Prague is one of three cities left in the world to use lamplighters. During Advent, as a way to set the holiday mood, a tall man in First Republic-era outfit goes up and down Charles Bridge to personally light dozens of gas lamps.
People can find him on Charles Bridge, starting around 4 pm at the Old Town Side, daily until December 23. There are also two extraordinary events on December 12 and 17 starting at 6 pm at the intersection of Loretánská and U Kasáren streets, where there is an eight-armed iron candelabra.
The Advent walk called From Candelabra to Candelabra goes past several city-owned statues to end at a second iron candelabra at Hradčanské náměstí. The free guided tour is in Czech.
The trip on Charles Bridge takes about an hour, as Jan Žákovec stops to chat with locals and tourists about his favorite topic: gas light. He also poses for photos and lets small children help by holding the end of his hook. In photos, Žákovec towers over most people. At just over two meters tall, he claims to be the tallest lamplighter in the world.
Žákovec is actually the head of the Gas Museum (Plynárenské muzeum), and got the job of lamplighter when gas lights were restored in Prague, as he was the tallest person involved in the historical aspects of gas lighting. His height made it easier for him to reach the lights. His background allows him to explain the history to anyone who wants to ask.
“All the year long [the lighting] is automatic but during Advent time we want to show to tourists and others in Prague the work of lamplighters and the history,” Žákovec said.
The history is quite extensive. “The tradition of lamplighters in Prague lasted 150 to 155 years. In the 1920s and ’30s there were around 130 lamplighters, then after the Second World War the number went down. In 1985, gas lamps ended,” he said.
The first 200 lamps were lit in 1847 in Prague, and reached a peak of 9,000 by 1940. The two candelabras by Hradčanské náměstí were the last ones until the recent revival.
The lights didn’t stay out long. As tourism became a big industry, the city administration looked for ways to restore some authenticity to the city center.
“After 17 years the municipality returned all the gas lamps to the whole Royal Route, from the Powder Gate to Old Town Square, to Charles Bridge and Prague Castle,” he said. The first lights began in 2002, while Charles Bridge was added in 2010, making it the only gas-lit bridge in the world.
“There are 700 gas lamps in Prague. We are 10th in the world. Number one is Berlin with 30,000. Second is Dusseldorf with 15,000. London has 1,200 gas lamps around Buckingham Palace and Westminster,” he said.
The system currently used in Prague doesn’t have an open gas flame. Each lamp has six mantles. While in the past lamplighters had a burning wick on a long pole, the modern system is a bit safer. The lamplighter uses a hook on a pole to pull a ring that releases a valve, feeding gas to the mantles.
The light is more than just a gimmick. The colors are much warmer than the cold blues of most electric lights. The yellow tones from the gas help to give Prague its famous Golden City look. “For a normal eye it is better, it is natural,” Žákovec said.
As he goes from light to light, he stops to say hello to the regulars on the bridge, the artist sand vendors who are packing up for the day. This too is part of a tradition. “In history the lamplighter was a special person, the one who brings the light. In towns it was often a woman with dog. She was very popular among children, who would chase after her. The seniors remember, ‘Oh, when I was young we saw this,’” he said.
The lamplighter is still a hit with children. A group all in identical hats cheered as one lamp was lit. Parents asked if their kids could help. “Of course, follow me to the next lamp,” was the answer.
Local people would ask if the lamps were really lit with gas, and get a bit of history, while tourists would want photos. Žákovec would often ask where the people were from as he posed. China, Korea, Hong Kong, Italy, and Israel were popular answers.
Aside from Prague, lamplighters still make rounds in Wrocław, Poland, and Baden-Baden, Germany.