Shades of Vertigo: Climbing the Bell Tower in Trogir, Croatia

Sometimes, fear can get the best of you, and here in Trogir, Croatia, I must confess that it did.

Whenever I explore a new city, I like getting high above it, and despite an aversion to heights, I’ve climbed some of Europe’s most iconic church towers: Notre Dame de Paris, Germany’s Ulm Cathedral, and the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. On a recent spring morning, however, I couldn’t muster up the courage to conquer the bell tower of the Saint Lawrence Cathedral, Trogir’s most famous monument.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have done my research in advance. One reader had dubbed the structure the ‘tower of terror’ and many Trip Advisor reviews warned the faint of heart of the unnerving climb. So, I prepared myself for the ascent, leaving anything at our apartment that might be a candidate for rappelling down the infamous stairwell’s cavern. My rings stayed at home, and so did my purse.

trogir bell tower entrance

When we arrived at the 12th-century church—the sole tourists there—I asked the friendly attendant, Maria, if the climb was scary.

“Just the last flight of stairs,” she said. “I have to make the climb every day to be certain no one is up there at closing time.”

A sign posted to the door of the spiraled staircase didn’t do much to ease the nerves:

“You’re climbing on the bell tower on your own responsibility.” The preposition ‘on’ offered a new set of possibilities that I didn’t really want to consider.

belltower sign

The first flight of stairs was standard European cathedral fare: spirally, narrow, and with worn stairs that make you ponder whose feet have pounded them for centuries. Visions of the fictional bell-ringer Quasimodo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame came to mind.

The first flight of stairs.
view from trogir belltower onto street
A peek of the Ćipiko Palace.

When we reached the first exterior platform, we were granted glimpses of the Cipiko Palace’s Venetian Gothic windows, the main square, and the magnificent carved details of the St.Lawrence Cathedral: its rose window, railing, and the elaborate tower we had yet to climb.

Trogir Bell Tower and Rose Window
Trogir belltower
Shawn emerges from the first staircase.
Cipiko Palace windows, as seen from the cathedral's platform.
Cipiko Palace windows, as seen from the cathedral’s platform.
View from the first platform.
View from the first platform.
st. lawrence cathedral railing detail - croatia

Knowing that the bell tower was closing in just 25 minutes – and wanting to protect our eardrums – we swiftly continued our ascent upward, advancing to the tower’s stairwell.

stairwell of Trogir belltower
trogir stairwell of belltower with open windows

Instantly, I could feel my heart pounding when I saw the stairwell’s open nature. I had a hard time banishing belltower scenes from the Alfred Hitchcock film Vertigo from my mind as I climbed to the second level, past open Gothic windows more than twelve feet tall.

Trogir belltower open windows
in stairwell of Trogir Bell Tower
Trogir belltower stairwell
climbing trogir belltower
Shawn, tackling the intimidating, final stretch.
shadows in Trogir bell tower

And fear swiftly got the best of me when I saw the final stretch – a ladder-like, metal staircase precipitously bridging the divide between the stone staircase we’d just climbed, the tower’s open cavern, and the final level above. The metal staircase’s panels were also open. Gusts of wind rushed in, and I feared I’d slip on the significant amounts of pigeon poop amassed on the stairs.

climbing in stairwell of trogir belltower

It was just on the verge of noon, and we knew we had to act quickly since we didn’t want to be meters away from the choir of bells when they made their deafening toll on the hour. I handed Shawn my camera, wishing him a safe passage and a swift return.

In order to reach the top level, Shawn had to climb two legs of the open metal staircase, dodging a pigeon that suddenly flew along his path, then hoisting himself through a small opening in the floor.

Trogir belltower stairwell
Shawn snapped this shot of the final level’s opening in the floor.
climbing trogir cathedral belltower27
The splendid view from the top, taken by Shawn.
climbing trogir cathedral belltower29
climbing trogir cathedral belltower30
climbing trogir cathedral belltower31
Trogir belltower
Shawn peeks through a metal grate.
trogir belltower
That’s Shawn up there!

As Shawn called down to me from above, with exclamations of how gorgeous the view was, and gentle encouragements for me to join him, I looked out from the second platform onto the cluster of red rooftops, Trogir’s town square, and the little people below. I set my sights upon the last leg of the climb, wondering if I could muster up the courage to go just a bit farther, using this as an exercise to overcome my fear of heights.

I finally decided to just be content with where I was, for I had a special view all to myself.

trogir belltower gothic architecture
trogir bell tower view onto main square
What fears have you — or haven’t you — overcome? Do you find it’s easier to tackle fears when you’re in unfamiliar surroundings? When I was in Morocco, for example, I was able to muster up the courage to put a snake charmer’s snake around my neck, but back home, I’d be hesitant to even touch a snake in a cage!

