Pretty much unique to Europe, there is a tradition that has spanned the centuries to this day. But while many cities have cultivated cobwebs or turned it into a tourist attraction, no city has embraced this historical heritage like no other.
I am speaking of tower watchmen. Proudly taking it into the new age, the first female watchwoman of Münster, Martje Saljé, has invited up on her tower. But don’t call her Rapunzel!
**** This post wasn’t commissioned but came to be as part of an invite by Münster Marketing. Normally, you can’t get up on the tower. ****
Tooting on Towers
You can hear her from afar without having to look for her in S Lamberti Tower, Münster. Every half hour from 9pm to midnight she goes out onto the ramparts of the tower and toots her horn.
Hourly she announces the time with her horn. This happens no matter the weather or season every day, except Tuesdays. Stat
It isn’t the original horn, of course, having been used for centuries and had to be replaced at some point. The blowing piece has been repaired but the main horn part has been as preserved from her predecessor.
But why the tooting? The tower watchwoman’s job is to take in everything from the horizon down to the streets 360°. With her eyes sharp like an eagle – sometimes she uses binoculars – she searches for signs of trouble.
Formerly, this included invading armies, nowadays it’s mostly signs of fires or anything else suspicious.
For instance, recently was she able to alert the fire brigade of a fire in the district Münster-Kinderhaus that could have easily escalated. Her call was among the first to dial in.
Inside her office is a giant map of the city with major landmarks highlighted to make it easier for Martje Saljé to locate potential fire sources.
In her tower, she has a direct wire to the fire brigade to get in touch with them as swiftly as possible. In the beginning, that got a bit out of hand as she mistook the regular smoke column from the industrial area for cause for alarm.
After five years in office up at St Lamberti Tower, she’s a seasoned pro, however. Once she notified the fire bridge of a fire, she then alerts the rest of the town through staccato like tooting.
If you’re living in Münster, you are pretty much used to the regular daily tooting. But if she starts to alter her sound, you’ll register it rightaway.
How to Climb the Ladder
But how did she end up as the first woman to run the St Lamberti Tower in Münster? Five years ago, she was casually browsing for job ads, having decided to turn her life on the road, touring the world with her music.
The ad from Münster sprung at her like a personal call. “I instantly felt this was for me and I know: this job and none other.”
A major history buff and graduate who happened to have learned about Münster’s vibrant history, including the Anabaptists, she jumped at the opportunity to continue an age old tradition and continue learning about its history and that of the city.
She made it top choice out of 46 other applicants and after three rounds of intense interviews. Her genuine idealism, her education and love for the city convinced the city to taker her on and make history.
Daily Logs and Yearly Legs
She may not be native to the city of Münster but her passion for it is unparalleled. You can hear it in her voice as she speaks of all the things she keeps on learning, the people she’s meeting and the stories she’s collecting.
Not only does she diligently keep a log book on her daily work, noting the temperature, winds, events and such, but on top of all of that, she writes a bilingual blog. It is entirely dedicated to her work in the tower and her visits to other towers across Europe.
With a little laugh she confesses “having to go on holiday is a luxury problem”. After all, she is employed in public service and you know how tight Germany is on its rules and regulations.
But she makes the best of it, networking with fellow town watchmen and women and scheduling visits. (She has a substitute town watcher in case of her absence.)
Two Towers & Her-Story
Did you know that there is a total of three tower watchwomen in Germany? One is in the Blue Tower of Bad Wimpfen and the other at Paul Gerhardt Church in Lübben, the Spreewald region near Berlin. Today, these traditions have become a rare phenomenon with many towers having fallen into disrepair and the history of their keepers long forgotten.
Martje Saljé recalls in happy wonder how a female tower watchwoman kept up the work of her suddenly diseased husband until 1945, when she died of old age.
“The old lady was called Anna Otto. Such a pretty name!”, Martje exclaims. Back then, the woman had it much tougher, living in drafty rooms and having to ring actual bells.
It was only thanks to the local club devoted to the maintenance of traditions that her history was preserved and the chambers restored. There is no longer a tower person in office, but you can visit the quarters and see old photographs and original documents.
Not every tower and city has been so lucky and therefore it has become part of Martje’s mission to write down as much as possible. Sometimes it’s on the blog, other times in her personal journal.
