’m not so impressed by the big stone tower. I maybe would have been if I was able to get inside but it was locked. What does impress me is the view back to Dubrovnik. Worth it!

Back down the mountain we go and walk to the other end of the island to the Dead Sea.

I gently unravel when we get there, muscles relaxing as I release the tension from the exertion of the hike. It’s wild and beautiful, this small lake with rocky shores, a cliff on one side

and a rock wall with stairs on the other, surrounded by pine trees dipping down to the water, the green clear water rippling gently in the sun.

No surprise, Mrtvo More is very salty. The lake, ten metres deep, is fed from a series of caves and fractures in the land that connect it to the sea. It is thought to be the result of the collapse of a huge cavern, not unlike the cenotes in Mexico. The water is calm, warmer than the ocean, and protected from the wind. There are fish, and a grotto beneath the overhanging rock wall.

I watch as S swims; I watch her easy enjoyment in the cool water, swimming, floating, swimming, and then when she’s getting out she plays for the camera so I can get some splashy photos.

We find a shaded area and sit. It’s a place to unwind; its busy enough but not crowded, people are happy here, relaxed. Contentment arises.

With one last look back,

we return on the little ferry to Dubrovnik, reconnect with L and eat ice cream as the day softly comes to an end. Sweet. The evening was not so sweet, but I’ve already told that story.

Another day another ferry.

Leaving Dubrovnik

we travel twenty kilometres south, down the coast to Cavtat.

Ah the joys of learning to pronounce words in a foreign language. It’s Savtat not Kavtat, and the reason goes back to antiquity. Of course it does.

The original city, known as Epidaurus was founded by the Greeks in the 6th century BCE. The surrounding area was inhabited by the Illyrians, who called the city Zaptal. The town changed its name to Epidaurum when it came under Roman rule. It later came under Byzantine rule, then was ransacked and destroyed by the Avars and Slavs in the 7th century. And that was the end of Epidaurum. Or Zaptal.

Refugees from Epidaurum fled to Lokrum Island. Back then Lokrum was known as Laus, which became Raus, then Ragusa, and eventually the community was absorbed into the powerful Republic of Ragusa, with Dubrovnik as the main port and city.

In the Middle Ages a town was re-established, and inevitably came under the control of the Republic of Ragusa. The town became known as Civitas Vitas, Latin for Old Town, and civitas evolved into Cavtat pronounced with a soft ‘c’ like civitas. I’m intrigued by the coincidence that the town is now known as Cavtat and that the Illyrians way back in the 6th century BCE called it Zaptal. They are such similar names that despite the connection between Cavtat and civitas you’ve gotta think that there’s also a connection between Cavtat and Zaptal.

Anyway, enough of that. We’ve arrived. It’s a warm and sunny day, and from the ferry Cavtat looks ravishing! Another gorgeous place on the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia. It’s a part of the world that just keeps on giving.

Cavtat is all about the setting – two small peninsulas creating two protected bays, the town sequestered deep in the bay between the two peninsulas and extending south and inland, pine and cypress covered mountains behind, and the ever-changing hypnotic blues of the Adriatic in front. 

There’s a seaside promenade where the ferry docks, and from the promenade a walking path around the northern peninsula.

It’s a pleasant stroll in a very pretty place past pebbly and rocky beaches, sunbathers, a beach bar built into the low cliff, lovely views of the water and mountains, and cypress trees, exclamation marks in the landscape that remind me of Tuscany.

Instead of letting myself relax, and God knows I need some of that, I start to get antsy. I want something more than pleasant! I want to explore! I notice a path up the hill and without saying a word I dash up there.

It gets narrower but I keep climbing.

After a short time I come to a field of long sweet grasses and wild flowers,

and a peekaboo view of nearby islands. I love untamed places; everything in me seems to loosen and expand.

I rejoin the others and we continue on until we arrive back at the harbour with its gently lapping waters and fishing boats,

and so finally back to the promenade.

Some of the people I’m travelling with really enjoy a long slow lunch, sampling the local dishes and wines. It’s their thing, it’s one of the things they enjoy most about travelling, but it’s pretty much at the bottom of the list for me. I like nice food, and I love ice cream (it’s a food group isn’t it?), but really I only eat to stop from starving, so after lunch I’m off exploring again. Up behind the promenade is a town. Where people live. And I want to see it.

It’s all narrow ancient streets, stone houses, the promise of lush gardens behind crumbling walls,

and cats that challenge my right to be there.

Now it’s time for the ferry back to Dubrovnik; one last shot of Cavtat as we leave.

There may or may not have been ice cream at the end of this day too.

Disclaimer: In diving into the history of the Lokrum curse, I discovered that the details of the people who either lost their fortune and/or their sanity and/or their life vary somewhat from site to site. If you’re curious to know more, the most thorough account seems to be here.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2022.