The Nightwatchman of Lausanne

Like Rapunzel from her tower, the nightwatchman tosses down a long piece of twine. Tied to the end is one heavy metal key that looks as if it might open a lost treasure chest or someone’s haunted attic.

Instead, it opens the door to the Lausanne Cathedral, usually locked up for the night. I let myself in, lock the door behind me, then start to climb the 153 stairs to the top of the belfry. Each stone step is worn with age, the hollow footprints from the past 700 years of humans who have trudged up to the top of this Swiss city’s sacred citadel.

Already, I can hear the bass ring of the bell—dong, dong, dong—and I step out onto the narrow stone platform just in time.

A man wrapped in a black coat steps to the edge of the tower, his face hidden in the shadow of his black rimmed hat, moving gently in the night wind. He cups his hand around his mouth and proclaims to the city below:

C’est le guet! Il a sonné dix!” and then again, “Il a sonné dix!

It’s the nightwatchman. It just rang ten!

I follow the nightwatchman as he performs his routine around the tower, shouting out the time from the East, then North, then West, then South. From every side, he calls out the hour, a quiet call from the highest point in the city.

I’m not sure anyone can hear him. The Saturday night noise of Lausanne echoes up to us: friends laughing in restaurants, fans cheering the soccer game on TV, car horns honking. But no matter, the nightwatchman achieves his duty with exactitude and a somewhat somber face. Only when he’s made his final call to the South does he relax, smile, and offer his hand to me.

Renato Häusler is Lausanne’s official nightwatchman, appointed by the city ten years ago (though he started out as the replacement nightwatchman back in 1984).

He takes his position extremely seriously and somewhat philosophically.

“In the Middle Ages, fire was the number one threat to Lausanne, followed by plagues and then enemy attack. Since the city was built entirely of wood, it was very susceptible to fires. From up here, the nightwatchman could spot any fires early on and alert the city. It was criticalhe saves properties and peoples’ lives.”

Today, the nightwatchman does less for the city’s physical security but holds up a longstanding tradition that defines this city.

“There are six other nightwatchmen left in Europe—a few in Poland—but Lausanne is the only city in Europe that has had a regular nightwatchman without interruption for more than 600 years.”

Construction on Lausanne Cathedral began in 1175 but the Gothic structure was only completed a century later, in 1275. Stripped bare during the reformation, the entire building was restored in the 19th century. Today, it stands as Lausanne’s crowning glory, high on a hill overlooking the rest of this medieval-turned-modern lakeside city.

The nightwatchman has a day job, too. Renato works with disabled people, a career he pursues with equal passion.

“So, when do you sleep?” I ask him.

“Well, I finish at 2 AM, and then I sleep until eight.” Six hours of sleep, that’s all. Every night, he begins his duties at the cathedral at 10 PM. He announces the time every hour on the hour until 2 AM, then climbs back down the stairs and goes home for the night.

Does he ever miss an hour?

“Yes,” he confesses, “It has happened. Sometimes I get very tired up here and I simply fall asleep. It’s rare, but it’s happened.” Renato’s “office” is a tiny wooden hovel inside the cathedral belfry, pulled straight out of the likes of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and yet it is very comfortable, complete with bed, books, and best of all: wi-fi!

Renato prefers not to use it, though. His time up in the tower is one of quiet and solitude. By the books on his shelf I can see that he is a philosophical and meditative man and that this job as nightwatchman is not merely for the novelty. For Renato, the meaning of his job goes much deeper. He is the nightwatchman who watches the city from above—one man out of the 350,000 people who live in Lausanne who carries the history of this city through the night and into each new calendar day.

We chat in the candlelight of his lantern until the bell rings eleven o’clock. In a flash, Renato turns all-business, donning his cloak and hat and stepping out onto the stone landing. He cups his hands to his mouth, then announces the time.

When he is finished, I bid him farewell, descending in circles down the spiral cathedral steps to the old wooden door and then walking out into the night. From the end of the string hangs the same key as before. I lock the door and then give it a tug and from 200 feet above, the nightwatchman of Lausanne hauls up his key and waits for midnight to come.

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Looking up to the belfry of Lausanne Cathedral where nightwatchman Renato Häusler stays through the night and announces each hour. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)