Strolling across the Croatian island of Lopud one summer morning in 2008, en route from its harbour to one of the finest sandy beaches in Dalmatia, we happened unexpectedly on an “art pavilion”. There in the island’s hinterland, amid a landscape of wild rosemary, figs and olives, stood an austere structure of blackened wood, a collaboration, the sign said, by David Adjaye and Olafur Eliasson entitled “Your Black Horizon”. We ventured into the darkness, which was penetrated by a narrow horizontal band of brilliant sunlight and stood captivated as that single line of light seemed to change colour.
Later, over a fish lunch in a scruffy waterfront restaurant as we waited for the ferry back to Dubrovnik, I fell into conversation with the owner and asked about the artwork. Yes, he said, it had been brought to the island by Francesca Thyssen-Bornemisza, the collector, patron and philanthropist who was born into one dynasty (the Thyssen family, whose fortune was based on steel and industry) and married into another, the Hapsburgs.
She was fixing up the monastery at the northern end of the harbour too. He didn’t know more, but the pavilion, which I later learnt had been commissioned for the 2005 Venice Biennale, was becoming a magnet for yachts, and as far as he was concerned anything that brought customers to this tiny car-free island was a good thing.
Next week, a dozen years on, that 15th-century monastery finally reopens as a hotel that, though it has just five rooms, could be the country’s finest and one of Europe’s most remarkable.
“I first came to Dubrovnik in December 1992, just after the siege,” says Thyssen-Bornemisza. As Yugoslavia fragmented, this strikingly beautiful walled city had been bombarded for seven months. “The place was devastated,” she recalls. “Parts of it were still on fire.”
Then in her early thirties, she had recently organised a conference at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna on the protection of cultural heritage in occupied territories, and as a result she had been asked to come and help with the conservation effort in Dubrovnik.
Her base was a lab in the city’s war-damaged Franciscan monastery, where at lunchtime she would join the monks in their refectory. “I used to get on really well with the eldest friar, Pio Mario,” she recalls. He told her about the Franciscan monastery on the island of Lopud and one spring day they set out in “a little fishing boat” to see it.
“It was a total ruin,” she says. “Most of the ceilings and roofs were missing. But it was amazing too. Despite the damage I felt this extraordinary sense of peace. I don’t want to sound like an old hippie, but there really was some incredibly powerful energy here.”
Established in 1483 (hence the hotel’s name, Lopud 1483) and subsequently fortified against incursions by the Ottomans, the monastery was on the World Monuments Fund watchlist of buildings in danger. She determined to do something and the following year, she took the architect Frank Gehry out to look at it. “But Gehry said: ‘I don’t do old buildings.’”
In the end the painstaking and protracted project was realised by the Zagreb practice Arhitektri. And the result — she is giving me a virtual tour via WhatsApp, walking from room to room — is somewhere between a museum, a supremely elegant (and commensurately expensive) boutique hotel and a 21st-century spiritual retreat, complete with church, campanile and Romanesque cloister. There’s also a “sacred garden”, inspired by the Dubrovnik monastery’s apothecary garden, with a spiral of different sorts of lavender, a corner of lemon-scented plants, verbena, grass, thyme and fruit trees.
We’ve moved inside and are talking in the formal dining room, a recreation of the one she recalls from her family’s former home, the Villa Favorita, in Lugano, complete with Renaissance torchères, Baroque candelabra and cabinets displaying exquisitely wrought silver. The walnut table was made in Florence in about 1550 and the chairs in Dresden in 1727. They stand on a 16th-century Medallion Ushak carpet.
The paintings include a Furini of St Sebastian and a Liberation of St Peter one might take for a Caravaggio, though in fact it’s the work of another Italian who settled in Malta, Mattia Preti.
All that’s missing are her grandfather’s Canalettos, which are now in the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid, a museum created in 1992 when her father loaned and then sold 775 outstanding works of art — from Renaissance masterpieces to Rothkos — to the Spanish government for $350m, a sum reckoned to be about one-fifth of what it might have realised on the open market. But there remains plenty the family did not sell for her to exhibit here.
Next door there’s a sitting room, where the camera on her phone settles first on a reliquary bust in polychromed walnut of a young girl, dating back to the 14th century. On the opposite wall hangs a portrait, c1527 by a follower of Dürer. There’s a 16th-century French tapestry of a landowner threatening to punish his gardeners, the ugliness of the people in striking contrast with the beauty of the nature that surrounds them, while opposite hangs a photograph by Thomas Struth.
“This is three generations of collector in one space,” she says, explaining that the photograph belongs to TBA21, a foundation she established to commission and disseminate contemporary art.
Passing Rineke Dijkstra’s 1996 portrait of two boys in Dubrovnik, we ascend to the five spacious, elegant bedrooms, which have been converted from the monks’ cells. All the new furniture is by the Italian minimalist Paola Lenti, but there are historic pieces in each one, from carved chests to chairs you are welcome to sit on. Much of the ancient plaster is original too, occasionally inscribed with the vestiges of images and, in the master suite, the letters IL DU. I double take. Il duce: the remnants of a pro-Mussolini slogan dating back to the occupation of the monastery by Italian troops. “I’d left it there because I very much believe in maintaining all the different layers of the history,” she says. “But I think we should get rid of it now.”
