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Chris & Allyson vs. Italy & Croatia (June-July 2019)

Croatia Day Two: Lokrum, a vegan dinner and night in Dubrovnik

During our Wednesday walking tour, we cornered superguide Bruno and asked for an honest opinion.

He agreed that I was disturbingly sweaty, so with trust established, we asked for another opinion. We had another day in Dubrovnik, and we had seen the old town. What should we do next? He pointed to the big green hump across the water. The best thing to do, he said, was to get out of town.

Marco was pointing to Lokrum, a limestone slab of enchantment, mystery and reasonably priced concessions. It's less than half a mile from Dubrovnik but also a world away. Archaeology tells us that Romans once lived there and did Roman things. Pius VI granted the Benedictine Order a monastery there, and they set up shop as early as 1023. They had a nice run, acquiring most of the island by the 1400s. They grew fruit, tended to the poor and generally monked it up.

But they eventually knuckled under to the only power higher than god: the real estate market. The Ragusan Republic was having a cash flow problem in the mid-1600s, so the island was sold to the wealthy. The monks allegedly responded in the most Christian way possible: cursing the island. Supposedly, during their "going out of business" blowout, the monks circled the island by candlelight, dripping wax in a non-sexy way around the perimeter of the island. Damnation was sworn on all those who would dare to claim ownership of their home.

People were always dying in interesting and terrible ways back then, so enough of the wealthy owners died in ways unfortunate enough to make the legend of the curse stick. Chief among them were the Habsburgs, the rulers of Eastern Europe who gradually transitioned into unfortunate answers to pub trivia questions. Archduke Maximillian Ferdinand purchased Lokrum as his private vacation island; in 1859 he had a mansion built around the remains of the monastery, along with a botanical garden and a few miles of hiking trails. Five years later he was the Emperor of Mexico. Three years after that he was executed.

Advantage: Monks.

But what you visit today is very much Maximillian's vision, with a few charming updates. We got up at 8 and had breakfast at the hotel before making our way to the Old Town docks. We hopped the first available ferry — it was packed — and about 15 minutes later we were standing on the cursed island, surrounded by history and greenery and peacocks. Royalty comes and goes, but peacocks last forever.

Visitors to Lokrum have options. The island has a bit of a museum in the remains of the monastery. It has a few miles of foot paths — the remains of the Habsburg pleasure park — and you can even lay out on the Adriatic version of beaches (jagged rock outcroppings). Plus there's a restaurant attached to the monastery ruins, where you can engage in the revered Habsburg tradition: day drinking.

We started with the history, poking our noses in the monastery and its surroundings. We read the signs, nodded our heads wisely, and then sat in the replica of the Iron Throne. Lokrum was yet another shooting location for "Game of Thrones," and the Croatians have adopted the Native American approach to the buffalo: do not let a single part of "Game of Thrones" production go to waste. With our learning requirements for the day satisfied, we took a gander at the jagged rocky beaches, pondered the exercise area laid out for visitors, then examined the "Dead Sea." It's a calm and deep pond, seemingly on the island's interior, which fills with sea water via a natural underground channel. You can swim there without inviting the wrath of the dreaded Adriatic rock shark.

Personally, I wanted to walk in the steps of the Habsburgs — specifically, becoming the regent of Mexico, then dying in unfortunate circumstances due to salty monks. In the literal short term, that meant strolling the grounds. The trail around the island's perimeter was pretty empty when we started walking, and it's very pleasant. You're never far from a seaside view, and you can even stop to cool your heels at a few small docks. We eventually made our way up the 315-foot peak of the island's northern half, which is home to another monument to European history. Fort Royal was put in place by the French, after Napoleon's minions conquered Lokrum in 1806. It's not particularly royal and not much of a fort; you might hide in it while shooting cannons at ships in the harbor in a cowardly French fashion. But it does give the day tripper an aspirational destination, plus the best 360-degree views. And for us, it was the on-ramp to the "Path of Paradise," so named because Maximillian undoubtedly used it to get his side chicks up to Fort Royal for some alone time. It's a nicely paved avenue right down the spine of the island, with absolutely zero protection from the sun. We were getting blasted heading downhill, passing other tourists walking uphill. Wearing bathing suits. And flip flops. And clearly hoping to fall victim to a bunch of dead, bitchy monks.

Smart travelers, however, know that the key to dealing with mystical perversions of the natural order is the Boy Scout motto: Be Prepared. When we reached the end of the path, we restored our energy in the fashion of the Habsburgs: at the Lokrum pizzeria. It was busy, but we sat side-by-side on the patio area. I had a cheeseburger with brie. It wasn't a great burger, but I wrote that detail down, so here we are.

