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EMPEROR MAXIMILIAN I OF MEXICO AND THE CURSE OF THE ISLAND



Visiting Croatia I found a link to Mexico along the Adriatic. Not far from Dubrovnik, in the turquoise-colored sea, lies the island of Lokrum. It has an ancient history and an accompanying legendary curse. A Benedictine monastery was founded there in 1023 but in the 12th century a French army general ordered its closure and the expulsion of the Benedictines.


The monks were appalled, but had no choice. On the night before leaving, they donned their hooded cloaks and went around the island thrice in a long and solemn, single-file procession. They carried lighted candles upside-down, leaving a trail of wax along the path as they chanted their curse: Whosoever claims Lokrum for his own personal pleasure shall be damned!



At dawn, exhausted by the night-long procession, they embarked on a boat and left the island, vowing never to return. The curse laid on the island soon began to take effect. Three aristocrats purchased Lokrum, and shortly the first died jumping out of a window. The second drowned at sea, and the third was killed by a servant. Then, in the 18th century, a wealthy captain became owner of the island and after the purchase went bankrupt.


In 1859, Habsburg Archduke Maximilian, the younger brother of the Austrian Emperor Francis Joseph I visited Lokrum and fell in love with the island. He loved the natural beauty and the silence of the thick forest of pine, cypress, oleanders, and citrus trees. He bought the island and turned it into a summer retreat for himself and his wife, Princess Charlotte, thus starting the Habsburg curse.


On the island, Maximilian built a belvedere, made pathways throughout the aromatic forest and planted roses, lilacs, vanilla, and Indian fig trees. He settled colonies of canaries, parrots and peacocks throughout the expansive gardens. Here, he read poetry out loud, while Princess Charlotte embroidered silk pillows. So close, yet so far from Europe and court scandals, they thought they were the happiest married couple on earth. A story says he engraved a heart with the first letters of his and Charlotte's name into a huge oak dating to the 14th century. Lightning struck this oak tree and the engraved monograms disappeared, leaving only the heart. This was considered a sign of impending disaster and shortly the prediction was fulfilled.



In 1864 Maximilian was chosen emperor of Mexico and he and Charlotte went there to claim the crown in 1864.


The Lokrum island curse followed him to America because just three years later, on June 19, 1867, he was executed on the orders of Mexican president Benito Juarez.


After Maximilian's death, Charlotte visited Lokrum and barely managed to avoid death. On approaching the island her yacht overturned inexplicably, sinking quickly; she was saved by coral hunters. Mad with grief, she lived out her life confined, never recovering her mental health.



The curse did not end there. The island changed ownership several times, and each proprietor was met with financial disaster or death. The Habsburgs then reappeared as the owners once again.


Rudolf, heir to the Austrian throne, and only son of the emperor Francis Joseph I and his wife, Princess Elisabeth, took a liking to Lokrum. Rudolf and his wife Stefanie stayed on the island for a time, adding exotic plants to the park. But he fell madly in love with Maria Vetsera. At Mayerling palace—a hunting lodge, the two committed suicide one night. They were both found dead in the morning by a servant.



Obsessed with fear of the curse, Empress Elisabeth decided that the royal family had to rid itself of this island. She offered it to the Benedictines, but they turned down the offer, keeping faith to their brothers who centuries before had sworn never to return. Rudolf’s own daughter, Princess Elizabeth Windschgratz, bought the island, thus maintaining ownership in the Habsburg family. Shortly after, Empress Elisabeth was killed by an Italian anarchist in Geneva. A few years later, Elizabeth Windschgratz, distraught by her husband’s affair, shot and killed his mistress. After the murder she was disinherited by her royal parents. Then, on June 18, 1914 her uncle, the archduke Franz Ferdinand, younger brother of Maximilian was killed in Sarajevo. The assassination was the beginning of a string of events that led to the First World War. When the war ended, the Lokrum curse dealt its final blow to the Habsburgs. In 1918 their empire fell after 700 years.


Although the Habsburgs are gone, the legend of the Lokrum curse still survives. The superstition became so widespread that no one would live on the island for long, and palace servants refused to venture into the palace gardens at night for fear of ghosts. Some aristocrats took advantage of this and kept up the legend, this way they could hold love trysts in the garden at night without any disturbance.


Today, Lokrum is a natural preserve and an excursion site for tourists. Since we were so close, I decided to visit, and we boarded a water taxi that would take us there. It was a sunny day with clear cerulean skies and the sea just as clear, but a darker, turquoise blue. But as we approached the island, the boat veered off, and we found ourselves moving away from Lokrum. I immediately inquired why we were not going to our destination and was told without any explanation that “at the moment the island is closed.” I thought perhaps the curse had affected me as well! Instead we got off elsewhere, then waited an hour before another boat took us to Lokrum, which had just as suddenly “opened.”


The visit was worth it. It truly is a small, idyllic space with fragrant forest and sea breezes. One can imagine Maximilian, who so loved nature, falling in love with it. The gardens he designed are filled with exotic plants he brought over—including agave and different types of cactus—the type of vegetation of which he was so fond. Several peacocks wander about the gardens, and their loud cries—like a call for help, are the perfect sound for an island that is reputed to have caused so much woe.

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