Father Marius would not have turned in his grave but done a full rotation if he saw what was going on in his monastery this summer. We met for the first time six years ago under strange circumstances. The medieval monastery of Our Lady of the Snow in Cavtat had started to rent out rooms on a very casual basis. Just how casual I was later to find out. The Franciscan monks clearly knew their real estate when they secured this site all those years ago. In time honoured tradition, the Vatican had chosen an exceptionally beautiful site for servicing the largely Roman Catholic community in this little port on the Adriatic just a twenty minute ferry ride from Dubrovnik. The monastery was not advertised. I had heard about it through my sister who has an apartment in the old town. I am all for a low key welcome as long as you can actually secure the key. This is where the trouble started. It was a July evening, still sweltering at eight in the evening when I arrived at Dubrovnik airport, which is just over two hours by plane from London and then a mere eight minute taxi ride to Cavtat. On my arrival, I was met by family who had reserved a table at the Poseidon Restaurant next to the water. They would wait for me there while I dropped off my bag further up the seafront. They wouldn't see me for some time.
The next hour and a half were not like gaining access into holiday accommodation but squeezing through the eye of the needle. The first hurdle was finding a way into the monastery. The only open doors were those of the chapel. After circling for a good twenty minutes, I decided to try the door behind which I could hear music. I had enormous difficulty turning the handle but kept trying. Then suddenly the door opened and I was pulled in and told to sit down. As lovely as the flute and guitar concert was, I was more in the market for double bass and pomp frites. I was ravenous. But that was not the will of God. I had to sit out the second half of the concert and an encore. Finally the enthusiastic crowd left the magnificent cloister and I was alone save for the house martins which had nested in the eaves. On the far side was another door and I decided to investigate. By now it was nearly dark and there was no phone reception. I wondered when the search party would arrive. Ahead were more stone steps and on my right was another great door with a monk's brown serge cassock hanging on the hook. At the top of the stairs, were four rooms, three open and one shut. I decided to knock on the only closed door and a French girl appeared. With the air of a person who had done this before, she said she would go and ask Father Marius if he could help. When we arrived at the door with the cassock, she was adamant that she would go in alone. After what seemed another eternity she reappeared followed by the head monk swaying behind her. With munificent and expansive gestures he told me, in not so many words, to take what I liked. I would appreciate this welcome on my day of judgement, but right now I was just perplexed, bemused and starving.
I did just as he said. I took the bedroom overlooking the Adriatic. I could have dived from my window into the sea below. Later that night, I fell asleep to the sound of lapping water and was woken by the chapel bells and church choir at the 7am mass. There was no key - who needs a key in heaven? Father Marius obviously knew the devil was in the detail. I have returned to the monastery almost every year since then, always to find him sitting in the cool of the cloisters reading or contemplating. I really wanted to speak to him about his life, but his English was poor and my Croatian non-existent. I knew he had worked in South America for much of his life and returned to Cavtat after the civil war in 1995. He came back to help the parishioners rebuild their houses and lives in the wake of perhaps the most savage civil war in Europe in recent history.
One morning three years ago, I went as usual for an early morning swim. On my way out of the apartment, the door slammed shut behind me leaving me in my bikini with no towel, no pareo and once more no key to access the 14th century walls of the monastery. This would not have been a problem in Magaluf but I was on consecrated ground. But it was such a glorious day with the sea twinkling seductively before me that I decided to deal with the fallout after my swim. I swam and swam. When I swim my head empties. The ebb and flow of the tide makes everything sink into insignificance. There is a tide in the affairs of men...
On my return to the monastery I knocked on the green door, hoping that the chambermaid Katja might make a miraculous appearance and let me in. This was highly optimistic as she was very rarely seen. In fact, judging by the scarcity of clean towels, it took an act of faith to believe she existed at all. After a few minutes, the door opened and there was Father Marius looking very disapproving - and I mean very disapproving. Suddenly I was back at my convent school - wearing a tunic of incorrect length, or the wrong blouse or wrong colour shoes under the steely stare of mother superior. As I stood there dripping from head to toe, I hoped that a tsunami of biblical proportions would deliver me back into the water. ' This is the house of God', he said in faltering English but unmistakeable in tone. This altercation resulted in a certain froideur for a few days but soon we were back to greeting each other in the morning and afternoon.
It is now too late to speak to him as he died two years ago of cancer. During his illness, the nuns from the nearby convent came and tended to him, bustling about in full black habits in blistering heat bearing food and human comfort.
Since the death of Father Marius two years ago, the accommodation is being managed by a Croatian family made up entirely of women. To my amazement, they have been allowed to lease out the once beautiful cloister to a painter. It is now covered in lurid acrylic paintings of ugly women and garish seascapes. Even the birds seem to have taken fright and flight.