Where in the World?

Planning Pointers:

  • The Church of Saint Lawrence, known locally as Katedrala Sv. Lovre, has limited visiting hours, which vary based upon the season. When we visited in 2013, there was an 18 kuna fee to climb the bell tower.
  • The choir of church bells is beautiful, but I’d advise not being right next to them when the bells toll on the hour. :)
  • For more information, visit the Tourist Board of Trogir.
  • Are you looking for accommodation in the Split / Trogir area? Shawn and I have spent a total of three winters there, using it as a base to explore Croatia’s popular Dalmatia region:
    • The first time, we rented a studio apartment at the Apartments Mirkec (affiliate link) in Trogir. We enjoyed our 7 weeks immensely! The apartment had good Wifi, and a kitchen with all the basics. It was also perfectly situated in the heart of Trogir’s gorgeous Old Town, just a minute’s walk from the seaside walkway (the Riva). Trogir’s bus station was about a 5-minute walk from the Apartments Mirkec, making day trips using mass transportation easy.
    • We also spent two winters in holiday apartments in the nearby city of Split. These apartments were in prime locations and would have been in high demand if it was summertime. Our first 2.5 months in Split, we stayed at the lovely Kaleta Apartments (affiliate link), which are located within Diocletian’s Palace. Our elegant studio apartment (called the ‘Diocletian’s Suite’) had lots of character, including Roman brickwork embedded into the wall. We had overhead views of life on Split’s Old Town streets, and we enjoyed chatting with the friendly owners, Novica and Negri. Two years later, we returned to Split, but stayed in the Varoš neighborhood at the Guesthouse F (affiliate link). We especially enjoyed the studio apartments’ central location, plus our tiny terrace, and the kindness of our hosts, Anja and Miro. (One of Guesthouse F’s apartments was originally a horseshoe maker’s workshop, owned by Anja’s grandfather. Shawn and I dubbed it the ‘horseshoe cottage’.) Varoš is just a few minutes’ walk from Diocletian’s Palace. With its quirky narrow streets and stone homes decorated with hunter-green shutters and flower boxes, Varoš is charming.
  • Visit my Croatia page for more trip tips, plus an index of all my posts about Croatia.

Photography & text © Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

Published by Tricia A. Mitchell

Tricia A. Mitchell is a freelance writer and photographer. Born in Europe but raised in the United States, she has lived in Valletta, Malta; Heidelberg, Germany; and Split, Croatia. An avid globetrotter who has visited more than 65 countries, she has a penchant for off-season travel. Tricia has learned that travel’s greatest gift is not sightseeing, rather it is the interactions with people. Some of her most memorable experiences have been sharing a bottle of champagne with distant French cousins in Lorraine, learning how to milk goats in a sleepy Bulgarian village, and ringing in the Vietnamese New Year with a Hanoi family. She welcomes any opportunity to practice French and German, and she loves delving into a place’s history and artisanal food scene. A former education administrator and training specialist, Tricia has a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a master’s degree in international relations. She and her husband, Shawn, married in the ruins of a snowy German castle. They’ve been known to escape winter by basing themselves in coastal Croatia or Southeast Asia. Her writing has appeared in Fodor’s Travel, Frommer’s, and International Living.

35 thoughts on “Shades of Vertigo: Climbing the Bell Tower in Trogir, Croatia

    1. Tina, your comment made my husband smile, and me too. At least I could get a peek at what it looked like up there from his pictures.

      I hear that a Dr. Who episode was filmed up there, despite the very cramped conditions. I don’t envy that camera team at all!

      1. Yikes! The unsung heros :-). Check out the Video at Frizztext’s reblog of Allan Smorra’s IBEW shots of electrical workers fixing lights atop the Golden Gate! Think about that videographer :-)

  1. Wow – those are some serious crazy steps at the end! I have yet to come across anything quite like that! (Clearly, I must try harder!!)
    So – you ask about over coming fears! I am not quite sure I over came this one – but in Noumea a number of years ago, I tried to do the flying trapeze – yep – the circus act with bodies flying over head!! I didn’t success in making the move, but I did get up there and had to let myself fall to the safety net below. Super scary and I wish I had done it, but very glad that I tried. Turns out, I do have a little fear of heights. Luckily, it rarely stops me.

    1. Anita, was the Split Cathedral anything like this stairwell in Trogir? If not, perhaps I could’ve tried the Split ascent after all!

