Heartbeat of Zagreb

Upper Town Gas Mantles: A Unique Zagreb's Detail

The gas mantles are undoubtedly a mantlepiece of Zagreb's tradition (pun intended). So, the next time you're walking around the Upper town, be sure to look for grey uniforms and a long, white stick in their hands.

It was 157 years ago when the Zagreb gas board was founded. Among many other things they take care of in Zagreb, everything tied to the gas, of course, they also carry an essential role as a tourist attraction. There isn't a single tourist visiting Zagreb's Upper Town who didn't see a Zagrebian lamplighter turning on the lanterns. It's a beauty and one of the oldest traditions we have kept. The old Upper Town gas lanterns got two exact replicas of the first lamps for the 155th anniversary of the city gas board. 

Photo Credit: M. Vrdoljak/TZ Download Zona

A lit souvenir in the streets

There are over 200 gas lanterns in the Zagreb's Upper Town. Lamps like this were on the corners of streets and main squares in the 19th century until they were removed in 1938. In 2015 two big lanterns were brought back to the south side of the St. Mark's church, and in 2017, two more were added in the north part of St. Mark's square. The number of gas lanterns is still growing. Some of the last ones were put in the park Grič. The first 364 gas lanterns were lit up on 31st October 1863, precisely at 7 p.m. Although their number rose through time, after World war I, the gas lanterns were starting to be replaced with the electric ones. 

Photo Credit: M. Vrdoljak/TZ Download Zona

Zagreb is one of the rare cities in the world which still has this kind of city lighting, but all others have a different way of turning them off and on. The lanterns that are left are a genuine tourist attraction right there, in the streets. Besides Upper Town, some can also be found on Opatovina and Kaptol, so the lamplighters have quite a walk to make.

The Lamplighters

Every night before dark, lamplighters or as we call them - "Nažigači" turn the gas lanterns on. After that, they get up early, before everyone else, and they turn them off just before the sunrise. You can recognize them easily by their distinctive, grey uniforms. The tourists often try to stop them, and then, they're always curious to know what they're doing. They also want to try to turn on a lamp themselves. That's a wish our dear Zagrebian lamplighters always strive to fulfill to the tourists who want to know more about the lanterns and how they work. Communicating with the tourists is how the lamplighters describe their average day at work. Even when it's snowing, raining, or if it's windy outside, they are very dedicated to their work, and they don't mind the different, sometimes unfavorable weather conditions. It's really refreshing to hear when someone loves their work so much. 

Photo Credit: M. Vrdoljak/TZ Download Zona

The process of turning on the lamps takes anywhere from two to three hours. The first step for a lamplighter was to pull the lever, and the lamp releases a sufficient amount of gas to light up. Sometimes, the wind turns off the lamp completely, so the lamplighters have to hand-lit the lamp. 

Photo Credit: M. Vrdoljak/TZ Download Zona

It has never happened that the lanterns haven't been turned on. Sometimes, they can get turned off because of the bad weather, and they can also easily get damaged by the wind. Every lantern is marked with a serial number, and the lamplighters know precisely where each one is. 

A free exhibition and tradition

The lamplighters know about every lamp so they could keep track and know if everything is fine with each one. They bear in mind that if needed, they will have to fix it. The glass of the lantern is fragile, so they can easily break. During 2013, precisely 150 years after the first lamps were lit, the city gas board held a free exhibition named "Lanterna plinska, tak' imam te rad" which would translate to "Gas Lantern, I love you so much." This exhibition is just proof of how vital the gas lantern really are to the city of Zagreb and its tradition. 

Photo Credit: M. Vrdoljak/TZ Download Zona

Only two lamplighters are trying to preserve the tradition of Zagreb lamplighter. Josip or Joža, how people who know him like to call him, is one of them. He's been working as a lamplighter for 25 years, and he's retiring soon. He's been doing that honorable work on his little motorcycle, and never missed a day. Sometimes, I thought about how curious the life of a lamplighter is. I mean, even when you're at home with your family at a holiday dinner, you still have a duty which won't be performed by anyone else. I wonder how does that work when they're away on holiday, and maybe out of town. I know that will be my first question the next time I run into a lamplighter. 

Photo Credit: M. Vrdoljak/TZ Download Zona

The gas lanterns are undoubtedly a mantlepiece of Zagreb's tradition (pun intended). So, the next time you're walking around the Upper Town, be sure to look for grey uniforms and a long, white stick in their hands. If you happen to spot one of the lamplighters, ask to light a lantern yourself. Who knows, you might like it, and then, you might be the successor the lamplighter Joža is looking for.

Header Image Credit: M. Vrdoljak/TZ Download Zona

Author: Tibor Trupec