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Lausanne keeps six-century-old tradition alive with new nightwatchman

The Local Switzerland
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Lausanne keeps six-century-old tradition alive with new nightwatchman
Lausanne is the last city in Europe to keep alive the tradition of the nightwatch, after the city suffered from many devastating medieval fires. (Photo by FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP)

A new voice will echo around Lausanne Cathedral in Switzerland from January 1st 2024 after a a new nightwatchman was appointed. But what is his job?

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Every evening, the night watchman clambers to the top of the Lausanne cathedral bell tower and gets to work: he shouts out the time each hour, keeping a six-century-old tradition alive.

The night watchman, one of the last in Europe, no longer alerts this Swiss city to fires, but he does help residents to keep track of the time.

"This is the watchman! The bell has tolled 10. The bell has tolled 10."

Cupping his hands around his mouth, the watchman's voice carries across the rooftops, just as his predecessors have done every evening since 1405.

From now on this will be the job of Alexandre Schmid who from January 1st replaces Renato Häusler, who has held the position since 2002.

"Mr Schmid holds a bachelor’s degree in history and geography from the University of Lausanne and is a connoisseur of the city of Lausanne,” said the university in a press release this week.

Schmid has the job of calling out the hours from 10pm to 2am, 365 days a year. Although he is allowed time off. He will be assisted by a team of one watchman and five replacement watchmen.

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He will wear a big black hat and carry a lantern, as he steps out to the bell tower railing to serve as a living clock for the people of the picturesque city on the shores of Lake Geneva.

Changing times 

The night watchman used to play a far more vital role.

Back when fire constituted a permanent threat to medieval towns and cities built in wood, he was an essential part of a network of watchmen, most of whom patrolled the streets.

From his perch, the cathedral watchman was tasked with sounding the alarm at the first whiff of smoke. 

Across Europe, there were "thousands, if not tens of thousands" of watchmen protecting urban spaces from fire, said Renato Haeusler, who holds the permanent watchman position in Lausanne.

But as technology advanced, the once ubiquitous position became largely obsolete and the watchmen all but disappeared across the continent.

Today, Lausanne is one of just seven European towns or cities to have maintained the tradition of a year-round watchman, alongside Annaberg, Celle and Noerdlingen in Germany, Ripon in Britain, Krakow in Poland and Ystad in Sweden.

In Lausanne, the watchman used to be entrusted with manually ringing the bell on the hour, but in 1950, the task fell to automation.

With reporting from AFP

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