During Christmas season, the historical center of Prague has an atmosphere like nowhere else. It is created not only by the unique architecture, but also by the unmistakable light of gas lamps, which were restored to the city center in 2002. We set out to see them with Jan Žákovec, the tallest lamplighter in the world, who manually lights the ones on the Charles Bridge.
Žákovec is vice president of the Lamplighters’ Guild and head of the Gasworks Museum. At 205 cm, he is the tallest lamplighter in the world. How did he find himself in this line of work? “In 2002 they turned on the first nine lamps on Michalská Street, and there was a small celebration to commemorate the way the city used to be lit. There were representatives of various companies who‘d played a part, and I was there on behalf of the gasworks, to say something about gas lighting. When it came time to light the lamps, someone said: You’re the tallest, you light them. So that’s how I started.”
What does a lamplighter need?
“A lamplighter must be tall, so he can get as close as possible and doesn’t need a long pole, and a good eye, to aim for the hole. You also should be warmly dressed, because on the Charles Bridge the cold rises from the water.”
Prague has the 8th largest number of gas lights in the world. Berlin is first, with almost 30,000 lamps, then Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, Boston, London, Baden-Baden, and then us. After Prague come Warsaw, Budapest, and others…
Where can you find Prague’s gas lamps?
“There are gas lamps essentially all along the King’s “Royal Way”. That means its southern part from the Powder Tower to the Old Town Square, and from there to Karlova Street, while the second part leads along Rytířská Street to Uhelný Trh. The route continues across the Charles Bridge to Mostecká Street, then to Malostranské Square and up Nerudova Street to Hradčanské Square, and then to Loretánské Square. The first lamps reappeared in 2002 on Michalská Street. In 2010, the Charles Bridge was converted, and today it’s still the only bridge in the world lit by gas lamps,” Jan Žákovec says.
The rarest are three historical candelabras – an eight-branch lamp on Hradčanské Square (Castle Square), another eight-branch one on Loretánská Street, and a four-branch one on Dražické Square.
“Until 1985, there were lamplighters walking around Prague. They were either employees of the gasworks, or they were part-timers, pensioners. Often they were very eccentric figures. In Malá Strana, a lady called Mrs. Chalupová did the rounds with a wolf-hound named Brita. She was an irritable person. People used to follow her and put the lamps out, and she’d chase them with the pole.”
The lamps’ worst enemies are mayflies, swans, and tourists
The worst enemies of the lamps on the Charles Bridge are mayflies, swans, and tourists. “It happens fairly often on the Charles Bridge that a light-sensitive switch gets clogged by mayflies, so the lamp won’t turn on. One of us has to clean the switch, so that the lamp can light. Another problem is the tourists. They tend to get boisterous on the Royal Way – they’ve had a bit to drink, then they climb the lampposts, make them wobbly, stick things on them, attach padlocks, and so on. Finally – once it happened that we had a lamp that didn’t work and we were wondering what on earth the tourists had done to it the night before. Then we looked at the cameras and found that a swan had flown into the lamp.” (laughs)
How were the lamps lit earlier?
In the early days, the lamplighters used a pole that had a little flame. They’d open the gas tap at the lamp’s bottom and then light the lamp with the flame. Over time, the process was improved with levers. They have two positions. When you pull on the upper one with the pole, a gas tap opens, and a pilot lights the whole lamp. Another way is with a timer. You’d set a certain time at which the gas automatically turned on and the lamp would light from a little gas mantle. That’s still the way it’s done in London – there are no lamplighters with poles like we have, but once every two weeks they reset the time for the lamps to come on. The last method is pressure lighting – the gas pressure was increased by the gasworks in the evening, a regulator reacted, and the lamp turned on. In the morning, the gas pressure was reduced and the lamp went out.
GAS LIGHTING IS PLEASANTER AND WARMER THAN COLD ELECTRIC LIGHT. IT RETURNS ROMANCE TO THE CITY.
It’s not an easy job
We had to try it out ourselves, of course. I was handed a four-meter bamboo pole with a hook on the end. With it, I had to aim for the little hole and pull on it. And voilá – the lamp lit up. I should add that, in winter, your hands are freezing and you can’t feel much, the long pole wobbles around, so it takes a bit of doing – since the fit of laughter screws up your aim.
“The main reason they reinstalled the gas lamps was to make Prague more attractive, both for its citizens and for tourists. They make Prague different from other cities, and at the same time return the romance to the Royal Way.”
Photographs: Tomáš Rubín for city-dog.cz