A night to remember
By Marc Atchison
ZÜRICH — Out of the shadows of a darkened Old Town street walks a man wearing a black cape and tricorne. His face is gaunt, his skin a ghostly white. In one hand he carries a lamp. In the other, a long staff with a spear and axe affixed at the top. For a moment, his menacing appearance freezes me in my tracks. I look for an escape route.
“Hello,” shouts out the bearded man, “I am Martin, the night watchman. Are you the one I will be escorting tonight?”
Martin is one of two remaining night watchmen tour guides who educate visitors to his once time-honoured craft during night time walks of the historic Old Town. “There use to be 12 night watchmen in Zürich, but now there’s only two left,” says Martin, who tells me his lance is patterned after the one used by the Swiss Guards at the Vatican.
Martin is one of Zürich’s best ambassadors and his tours of the fascinating Old Town are sprinkled with lots of historical facts and some light-hearted humour.
As we make our way down a narrow cobblestone street next to the lovely Widder Hotel —made up of nine historic Old Town homes — Martin tells me night watchmen did far more than just light street lamps back before electricity was introduced to the city. “Zürich was a walled city in its earliest days and the gates would be closed and locked nightly at 9:30 sharp by the night watchman. God help you if you were locked out, because danger always lurked outside the gates.
“After the gates closed, the night watchman would patrol the streets looking out for crime and especially fires. Zürich once had seven gates and that’s why they needed so many night watchmen,” Martin smiles.
He tells me there were once 5,600 gas lanterns in Zürich and an army of men (“about 60”) worked alongside the night watchmen to help light the lamps each night.
“Electricity ended their jobs when the lamps were converted in 1890 and I remember it like it was yesterday,” says Martin, who always tries to stay in character.
Martin has become somewhat of a celebrity — Chinese tourists run up to him and take selfies during our walk — and says he enjoys meeting people from other countries. “Zürich has a great story to tell and I’m glad I’m the one telling it,” the night watchman says as we reach a lovely square dominated by St. Peter Church, one of four major churches in the Old Town. Grossmünster, Fraumünster and Predigerkirche are the others.
The impressive church, which was consecrated in 1706, is built on the former site of a Greek temple, which was later used by the Romans to build a castle.
Martin draws my attention to the clock tower and proudly tells me “the face of our clock is the widest in Europe — even bigger than London’s Big Ben.”
Martin says the clock tower is where one of the city’s night watchmen was stationed all the time “because he had a great view of the entire city and could spot a fire very quickly.”
As we make your way to the River Limmat, which cuts through the heart of Zürich, we’re entertained by a symphony of church bells.
“They ring every night at 7 p.m. and it is music to my ears,” says the charming man of a tradition that dates back centuries and is carried out each evening in most Swiss towns and villages.
When we reach the banks of the Limmat, a full moon dances on the calm waters and casts the Old Town in a mystical light. Lights twinkle on the opposite shore and lovers embrace on the benches that line the embankment.
Martin casts a pall on the romantic setting, though, when he tells me “this spot we are standing at is where a lot of lives were lost.
“Zürich, you see, was not always a nice city. In medieval times, people who were believed to be witches were thrown into the river from this spot.”
Oh, the story gets worse.
“When they tried to climb out of the river, men with long poles would push them under the water until they drowned.
“Also during those times, liars would have their tongues nailed to a board and thieves would have their fingers cut off,” a grim-faced Martin relates.
Zürich is far more welcoming now.
As we walk along the river’s edge, I notice a large number of fountains.
“The people of Zürich love their drinking fountains. In fact, there’s 1,227 scattered about the Old Town,” he says.
Along the river is also gathered some attractive medieval homes, which Martin says have become much sought-after addresses with the city’s well-to-do.
“Ironically,” Martin says, “these homes were built in the 14th century to house the poor and today they house some of the richest people in Zürich”
Many other European cities also boast night watchmen and Martin says he’s a proud member of the European Guild of Night Watchmen.
“The guild has 180 members from countries like England, Germany, France and Switzerland. We meet every year for a three-day conference and I especially like the guild meetings held in Scandinavian countries because they involve a lot of beer,” he laughs.
As we return to the Widder Hotel at the end of the tour, Martin leaves me with one last night watchman story:
“Night watchmen did not get paid much money for their work and were usually very poor,” he starts. “There’s a famous story of the kind people of ancient Zürich taking pity on one old toothless watchman. They contributed money so he could have dentures made.
“However, one night after the watchman was fitted for his new teeth, a lady noticed he was still walking around toothless. When he was asked why he was not wearing his new dentures, the night watchman replied, “Because the dentist told me to take them out and soak them in water overnight.’
“Guess you could say that story has no teeth,” Martin laughs as he disappears again into the darkness of night.
The best way to get around Switzerland is by train. The Swiss Travel System offers many different train packages and has recently launched a new website — www.mystsnet.com/en/news/lancierung-mystsnetcom/ — where you can see all options.
Air Canada offers direct flights to Zürich from Toronto and Swiss International Air Lines — www.swiss.com — runs daily service to Zürich from Montreal.
Swiss Deluxe Hotels is a group representing 41 of Switzerland’s best hotels, including Zürich’s Widder Hotel, and offers unique experiences in some of the most visited places in Switzerland.
For information, go to www.swissdeluxehotels.com/en
For information on Switzerland and its many wonders, go to www.MySwitzerland.com.