      I really enjoyed your near trapeze-flying comment. Kudos to you for even getting up there and taking the plunge onto the net! I can imagine what this must have looked like, but I wonder – did they take any footage or pictures, or are the memories just forever etched in your mind? :)

    1. Vera, thank you for visiting and for taking the time to leave your nice compliment. It’s a pleasure to connect.

      I see that you have had a great deal of international traveling adventures yourself and that you’re originally from Torino. I was lucky enough to go to the winter Olympics there in 2006. A beautiful city! I’m impressed at your knack for languages too.

      We’ve found it interesting that this part of Croatia (Dalmatia) shares some Italian characteristics, with its cuisine and language.

    1. From that third floor, the descent must have been especially frightening. It seems many of Croatia’s bell-towers have the same architecture – perhaps I’ll get a second chance to conquer one after all. :)

    1. Frightening seconds aside, it was, Phil. :) With all the pigeons flying in and roosting inside of the tower, it seems the climb would appeal not only to the photographer who favors architecture, but a nature photographer like you. :)

  2. I’m impressed you got that far, Tricia, and your photos are superb. That’s the important bit! I’m a pretty intrepid tower climber but that last stretch does look hairy.
    I’m a wimp when it comes to stuff like bungee jumping and skydiving.

    1. Jo, I guess it wouldn’t come as a surprise, but I don’t think I could bungee or skydive either.

      I was impressed when my grandmother’s friend went skydiving for the first time a few years ago. She did so to celebrate the life of her brother, a paratrooper, who had died in the war.

      What are some of your favorite towers?

  3. Hi Tricia, that does look pretty scary. I think it’s great to face your fears when the reward is something you really want but sometimes, I think the greater challenge is knowing when to say “I don’t need to do that”

    1. I echo your sentiment, Melinda. When faced with whether or not to kiss the Blarney Stone in Ireland, I took the first route (after much trepidation about leaning backwards over a high drop off to do so) but here in Croatia, the latter approach seemed right. :)

  4. Congratulations, you made it so much further than I could have done. I also share the same fear.

    1. Do you know which spots in Dubrovnik are popular for getting a good bird’s eye view of the city (preferably a setting that’s a bit more secure than these metal stairs that got the best of me in Trogir?) :)

  5. I love (and hate) climbing bell towers. My university had an amazing bell tower that had musical bells – the “chimemasters” played the massive, oversized “keyboard” that rang the bells (it was set up like a keyboard but instead of keys, there were large levers for the hand and feet to play). Everything from our school song to the Beatles to classical music came out of that bell tower. The climb to the top is 161 steps – and worth every one!

    1. It was interesting learning about a famous American bell tower; thanks for sharing your memories and the link. It’s funny to imagine Beatles tunes belting ouf of a tower. Kind of reminds me of the time when temple-goers in India invited me to spontaneously play the harmonium in a Hindu temple. The only song I could remember was ‘the Entertainer.’ Not the average fare for India. :)

      Did you ever consider becoming a chime-master?

      1. The Beatles and pop songs were fun, but I think my fondest memories are of the school songs playing every morning and evening. And on Sunday mornings, they played an extended concert. We liked to lay in bed and open our windows and listen to the chimes concert – lazy Sundays were the way to go.

        I didn’t even know chimemasters existed until after my freshman year – it wasn’t well publicized. But even then, I think there would have been too much anxiety for me to want to do it – while the only requirement was being able to read music, I would have been so worried about slipping up because several thousand students, professors, etc would hear the mistakes (occasionally, though rarely, you could hear a mistake in the song).

      2. Lazy Sundays with such a soundtrack – sounds fabulous! I’m a piano player too, so I can imagine how one would be a bit nervous performing for the entire campus. :)

    1. I took the shots as far as 2/3 into the adventure, but Shawn snapped the ones from the tippy top of the tower. Seeing the view from his eyes was the next best thing from experiencing it myself. :)

  6. HA! Enjoyed the post. I’ve been up there a couple of times…actually the thing you have to be really careful about is not to fall into the stairwell opening when you are walking up top. It’s easy to walk around not looking around you and step right into that opening.
    My wife got really spooked just as you did and had a bit of a panic attack at one point. But she made it up with some encouragement. She’d never do it again though.

    Frank (bbqboy)

    1. Frank, I’m impressed you’ve made the ascent a few times! I summoned the courage to do so in Korcula’s Saint Mark’s Cathedral, but I think Trogir’s belltower might still be more intimidating. Perhaps I’ll conquer my fear the next time we’re in Dalmatia. :)

Join the conversation.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: