More than Words

Meet the Lamplighters of Zagreb Upper Town

Beautiful and original traditions are something every country strives to preserve. Whether it’s in cooking, way of singing or dancing, there is something special in exploring different traditions when visiting new places around the globe. So, in this blog post, we’re introducing to you two people who keep one of the oldest and dearest Zagrebian traditions well and alive.

The Old Town tradition 

If you find yourself roaming the streets of Zagreb Old Town, you'll most likely stumble upon them in any season or weather conditions. They are Saša Alavanja and Tomislav Deak, and their job is lighting the 150 years old gas lamps scattered all around Zagreb Upper Town.

You may think to yourself, well, what is so special about their job? Actually, as we've already written in the blog post here, Zagreb is the only city in the world where this tradition is still carried out manually.

If you want to meet them and chat with them, your best chance is to catch them just before sunset or sunrise. So, the hours change depending on the season. As we're now in winter, I decided to catch them for a quick chat around 4:30 PM just when the sun goes down, and after finishing their two-part, daily routine of lightening up and turning off the gas lamps.

Image credit: Gradska plinara Zagreb

Lamplighter Tomislav Deak turning on the gas lamp.

Details of the job

As we've already written, Saša and Tomislav begin their day early in the morning, just before sunrise. As there are 246 gas lamps scattered across Old Town, they have split their tour into two parts, so each has 123 lamps to turn off. The same goes for the evening part of turning them on, which happens just before sunset.  

As they said to me, it's a job which needs to be done, 365 days of the year, whether it is a holiday or it is sunny, rainy, or it is snowing outside. The lamps are placed across Gradec, Kaptol, and Opatovina. 

I was curious to know just how the process works. Well, the job is done by a 310 cm long stick, which is designed according to lamplighter's height. "At weekends, it's a little bit harder because we work alone. Every weekend is free for one of us, so the other one has a little longer route than usual. But it all gets done," – says Tomislav.

Image credit: M. Vrdoljak, TZGZ

Tomislav has been on the job for the last two years, but he says he got used to unusual working hours very quickly. "It just gets in your blood and becomes part of you. Everyone on the Upper Town knows us, and we always stop say hello and chat with people on the way. I was pleased to see that many locals are very interested in how the lamps function and always ask us questions about our job. So, it's not only tourists who are curious." – says Tomislav.

His college, Saša, has been in the business a bit longer. He has been working as a lamplighter for the last twenty years and wouldn't change a bit. "It is a job like any other, and you get used to being outside all day. The walking part keeps us fit and healthy." – Saša jokes. "As Tomslav said, everybody knows us on our route. Even the dogs greet us every morning, and those who were suspicious in the beginning, now wait for us because we're always the first ones on the streets."

Image credit: Gradska plinara Zagreb

Tomislav Deak accepting the lightening stick from retired lamplighter Josip Kufner in 2018.

Anecdotes over the years 

I asked the guys if they had some fun stories to tell. "We had plenty of them, but it's hard to think of them on the spot. We always meet interesting people along the way, and we had many foreign TV crews coming to shoot TV segments about us. That is always an interesting experience, especially the Asian ones, because their culture is very different from ours, so we always have a lot of fun while shooting with them. It surprises us how big their TV crews are, and it is always very professional." – says Saša.

"Also, something that is funny, and what we have noticed is that lamps on some locations are often turned off when we come in the morning. For example, there is a bench in the park Grič just above Strossmayer's promenade. The lamp next to it is very often turned off in the morning, so we think it's the lovebirds who visit the park in the evening hours and prefer the intimate atmosphere of the dark, so they learned to turn off the lamp by themselves. But we don't mind it." – Tomislav says jokingly.  

Image credit: Gradska plinara Zagreb

Lamplighter Saša Alavanja turning on the gas lamp in the Upper Town. 

I was also curious to know if they had any bad experience while doing their nightly walks. "There weren't any extremely bad situations, and we're happy we didn't have bad experiences. But there are some places like Park Opatovina where you should be a bit more cautious on Sunday early morning hours when there are young people who may have drunk a bit much. This is mostly in the warmer summer months when the weather is nicer, and people can hang out in the parks. But as we said, there weren't any bad experiences which I could point out." – the guys said to me. 

A tourist attraction

As Zagreb is booming as a popular city break location in the last few years, Saša and Tomislav have become a serious tourist attraction. They have special uniforms to go with their titles. As they said to me, people love to take photos with them and ask them about the curious nature of their job.

Image credit: Gradska plinara Zagreb

Lamplighter Saša Alavanja and his retired colleague Josip Kufner

On some occasions, they allow the tourists to try and light up the lamps by themselves who are always more than delighted to try out their skills, and they are happy to give them a unique experience which will always remind them of Zagreb. "Koreans are very special among all the tourists visiting Zagreb. They sometimes get up in early morning hours just to see the city empty and go with us on the tour of turning off the lamps. Sometimes, they are so excited when watching the process that they clap in the end." – said Tomislav.

Well, now that you know everything about Saša and Tomislav, the only thing which remains is to catch them during their daily routine. If you're wondering if it's ok to stop them and greet them, their message is: "Of course, don't be shy!" :)

Header image credit: M. Vrdoljak, TZGZ

Author: Darija Ilić