In most cases, the job of the tower watchman no longer is purely for its preservation of tradition. In many cases it is a tourist attraction, “historytainment”, as Martje calls it.
And she travels to towers herself. “I call that the Tour de Tours, which is French for towers.” She has made friends and new connections in a lot of European cities. Her newest goal is to visit more of Switzerland’s towers.
But Martje doesn’t have to travel far to climb another tower. Even up the TV Tower of Münster she made it thanks to a swap with the new owner. Each was curious as to the other’s job. Another tower she talks about is the one in Poland’s Krakow.
And I recalled, during my own visit the tower was of quite the importance during my walking tour. Up there is another tower watchman who toots his horn live.
But just before the last note of his song sounds, he chokes and stops. This is to imitate an arrow striking a former watchman during an attack.
But there is much to be said about the history of the Münster and its tower watchmen. The latter’s origins began in 1383.
The Catholic church St Lamberti had been built a few years prior and it being the highest point in the city, was the perfect place to keep a lookout.
To get up on the tower, you have to go through a narrow door hidden on the side of the church, marked by a stone plaque of a watchman. It’s 300 steps up to the office, which now is surely more comfortable than it was in the Middle Ages.
A little more than halfway up, you get to the big bell. It’s only ever rung when a new mayor of the city is elected and sworn in. It’s Martje’s job to ring it and she loves it! Though it is extremely loud and apparently a little obnoxious .The bell isn’t to sound pretty, it’s to be hard far and wide.
Love for Münster
What makes the city so special apart from its traditions and the many things to see in Münster? According to Martje, it is a “small, snug town with a big city flair owning to its cultural offerings.
You easily get everywhere, nothing is far and it has everything you need. […] Modernity, antiques, traditions… nothing is excluding and there’s a peaceful coexistence. That’s what Münster signifies.”
With so much to learn year in year out and her enthusiasm only ever growing, Martje believes she will happily continue her job even after she is supposed to become a pensioner.
“Pension is far away, we’ll see. I am allowed to prolong. My predecessor did. You can say: I want to continue another year. The knees are fine. The hip is working. I am able, I can do it. I want it!“
Martje not only runs up and down the stairs 6 days a week like a gazelle, but she also does “swimming and long-distance run to keep up her condition.” But what else does this Renaissance woman do? Her background, aside from history, is music. Both of which she studied.
Music on High
I look around her small office 300 steps off the ground and spot a guitar standing in the corner and a lyre hanging on the wall next to unique art pieces, of which each has its own vibrant story that Marje loves to share.
She doesn’t even know how many instruments she has learned to play by now, only that “it started with piano”. It ended – for the moment – with music tours around the world. She played in various bands to fund her studies, which then turned into a self sustaining job.
Martje thrived on sharing her love for music and performed own pieces together with her band Lack of Limits. The music type she would describe as Folk Rock. And her goal above all else is to make people dance. And that she did with many sold CDs and DVDs as well as live performances.
Keeping Her Company
While she has retired from the stages of the world, she still performs in private. You can book her “for weddings, divorces, birthdays… everywhere really where you want to celebrate,“ she says with a smirk.
But does she ever feel alone up here on her tower? Smiling she tells of a rare type of bat that usually dwells on cliffs but has chosen the tower of St Lamberti as their home. And the common kestrel also makes his regular rounds.“I want to believe they are watching over me,” Martje says.
To keep herself entertained, she sometimes sneaks down to the iron cages near the big bell past midnight. In those cages the Anabaptists who temporarily took over Münster, proclaiming the imminent apocalypse, were hung.
Already dead, birds fed on their carcass and their bodies were never removed. Naturally, their remains crumbled to the floor, being cleaned by the city sweepers. Their cages remain and since 1987, a light installation projects their “lost souls” onto the tower walls.
You can see it from below and it does look eerie indeed if you haven’t been made aware.Martje loves the gentle shivers she gets when she stands up in the tower, watching the lights flicker and fade. “I like that thrill.”
But her main passions remain: history and tradition, music and travel. Her thirst for more is never ending and she can only recommend Münster to anyone. “There I so much to explore!” And sometimes you shouldn’t forget to look up and beyond what you see to find out the most curious stories.
Check out Martje’s facebook or send her a an e- or regular mail (she loves postcards, too):
More interviews around the world
Leave a Reply