The bedrooms also feature contemporary art. I am struck by works by Xiomara De Oliver, Patricia Leite, Billy Childish and Aranda\Lasch. But I don’t see every room. Thyssen-Bornemisza’s two daughters from her marriage to Karl von Habsburg, as well as her mother (Fiona Campbell-Walter, a supermodel of her day much photographed by Cecil Beaton and Norman Parkinson), are still in residence, having locked down here in March.
But it is the views that make the most impression: across the limpid Adriatic towards the neighbouring island of Sipan (where, on my last visit, the harbour was home to a pod of dolphins), and north-west to Mljet, site of another important fortified monastery, this time on an islet in a lake.
The hotel won’t have a restaurant as such, but there will be a chef. There’s no pool, though a stone staircase descends directly to a rocky shore off which you can swim. (Croatian karst is very sharp; pack aqua shoes.) And there are paddleboards, canoes and fishing equipment, as well as a personal trainer and yoga teacher on call (in keeping with the new vigilance for hygiene, guests will be given yoga mats with their names on them to use and take home), and a massage room in what was once the monks’ 16th-century necessarium, the Renaissance euphemism for toilets, a row of which survive, lids and seats intact.
But then you come to Lopud to be, not to do, she stresses, “to stop projecting and let yourself be inspired”. A shaman from northern Sweden has plotted a map of nine meditation spots in the gardens, among them a “shower” of passiflora, long held by herbalists to calm anxiety, that has been trained on copper wires, which “attract bad energy” thus apparently boosting the plant’s efficacy. Or you can just sit and enjoy the birdsong from one of the many fragrant terraces.
Not that Thyssen-Bornemisza has entirely turned her back on the party-girl persona that made her a regular in the gossip columns of the 1980s. Should guests “want to throw a party, it can be organised in half a day,” she enthuses, talking up the state of the art sound system she’s had installed on the terrace at the top of the ramparts. Come September it will be possible to book individual rooms, but till then she’s restricting bookings to those who want to take the place over entirely. As such it joins a growing number of small properties reinventing themselves as “private hotels” for this summer (see sidebar below), a response to soaring demand for peaceful retreats away from possible crowds.
She points her camera towards the hill that rises above the monastery. “We call this Beverly Hill. It’s where all the sophistos live,” she says, reeling off the mostly French and Italian names of those with summer homes here, among them Toto Bergamo Rossi, the aristocratic director of the Venetian Heritage foundation, the New York-based interior and landscape designer Lucien Rees Roberts “and a billionaire hedge fund guy”, who has recently acquired a lot of land.
“But at least no one is allowed to build within 200m of us,” she adds. “So we’re safe,” a word that keeps recurring in her conversation. She’s already drawn my attention to the arrow slits in the impregnable stone walls and the window “for throwing boiling oil from” above the main gate, not to mention a handful of protective madonnas and a pair of baroque guardian angels, intricately carved from limewood in Poland, c1725-30, that you’ll encounter on arrival. “I think that’s the primary objective these days: to feel safe.”
Lopud 1483 offers exclusive use for up to 10 people from €8,000 per night; or, from September, double rooms from €1,400
The summer of the private hotel
Border restrictions might be lifting and hotels, restaurants and bars reopening, but around the world travellers remain conscious of the risks of coronavirus and the need to minimise contact with other people wherever possible. Such is the demand for personal space that a new breed of accommodation is emerging this summer: the private hotel.
With five bedrooms, Lopud 1483 will run as an exclusive-use property for July and August, before returning to a conventional hotel in September, and it is far from alone. On the Greek island of Santorini, for example, Istoria (pictured above) is a chic 12-suite boutique hotel that this summer will keep its chef and all its staff, but only be available to single groups — at €80,000 per week (it is available via Five Star Greece). Rather than being driven by concerns about being able to ensure that guests practise social distancing, the owners say they are simply responding to demand for “privacy, seclusion and safety”.
It’s a similar story at Brownber Hall, an award-winning eight-bedroom hotel in the Yorkshire Dales, which will reopen on August 1 for private groups only. “We think the best way for people to experience Brownber is it to let them take over the whole place themselves but with more special benefits than a typical self-catered package,” says owner Amanda Jaques-Walker. Instead of a restaurant, guests are being offered fridges pre-stocked with local supplies, with picnics and dinners delivered to the doorstep. A week, for up to 15 guests, costs from £3,400.
Meanwhile, some villa companies are moving into the same space, adding hotel services such as chefs, spa treatments and room cleaning. The Greek Villas is offering 57 properties in its new private hotel programme for this summer, from three to 11 bedrooms, and £12,000 to £80,000 per week.
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