SCHAFFHAUSEN, Switzerland -- Few people have to climb 210 stairs to reach the front door of their home, unless of course they are the guard of the Munot fortress. That job belongs to Christian Beck, who lives in the tower of the hilltop landmark in this attractive medieval Swiss town.
Several times a day, he walks up and down the stairs in the course of his many roles, one of which is giving tours of the Munot. A tall, slim, genial man in period costume, he greets us at the town dock, where a boat has deposited us after a pleasant 90-minute cruise from Stein am Rhein.
The job of fortress guard is an ancient one that dates back to 1377.
"My wife and myself are the 68th Munot guards and we have the privilege to live on top of this round tower up here," Beck says, gesturing.
He leads the way to the fort, but not through the main entrance. ("That's too easy," he quips.) Instead we go up on the city wall.
"Many people in Schaffhausen have never been up there, and until the '80s it wasn't even possible because the fortress was in poor condition and unsafe."
As we climb, we glimpse surrounding vineyards glistening in the sun and the church spires in the town below, which looks much as it did hundreds of years ago.
"This was a very rich town, economically more important than Zurich because we had a bigger river, which made a difference in the old days," explains Beck, whose predecessors would stand on a lookout and, when a ship approached, ring a bell to warn the captain of waterfalls up ahead. They also did a booming business transporting cargo from the boats some 3-km over land past the Rhine Falls. With about 30 ships passing each day, Beck admits the old guards had a harder life.
Today, the gatekeeper's role is a lot less lucrative and involves maintaining the grounds, caring for the 21 resident deer (one of which is always named after the current mayor), and helping to organize some of the 20 major events and festivals that take place on the fort's terrace ever year.
One tradition that continues is the nightly bell ringing, which once signalled the town curfew. Every night at 9, Beck or his wife, rings the tower bell for five minutes.
"I underestimated this part of the job big time when I started," our affable guide says. "I wasn't instructed, they just said 'ring the bell' and I thought that must be
easy, I pull the rope and the bell rings. But I was surprised how much technique you needed to ring it properly.
"I've been asked many times 'how do you become Munot guard,'" Beck says.
It wasn't something he planned. Born in Schaffhausen (where his family roots go back to 1540), his family moved to the Zurich area when he was seven. As an adult he spent 15 years abroad, many of them working in Mexico in the hotel industry. When he returned to Switzerland, he needed a job and heard of an opening for a bell ringer and decided to apply. His facility with languages didn't hurt. He can give tours in English, German, Swiss German, Spanish and French.
"I think you have to love people," Beck says. "Here you're surrounded by people all day, all year long. I was told in wintertime you'll be lonely but it's not true. Even in winter people come up here."
It helps that he is married and his children are grown: "You can't do this job by yourself, because this place is open all year and we have no weekends off."
One might think living in a tower would assure privacy. That's what Beck assumed until a friend who lived on a nearby hill informed him otherwise, and suggested he get curtains, which he did.
The tour also stops at a large bunker (the fort was only attacked once) and a small armoury room with ceiling paintings, ancient lances displayed on the walls, a treasure chest and a small projectile equipped with a camera that landed on the property. From the armoury, you can see the stairs that lead to the guard's home.
"There's a secret being held within this apartment," Beck says without elaborating. "Nobody's supposed to see it."
That hasn't stopped many townsfolk from inviting him to dinner in hopes he'll reciprocate.
"I once found a secret passageway," Beck remarks. "It's a deep hole, I climbed down and crawled under the fortress to this side, and when I came out I called my boss, but he told me he already knew about this one! But there are still other mysteries to be uncovered.
"We know who built the Munot -- it was constructed by the citizens of Schaffhausen -- but not who designed it. We have no construction plans," Beck says.
Describing his job as one of his greatest adventures, Beck is pensive about the future. In the old days the Munot guard had the job for life. Now it lasts until retirement at age 65, which, for Beck, is just four years away.
"We'll have to leave then and look for another apartment, maybe a lighthouse," he jokes.
NEED TO KNOW
Entrance to Munot fortress is free. For tour information, check munot.ch. For more on the town, check schaffhauserland.ch. For information on travel to Switzerland, visit the Swiss National Tourist Office at myswitzerland.com.
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THREE TO SEE
Three attractions in and around Schaffhausen:
1. Old Town
Take a guided or self-guided tour of the Old Town famous for its many historic bay windows and buildings with artistic facades. Among the most eye-catching is Haus zum Ritter, built in 1566, at 65 Vordergasse. It's covered in paintings that include scenes from Homer's Odyssey.
2. All Saints Museum
On the grounds of a former Benedictine monastery is the Museum zu Allerheiligen (All Saints Museum). One of the most notable national museums in Switzerland it has exhibits from prehistoric times to the present including period furnishing, weapons and the Treasury in the former abbot's salon. Check allerheiligen.ch.
3. Rhine Falls
Rhine Falls is Europe's biggest waterfall and attracts visitors from all around. It's only 23 metres high but 150 metres wide and has a summer water flow rate of up to 600,000 litres per second. See it from one of a few different lookout points including the belvedere of Laufen Castle on the left bank; a short boat ride in the Rhine Falls basin; or enjoy the views from the Panorama restaurant -- located in a former customs house (serving trendy Swiss cuisine). Check rheinfall.ch.