The hatred between the Serbs and the Croats still resonates. At the final of Wimbledon last year it was both odd and sad to see Croats cheering on Andy Murray who was playing their erstwhile countryman and Serb Novak Djokovik. Cavtat, like nearby Dubrovnik, endured heavy bombing and savage fighting. The Mausoleum, Our Lady of Angels, situated at the top of the Rat peninsula overlooking Cavtat was built by the Racic family whose members died from the Spanish influenza of 1918. But this resting place for the shipbuilding family, a remarkable combination of architecture and sculpture by Croatian sculptor Ivan Mestrovik, has not always been peaceful. With the stone so violated by bullet holes, it is difficult not to read with irony the inscription on the dome; 'Discover the secret of love and you will solve the mystery of death and believe that life is eternal.'
On the way down from the mausoleum is the gallery dedicated to Cavtat's most famous son, the artist, Vlaho Bukovac (1855-1922). His childhood home, later to become his studio, has been opened to the public. He left Cavtat to study in Paris at the time when the Impressionists were beginning to make their mark. My favourite of his paintings is the large mural in the chapel of the monastery. It depicts the Virgin Mary, her back to us, looking over Cavtat and her people. Further down is the utterly charming Bella Vista, which is just that. The owner, an elderly lady, has opened up her balcony overlooking the port offering a great selection of regional wines.
So much of Croatia and Montenegro remind me of pictures of Italy in the 1960s before mass tourism. Lupod is the most beautiful of the Elaphiti islands off the coast of Dalmatia. It is a a fifty minute ferry ride from Dubrovnik and simply gorgeous. It reminds me of the opening shots of San Remo in the film adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's, The Talented Mr Ripley.
My sister's place is in an old house divided into four apartments. Evo, a huge man who was high in the military during the war, sold it to them eight years ago. He was recently voted mayor of Cavtat largely due to his warring prowess. Djorg , their neighbour, a Serb and an academic in Zagreb did not return to his holiday home for 18 years for fear of reprisal. Neither of his other two Croat neighbours speak to him. Only the turtles who live in the communal garden under the overgrown oleander and bougainvillea happily accept sliced tomatoes from everyone regardless of colour or creed.
Cafe Ankora, on the waterfront, is where we often head to for breakfast. It is a perfect spot to drink coffee and read the international press. Sometimes you can be lucky and not have a mega fibre glass monster, much favoured by Russian oligarchs, impeding your line of vision. Often the crew take a break from the seemingly interminable cleaning and polishing and sit at the cafe. The conversation between boat crew is almost interchangeable, or rather non- existent as they nurse hangovers from the night before. Just as you would probably expect, everything is not all above board. One afternoon I decided to visit the Hotel Croatia which despite its brutalist 70s style Soviet architecture, enjoys a magnificent position in Cavtat. It is about a ten minute walk from the moorings.
After a swim in the pool, I went to have coffee at the cafe. While sitting there, it was impossible not to be drawn into the drama unfolding at the pool. The man sitting next to me turned out to be an engineer on a three month contract with Easyjet at Dubrovnik airport. He was staying in this hotel and was unsurprisingly also captivated by the twelve beautiful girls cavorting a few metres from where we were sitting. All Russian, all tall and all obviously fed, or more accurately, starved, by one careful owner. They licked their ice creams as ravenously as I guessed they sniffed their cocaine. Ship shape took on a whole new meaning in the presence of these willowy girls lost in a world of pastel coloured gelati and sherbet. My new friend told me to look beyond the girls. I did and saw a burly man lying on a sun bed. John explained that he first made his acquaintance some weeks earlier. One night he was returning to his hotel with a colleague when they sighted the blonde harem leaving their boat. Just as they were about five metres away and about to chance their luck, out of the shadows stepped this very, very large minder. In no uncertain manner he made it clear, in the not so international language of diplomacy, that they were fishing off limits in dangerous waters.
But for me, Cavtat is glorious unspoilt views and the smell of the cedar trees. It is avoiding the vicious sea urchins which live below. It is swimming and more swimming in clear glass green water. It is ferry rides to islands and being unloaded with the supplies for the shops and restaurants. It is extended lunches and dinners with friends and extended family. It is a beer in the early evening in Vjitzys, a wooden bar attached to the rocks overlooking the open sea and Dubrovnik in the far distance. Vjitzy, the maverick owner, was once on the national water polo team. He has seamlessly transferred his single minded focus on sport to an Olympian appetite for illegal substances and womanising. Men don't come much unholier than Vjitzy. But when he takes his evening dip and walks out on the rocks in shallow water, for all intents and purposes, he could be walking on water.
Catherine Chester Levy
Watercolours by Gerda Loost