Dubrovnik from Above

Bell Ringer

Among all of Dubrovnik’s white marble spires, there is the bell tower. You can only see into it from atop the city walls, floating above the streets, at eye level with the red-tile roofs for which the city is famous. We take the walk along the walls just before they close, at sunset, with the Chilean travel writer. We shared a taxi with him from the station.

The walls that contain the old city of Dubrovnik, that keep it from dropping into the sea or crawling back up the mountain, were useless in 1991 during the war; centuries of combat technology were made obsolete in an instant. Ten-foot walls could not have stopped bombs dropped from above, right on the heads of Dubrovnik’s citizens, right through the roof tiles. The people who ordered the attack on Croatia’s loveliest city were tried with war crimes, for half-crushing Byron’s pearl.

To visit today, you would never know anything had happened. And by anything, I mean a war or a child born or an instant of time passed, the second hand moving on a clock. Because Dubrovnik has been rebuilt, the bomb craters patched, with such precision and care that the possibility of war seems dubious, a little silly. The city is almost strangely pristine—free of garbage and noise, its narrow streets and stone churches quiet. Sitting on the Placa at sunset, even the chatter around us is muted and soft, the air cut only occasionally by the ringing of church bells, a squawking bird.

From the walls, we first spot the bell ringers in their tower—enormous bronze statues of men holding mallets. We wonder aloud if they actually work. Surely they’ve been in place for many years, as their uniforms, their feathered hats indicate. And there was a war. Wars. The mechanism that makes them swing out, ring the bells, must be rusted into silence. But we have underestimated Dubrovnik, her insistence on freezing her past like a postcard.

On the hour, the statue on the right moves as though waking from a long nap, the motion steady and fluid. The mallet swings wide, swings back, makes contact with the enormous bell. Then the other statue does the same. They take turns. The mechanism is flawless, the sound of the bell ringing brilliant across the rooftops.

That’s when the guard kicks us out, stops our reverie short. Apparently we shouldn’t have been let in so late in the first place, but the old man at the gate took our money anyway and waved us through. The guard is a gigantic man with thinning hair and hollows under his eyes whose speaking voice sounds like it was run through a cheese grater. We are a long way from the exit and he walks quickly, shooing us past the prettiest views.

“Listen,” he says huffing a little louder with each step, “You are from America. What is highest point in America?”

As the only American in our party, I am expected to know this answer but I am bleary and distracted from the view of the Adriatic, the sun slanting across the roofs.

“Uh, somewhere in the Rockies?”

“No!” he says in triumph. “Highest point in America is Mount McKinley. Is in state of Alaska. You know Alaska?”

“I know Alaska,” I say.

“OK, what is biggest island that is part of America?”

We are walking so quickly now that I snap photos illicitly so he won’t see. The sun is sliding away. And I know this one.

“Big Island, Hawaii.”

“Yes,” he says, disappointed.

“OK,” he says, moving on to our Chilean friend. “What is highest point in Chile?”

I let my friends go forward without me, hope that they are distracted. At one point, it is me and the platter of the city, the cluster of red roofs as big and close as my own hands and tiny dots in the distance like an impressionist painting, not a whiff of disturbance, of a past or a future, just a frozen picture of a city, all the people in it somewhere below.

Go there:

The clock tower with the bronze bell ringers (named Maro and Baro) can be found at the end of the Placa in Dubrovnik’s Luza Square. To see the ringers themselves, you’ll need to step back a bit for perspective, or climb the city walls.

You can climb Dubrovnik’s city walls from 9 am to 6:30 pm for 50kn (about 7 Euro).

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