The Watchman of Lausanne
For more than six centuries, a lone figure—part guard, part human angel—has circled the bell tower every night in the Cathedral of Lausanne, calling out the hour. For the last 28 years, it’s been Renato Häusler’s turn.
By MICHAEL CERVIN
It’s nearly midnight and a forceful cold wind blows across Lake Geneva through the empty streets of Lausanne, Switzerland. As I leave the comfort of my hotel room, a full moon illuminates the cobblestones that lead to a 13th-Century Gothic cathedral, and the 153 stone steps I plan to climb to the cathedral’s bell tower. Someone waits for me up there.
Lausanne is an old city, originally a Roman military base. In the Middle Ages it was a town of about 10,000 souls living in wooden houses on narrow streets. As was typical of the times they built a cathedral, the construction beginning in 1170. Today, Lausanne is about 150,000 strong, and home to the Olympic Museum, culinary schools, and Swiss chocolate stores. Throughout its history, the Cathedral of Lausanne has had a Watchman—someone to watch over the city, to protect it; an angel of sorts, even if only human. This is why I climbed 153 cold stone steps on a Tuesday night when I could have been sequestered underneath one of Switzerland’s famously thick down comforters.
Odd and antiquated as this tradition seems, it’s not unusual in Europe. Seven cities on the continent still use watchmen just as they have since the Middle Ages. The oldest are Ripon Cathedral in North Yorkshire, England, and St. Mary’s in Krakow, Poland.
As I ascend the outer stairs, organ music thunders ominously through the bowels of the sanctuary, the music reverberating off the stone as if someone timed this musical cue just for me. This is weird. I pause. No, the organist just happens to be practicing on this particular night. Winded, I arrive at the top of the bell tower; the cold wind whips against my sweat. A small door is open, an amber light emanates from within. Inside Renato Häusler is making candles – his tousled black and grey hair and round glasses, with a peach scarf loose about his neck, give him the appearance of a middle-aged Harry Potter. He is the Watchman I’ve come to see.
The Watchmen of Lausanne have been calling the time atop this cathedral every night for 612 years, without interruption. Odd and antiquated as this tradition seems, it’s not unusual in Europe. Seven cities on the continent still use watchmen just as they have since the Middle Ages. The oldest are Ripon Cathedral in North Yorkshire, England, and St. Mary’s in Krakow, Poland. A few other European cities on the continent employ watchmen as well, although these are recent additions to please tourists and bring in cash. To see the real thing, therefore, I had to come to a place like Lausanne.
Häusler sleeps on a thin mattress, his knees bent to squeeze into his five-foot long bed, his head only inches from the five-and-a-half-ton Marie-Madeleine bell that rings the hour. There is no toilet, no computer, few lights, fewer conversations.
It seems preposterous, almost impossible that men (women are not allowed to do this job in Lausanne) have stood on this very place for six centuries and watched over the city. But they have, and for the last 28 years it has been Häusler’s turn. The genesis of this oddity was that following a major fire on October 25, 1405, the archbishop issued a decree placing a Watchman in the cathedral bell tower to scan for fires, invaders, announce the time, and to ring the bells.
Usually it worked, but not always. During the 17th century, six major fires destroyed large parts of Lausanne killing hundreds of people. But as time progressed—as the city rebuilt, urban centers sprang up, outsiders moved in, town charters formed, and technology allowed apps to steer locals and visitors around the city—the Watchman did not waver. He never left the cathedral; to this day he calls out the hour through cupped hands, carrying a lantern to each of the four points of the bell tower.
Häusler calls the time, and passes the time, alone in the watchtower alongside massive old wooden beams that support the prodigiously heavy Cathedral bells. He occupies a small, narrow space, the word “Loge du Guet” (room of the Watchman) written in chalk on the door. The room was built in 1947 and for over 500 years before that the Watchman had to combat the elements without any shelter.
Häusler sleeps here on a thin mattress, his knees bent to squeeze into the five-foot long bed, his head only inches from the five-and-a-half-ton Marie-Madeleine bell that rings the hour. But this is his calling, paid for by the citizens of Lausanne. There is no toilet, no computer, few lights, fewer conversations. He appears to be perfectly happy, but it’s difficult to tell. Häusler is a quiet man who doesn’t care to discuss his personal life (and refused to be photographed for more than a few minutes). To me, he is like a question mark, and that rare thing in this day and age: a person who doesn’t need to explain everything.
Not everyone could do this job, nor would want to. It is lonely here, 15 stories above the old streets. His two daughters, when they were younger, sometimes kept him company, occasionally sleeping in the compact space as he slept on the floor. But they are older now, less inclined to spend the night in a cold, constricted chamber away from friends, Facebook and family. Yet Häusler is not lonely; he knows his wife and daughters are at home, warm and comfortable in a traditional bed.
