The Lausanne tradition carrying on in female form
Ever since 1405, a long line of night watchmen have taken it in turns to call out the time from the top of Lausanne's city cathedral. It was only in August 2021 that a woman became part of this historic tradition.
If you happen to be strolling through the city of Lausanne at night, you'll probably hear someone calling: "This is the night watch, and it has just rung..." followed by the number ten, eleven, twelve, one or two. The announcement comes from high above, the cathedral's night watch. "Their main role was watching out for fires. Houses used to be made of wood, and heated with wood, so there were a lot of fires. In fact, it was a major fire in the city that led to the night watch being formalised in 1405, although they had probably been around since 1235," explains David Payot, head of the municipal department for children, youth and neighbourhoods in the capital of the canton of Vaud. "Historical records tell us that there were night watches both at street level and at the top of the tower, at the cathedral and at the church of Saint Francis. They communicated with each other by shouting, reporting fires and telling the time. It was also a way of checking that no one had fallen asleep during their shift."
A timeless bubble
Night watches were common in a number of European countries for several hundred years. In Lausanne, the function changed in 1880 from an everday activity to a veritable tradition. "It was the city residents who begged the night watchmen to stay, showing their gratitude and attachment to these beloved local characters," says Payot. As in the past, night watches continue to be employed by the municipal council.
Today, there are seven in the city of Lausanne, including Renato Häusler, who has held the post for 20 years. "It was fate that I got the job. It was 1987, and a friend of mind who lived in the neighbourhood used to work as a replacement watchman. One day he told me there was a vacancy, and that's how I joined the team," he explains. Häusler, who is from Lausanne and also works in events, has been climbing the 153 steps up to the cathedral belfry for 34 years. "It's an honour and a privilege to be part of keeping this tradition alive. I enjoy being alone in the tower, and I love the fact that what I do is out of step with modern times. It's like a timeless bubble – while we're going through the same motions from hundreds of years ago, contemporary society is rushing by at a thousand miles an hour."
To pass the time between each hourly cry, Häusler delves into stories from the two world wars and the field of astronomy. The night watch takes place 365 days a year, come rain or shine. "My favourite time of year is April, when the swifts return from their journey to Africa and nest in the tower," says Häusler. He also admits that he sometimes ends up spending the rest of the night in the belfry lodge.
First watchwoman in history
If ever Häusler is ill, on holiday, or otherwise unavailable, a replacement night watch takes over. One of them is Cassandre Berdoz, the first ever woman to have joined the ranks of the night watch.
There is nothing to show us that the night watch was open to women in the past.
says Elsa Kurz, deputy secretary general of the department for children, youth and neighbourhoods. "When a replacement position became available in 2021, we decided to give preference to female candidates." Berdoz was one of the hundred or so applicants, 80% of whom were women.
"I've always been passionate about my city and its history and heritage. And I always dreamt about being a watchwoman. In 2007, I took part in a show with my school choir for the reopening of the cathedral's painted portal. That's when I found out about the night watch's lodge and the penny dropped – I had to become a watchwoman."
Berdoz, who is from Vaud and 28 years old, applied for the post on several ocassions. Over the years, she became increasingly convinced that this is what she was meant to do. "During the women's strike on 14 June 2019, I saw the first (unofficial) female lookouts announcing the time of the strike. So I decided to send in a blind application to the city of Lausanne, but I didn't even get a response. Since then, I kept sending them applications until the official call in June 2021."
Berdoz became the first watchwoman in history on 19 August 2021, spending her first night in the cathedral tower. "It was an incredible moment that will stay with us forever. My family and friends were down there until the very end, like my very own fan club. I had stage fright, but I wanted to make them proud. Letting women take on positions that used to be reserved for men only is an enormous challenge. I am very honoured and hope that I can make women eveywhere proud. I'm campaigning in my own way, shouting for all those who can't," says Berdoz, who also works in communication. "I think traditions should be kept alive but allowed to evolve at the same time. When I'm up in the tower, it's quite magical. Even though we're in the city centre, it's quiet and I feel serene. You can enjoy some me time, be bored or just read – you don't have to be proactive all the time. You can just switch off when you're up there," concludes Bendoz. A dream come true and a tradition being kept alive by women, the first time ever in Europe.
Cover picture: Cassandre Berdoz - "Ville de Lausanne - La Télé