Chris Wallace visits a Croatian island with Venetian heritage for a tour of Toto Bergamo Rossi's atmospheric retreat in Lopud, set in the ruins of a 15th century nunnery.




It was late July and I had been on a travel jag - for a couple of weeks in Vietnam, in Indonesia, and Turkey - since May. Through a friend, I had arranged a driver to collect me at the airport in Dubrovnik, Croatia, and as we passed the fairytale old town, a peach stone and terracotta tile teardrop in the blackness of the bay, it was deep in purple dusk. As night fell, we stopped at a roadside kiosk where I could pop out one sim card and replace it with a newly purchased one, something that always makes me feel like Jason Bourne, if Jason Bourne were riddled with anxiety and joint pain.

About a half an hour further, the little van that had collected me at the airport deposited me on a pebble stone beach and I climbed into a motorboat and set off for the island of Lopud, across the bay. Arriving somewhere by night always feels like the preface to a magic trick, a necessary deprivation for the moment of awe and wonder when the morning pulls back the curtain on your new surroundings.

And so it was with this sense of anticipation that I stepped off the one-man ferry boat, in front of an overly rational, sort of Soviet moderne hotel from the 1930s, the lines of which seemed to me in the darkness to turn down in a frown.

There was a film festival underway at the water’s edge, and the chaise longues, which would normally have faced the bay, had been turned toward a temporary screen that was showing the Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading.

The town of Lopud itself is just a stone path tottering past a few tavernas, which were strung with bistro lights, and the odd general store, shuttered by the time I arrived. The pathway itself, like much of the construction on the island (beyond the James-Bond-villain hotel), seems to have been updated only slightly since it was built, right about the time the Renaissance was kicking off across the Adriatic.



Of course, for centuries, Lopud, and much of what we now know as Croatia, was under the rule of the Venetian empire, and their influence is evident still - in the form of lions etched in old stone, and even in the form of my host on Lopud, a Venetian himself, Toto Bergamo Rossi, who first visited the area as part of the physical preservation work he does with the group Venetian Heritage, of which he is the director.

In his native Venice, Rossi has overseen restoration projects on St. Mark’s basilica, and on the Doge’s Palace, arranged incredible exhibits, and become a spokesperson for the history and legacy and present community of the city. On the Croatian coast, he has helped to establish a school teaching the art of preservation he learned on a UNESCO scholarship, and, with the help of the Getty foundation, brought back to life Cathedral of St. Lawrence in Trogir, and the Cathedral of St. Mark in Korcula.



In late 2001, while he was working with the collector and philanthropist Francesca von Hapsburg to restore a 15th century Franciscan monastery on Lopud, he stumbled on the ruin of an old nunnery nearby, the buildings of which dated back to 1484. 

Rossi was able to secure a lease on the property from the Church of Dubrovnik and set about restoring the former chapel and what had been the nuns’ quarters into his summer home. The spartan, almost severe aspect of the structures themselves remain, the better to act as a frame for, and portal unto the absolutely spectacular views of the olive groves, the monastery below, and the silvery bay beneath it.

The days here begin in a perfectly monastic peace, slow in pace and strong in caffeination. And Toto Bergamo Rossi is a remarkable host, as he is at home where he is teasingly called the mayor of Venice. Here in Lopud, a visit to the shops, to the coastal cafes, lunch with visiting models and movie stars, becomes a delightful whirlwind of conversation and laughter and history and gossip.

So too is the small hike over the back flank of the island, to a slippery stone beach, “Toto’s beach,” as he calls it, where aquamarine water laps up against the shore, and one can forget all about traveling or anxiety, pain, fatigue, and everything else, baked into a blissful rest by the Dalmatian sun and sea.


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