Facing the suburb of Ploče is the wooded island of Lokrum, 1km to the southeast. Reputedly the island where Richard the Lionheart was shipwrecked, it was bought in 1859 by Maximilian von Habsburg, Archduke of Austria (and subsequently ill-fated Emperor of Mexico). He transformed a former Benedictine monastery here into his summer palace, laid out gardens and wrote bad verse about the island’s beauty. Following Maximilian’s execution by Mexican insurgents in 1867, the Habsburgs sold the island to a local businessman eager to turn it into a health resort, only to buy it back on behalf of Emperor Franz Josef’s son Rudolf, who wintered here to soothe his bronchial difficulties.
Maximilian’s largely overgrown and untended gardens stretch to the east. More interesting is the botanical garden of the Dubrovnik Oceanographic Institute immediately north of the monastery, filled with a spectacular array of triffid-like cacti that look as if they could swallow you whole. The best of Lokrum’s rocky beaches are beyond the monastery on the island’s southeast side, where you’ll find a small salt lake named the Dead Sea (Mrtvo more) just inland, and a naturist beach at the island’s southern tip. Shady paths overhung by pines run round the northern part of the island, with tracks leading uphill towards Fort Royal, a gun position left by the Napoleonic French whose grey, menacing ramparts rise rather suddenly from the jungle-like greenery covering the island’s central ridge.
Just up from the island’s jetty, the former monastery complex contains a fascinating but largely barren network of walled gardens, one of which contains a routinely average café-restaurant.