“This is mysterious to visitors,” he tells me in broken English blanketed by a thick French accent. “There used to be someone permanently here day and night,” he says. But these days the need is limited and Häusler does this only at 10 and 11 p.m., and again at 1 and 2 a.m., five nights a week, with alternates stepping in when he’s not here. There are the occasional visitors at night, like me, but typically only locals bother to come here, and even they are infrequent.
In the darkness, what could easily be a scene from a Gothic horror movie, a disembodied voice lithely sings out the time. He repeats this at all four sections of the tower, moving by candlelight with surprising speed and grace given his 58 years.
Häusler plans to retire in 2024 when he is 65, and until then his wife “has to accept this,” he says off handedly. When he became the full time Watchman in 2002, he beat out 58 other applicants, making one wonder what that application process would even look like. “You have to have a nice voice,” he tells me in a mellifluous, lilting voice. Sure enough, the recorded announcements in the underground I took to get here? Yes, that too is Häusler’s voice. Interestingly both as Watchman and the voice of the underground, Häusler is never seen—heard, yes, but ambiguously—which is why what he next tells me makes sense. “This is a refuge, for me. I’m thankful to be here and carry on the tradition.”
Perhaps buoyed by his solitary tenure, Häusler has become a scavenger of mementos dropped around the cathedral grounds by tourists. I see a feather he has kept, “from a pigeon,” he tells me. The only other birds that fly up this high are Martins and the occasional peregrine falcon. A small ceramic owl makes a sort of game for Häusler, who can rotate the head atop the body to make the owl appear in different poses. There are many more tokens he has laid out on a shelf—a collection of forgotten trinkets abandoned by pilgrims, the faithful he never sees, but who he assumes have come here to repent or pray.
Häusler’s own prayers take a different form. As we talk, he pours wax into a mold to make candles that he places about the Cathedral. Suddenly, without warning, he stands up, drops the molten wax onto the table, dons a felt hat and coat and bursts out the door without a word. It must be time so I quickly follow.
He lights a candle in a lantern, hooks the lantern on the side of the rail and…nothing happens. I realize we’re standing next to the massive bronze bells when they sound a few seconds later, at 11 p.m., the vibration ripping through my body as fiercely as the cold air. He turns toward the lights of the city, hands cupped tightly around his mouth. In the darkness, what could easily be a scene from a Gothic horror movie, a disembodied voice lithely sings out the time. He repeats this at all four sections of the tower, moving by candlelight with surprising speed and grace given his 58 years. Then, as quickly as it began, it is over.
We return to Loge du Guet and I ask why it’s important to move so fast, assuming it’s part of the gig to make the calls as rapidly as you can. “No,” he says, “it’s just cold out there.”
When I thank him for allowing me to visit, he is polite, courteous, but I get the feeling that if I hadn’t shown up he would be just as content. Before I leave I ask him what he thinks would happen if the city decided to defund this job and no one else wanted to do it? Apparently, some feel the Watchman is an outdated concept for our modern world. “Then it would stop,” he says matter of factly, seemingly unfazed that 600 years of tradition could suddenly end.
The locals I spoke with didn’t want the Watchman to stop, but they were also ambivalent. Whether it stays or goes, the beauty of this simple act is that it exists at all—through war, famine, acts of God, political instability, bad weather, moral upheaval, and anything else time may have thrown at the tower. Almost like the tower itself, Häusler stands in his little room with only nuanced shades of change, and with no pretense or sense of time: immovable, stalwart, dispassionate.
“The world is too busy, too superficial,” he says, his eyes wandering around the room as if searching for something familiar and solid to anchor his thoughts. I probably ask too many questions. He pauses a while and I can feel a slight shift in his energy. He seems wistful, almost lost in six centuries of continuum far above the din of the street. “Here it is good values. Wood, stone, history—nothing complicated.” At 7 a.m. he will head for home, where his wife and daughters no doubt wait. “This is a place that is good for my soul,” he says in a hushed voice.
I descend the tower, wondering what the soul needs. Maybe it is a Watchman. Maybe it is as simple as someone calling the time to you in your fluid moments between daily life and dream state. Perhaps we all need to hear a familiar voice echoing through the cold night air, confirming that we are safe, and that at least a few things in life have not changed. As I board the underground to head to my hotel, I take a last look at the bell tower. I am comforted to know someone is up there in the dark, watching.
You can arrange a visit the Watchman of Lausanne by contacting the Lausanne Visitor’s Center.