It’s not easy to decide which is more quaint and interesting: the 16th-century circular Munot fortress perched above the charming medieval town of Schaffhausen, with its beautifully painted bay windows — some from the Renaissance period, or its guard — the nearly seven-foot tall Christian Beck.

Built in 1563–85, the fortress overlooking the Rhine river in Northern Switzerland had a reason for its location — downstream and barely 3 km away are the Rhine falls. The city of Schaffhausen sprung up as trading ships had to halt here to avoid the falls ahead. “My predecessors stood here and constantly watched the Rhine river. If they saw any ship approaching, they rang the bell four times to tell the ship’s captain he could not go beyond this point.”

So the ship halted and Beck’s “ancestors” transported the goods for the 3 km to the falls, of course for a fee. Now, with better and faster transportation this has changed, but the guards date back to 1377 and are older than the fortress in its current form.

Beck wistfully recalls how, once upon a time, this “was a very rich town — as many as 30 ships passed every day, many of them carrying salt imported from Austria. In 1501 we joined Switzerland, and in 1564 started building the fortress, which took 25 years.” He hastens to explain that there was use of “forced labour… all that they got for their labour was a bowl of porridge, bread and 1.5 litres of wine. That is why the shape came out all wrong!”

Strictly speaking, this amiable man, who cracks a joke every other sentence, does not come from a family of guards. Beck’s father was a juvenile court judge, and “I went away to Mexico at the age of 15 and studied hotel administration.” He returned in 2006 to find the tower guard’s job available; “they were looking for somebody to ring the bell. And I was asked to apply.” He did, “with the full knowledge that there are no weekends off!” Surely the approach to the tower, passing through enchanting vineyards, must have been an attraction.

Luckily he qualified on all counts, a major one being a wife by his side, because only couples can apply for this post, which Beck describes as “41 per cent a janitor’s job, 40 per cent cleaning, the rest to give tours and feed the deer (there are 21), and only one per cent ringing the bell. My wife and I say we are in the department of quality control”. The tour part, he adds, is very important as some of his income comes from it.

Not missing a beat

With no weekends off, “we’ve become like part of the furniture. Only once in a way I get time off. The last time I did, I went for 10 days to New York to get to know my mother-in-law better.”

Coming to his bell-ringing duties, Beck says that once upon a time the tower guards had to ring the bell five times a day, but now it is confined to once in the evening, at 9 p.m. The bell looks rather heavy. So, is it difficult to ring? “Depends on how much wine we’ve had with dinner. It might sometimes sound a little shaky, and now you know why!” Explaining the intricacies of this chore, he says there are supposed to be about 300 beats per minute, and then comes yet another story. One of the guards had a young daughter, and when the couple wanted to take a break they would ask her to ring the bell. “She had a boyfriend and the predetermined signal between them was that if she rang with 310 beats, it meant an ‘all clear’ — her parents were out and he could come in.” Stretch your credibility a little and Beck’s stories are really delightful. Like the one about one of his predecessors having “15 daughters; there’s not much to do here, you see”.

Another juicy story is about how in 1799, “the French were here and wanted to capture the place but the Austrians came in and the French fled down the Rhine. This place was attacked only once, by the French… just imagine the spectacle. About 38,000 French soldiers fleeing down the Rhine, and 92,000 Austrians chasing them out and behind them the Russians…” It makes for a pretty chaotic picture, alright.

Next, Beck gives us some information about his apartment, which has five rooms spread over two floors. Here, too, there’s an interesting story. Apparently, when the couple moved in, most of the furniture was hauled up to the tower. But the bed would not go in through the window. “The movers told us that our predecessor had a waterbed, so we should settle for one too. But I didn’t want a waterbed, so I had my bed assembled inside.”

Party in the tower

He adds that when they moved in, they didn’t feel the need for any drapes or curtains on the windows. “But now suddenly, we can see helicopters flying by so close. And when you are using the shower, you certainly don’t want one of those powerful camera lenses looking in on you, so we made sure at least the toilet windows have curtains,” he adds.

He apologises to our little group about his inability to take us to his chambers. “Guests are not allowed. We get invited all the time to parties; people invite us in the hope we will return the favour. But we can’t. But it’s a privilege to live here. On a clear day we can see Mount Santis.”

His retirement age is 65, “which is four years away. Do you know any lighthouse which can give me a job,” he asks, adding, “for this job, you have to love people — meeting them, talking to them, explaining things to them. There are tourists here throughout the year, even during winter, even during storms.”

The tower is a popular party spot in Schaffhausen and through the year, wedding parties and receptions, music events, cocktail parties and the like are organised here. If it weren’t for the modern shops, buzzing cafes, elegant hotels, and 16th- and 17th-century buildings in the narrow streets of Schaffhausen, you’d think you’re back in the medieval era, thanks to the plethora of cannons, old-world arms and armaments, and the like stored in this tower with its numerous vaults, tunnels and safety rooms.

And, of course, Beck has to have a story on the tunnels. “Two years ago, I found a new tunnel and was very excited. Eagerly I contacted the town authorities to report my great discovery. But all they said was: ‘Oh, that’s an old toilet, nothing more’.”

The writer was in Switzerland at the invitation of Swiss Tourism.