We then provisioned for the rest of our Lokrum excursion by buying Croatia-branded beach towels at a concession stand near the dock. Befitting eastern European royalty, they were a splendid orange and teal, with gold lettering proudly spelling "Croatia" on one end. If you want to blend in with the locals, be sure to get a day-glo beach towel with the name of the country you're visiting. It's what the locals would use.

I wanted to swim in the Adriatic, so we picked our way across the jagged rocks and found a spot to hop in. Allyson did not want to swim in the Adriatic, so she hung back and took some pictures of her topless husband that will never see the light of day. It was kind of refreshing — remember, it was HOT that day — and I didn't lose my bathing suit climbing the ladders back onto the rocks. Flawless victory. For a less tidal bathing experience, we moved over to the Dead Sea and decided to chill out with the meeker tourists. The water was perfectly calm, and this time Allyson could watch me swim with almost no struggle whatsoever.

But most of her time was spent watching other tourists, particularly the young Asian and Italian girls who spent almost a full half-hour photographing each other for Instagram. They were posing like porn stars, taking photos on the shore and in the water, and acting like this was a perfectly normal way for people to spend their time. For younger generations, it is, which is funny or sad depending on your perspective. We laughed until we cried!

There was no point in tempting the curse — I survived two swimming excursions and a cheeseburger made with brie — so we hopped the 4 p.m. return ferry and walked back to the hotel to clean up. We're not food people, but our evening was built around Nishta: the finest vegan cuisine that Dubrovnik has to offer. Allyson likes her some veggies, but many vacation destinations — including Croatia — do not "get" the vegetarian lifestyle. They did not conquer the Adriatic on a diet of turnips, and they therefore view any attempt at vegetarianism is viewed as a sign of weakness. If you want something other than the lamest salad on the menu, you have to plan ahead — in this case, me finding a vegan restaurant online, looking up their rotating weekly menu to make sure it wasn't mushroom heavy on the day we would be there, then making a reservation a few months in advance.

That is a lot of work to eat plants, but I am happy to report that it was worth it. Nishta was a tiny spot, inside the walls of Old Town; they sat us at a table just outside the door, in a tiny alley where people had been eating, crawling, bleeding and urinating for centuries. Our very funny host / server was named "Bob," and we spent part of our meal jawing with a solo diner the next table over. Ella was half Dutch, half Israeli, and had zero reservations, so she fast-talked her way into a quick meal at a table reserved for some other couple 40 minutes into the future. She told us told us about her travel plans, how she ruined her phone the day before in Split, took our picture and asked us about places we had traveled. Bob was a longtime service industry guy who had just started at the vegan place 3 months before because his friend owned it. He was brilliant. The food was outstanding — we had some kind of curry sampler — and I was looking like advance-planning husband of the year.

But I forgot about the monks. We had trespassed on Lokrum and carried away its sacred beach towels. We were doomed to punishment, and expecting otherwise was an act of tremendous hubris.

On leaving Nishta, we went to a literal hole-in-the-wall bar. There is a hole in the walls of Old Town, and if you walk through it, you can access a very vertical cantina perched on the rocks outside the city defenses. I don't know exactly how old it was, but surely people risked bombardment by hostile armadas in order to get happy hour pricing. The point is to get drunk and watch the sunset; we were a little bit late for the best part of nature's happy hour, but we did catch the tail end. It was exhilarating, closing out a fine day in a foreign country, perched on the side of an ancient fortress and enjoying a view that millions of people had shared through the centuries.

But heading home meant climbing a bunch of steep stone steps in the dark. Wearing sandals, I whiffed a bit on the top step and dragged the front of my left foot down the rough stone face. Ghost monks got a huge laugh as I scalped my big toe and partially detached the nail.

Vacations are all about novel experiences, and this qualified. I'd never ripped off a toenail before! There were plenty of emotions and thoughts in the next few seconds, but here were the big ones:

1) Ripping out toenails as torture: I get it now!

2) Sandals: How did the Greeks and Romans conquer anything wearing them?

3) Our vacation itinerary included a 7 - 10 mile hike in a few days. Would I be able to wear shoes by then?

4) Hey, should I be worried about all this blood? I mean, it's a lot of blood!

5) Will Allyson be remotely fooled if I act like this isn't a big deal?

In regards to #5, she wasn't, but I had to commit to the bit. After wrapping my toe up with the bandages and napkins at our immediate disposal, we made our way back to the Stradun to buy some ice cream — the ultimate expression of nonchalance. It was good ice cream, but my enjoyment was slightly hindered by the blood gushing out of the hole in my big toe, so we hobbled uphill to the hotel to close out the evening. You can't really sleep off a missing toenail, but the show had to go on.

Well played, monks.

On to Croatia Day Three

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